MPAA: The standard on double standards

I think my Idler editor might have my number. He has somehow tapped into my love for getting really worked up about issues, researching them, and then raging against them on the Internet. I believe this is a flaw I am to be loved for and not merely in spite of. So as to not get unfriended on the regular, I try to limit my rants (and wearing my hair in a ponytail) to once a week. So movie ratings, it looks like today is your day.

When my editor suggested writing about filmmaker Tony Comstock’s latest undertaking the Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA project, I thought, “Sure, I could absolutely explore how much I hate the flawed film ratings, if only I knew a little more about them.” Luckily for me, Tony Comstock does. Comstock plans to submit the unedited director’s cut of his film Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl to the Motion Picture Association of America. On the basis of the MPAA’s feedback, Comstock will develop a multi-angle DVD showing the exact differences between the versions of the film including Unrated, NC-17, R and PG-13. According to its Kickstarter page, Brett and Melanie will attempt to ascertain how lesbian sexuality is interpreted by mainstream content ratings systems.

Brett and Melanie is the seventh installment of Comstock’s Real People, Real Life, Real Sex documentary series. It’s important to recognize that this film is not an anti-MPAA stunt, nor is it some sort of prank. This film is attempting to explore the “problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema.” Furthermore, the film documents the relationship of a butch/femme lesbian couple and is thus engineered to also explore how content rating systems interpret lesbian sexuality and its level of offensiveness to mainstream America. In my experience, realistic lesbian sexuality is found to be horrendously offensive. As a rule, homosexual sex scenes have been treated by a much different set of rules by the MPAA than similar heterosexual sex scenes. However, heterosexualized or fetishisized lesbian sexuality (think cheerleaders and threesomes) is absolutely acceptable in our theaters and living rooms.

There are a few misconceptions Comstock seeks to clarify about the MPAA. First, there is no requirement that any film in the United States be submitted to the MPAA or any other body for a rating. Second, as Comstock states, the NC17 rating, which replaced the X rating, is an adults-only rating—there is no difference between what content can be in an NC17 film and what can appear on an unrated DVD.


He's looking at you, MPAA

Roger Ebert (one of the infamous two thumbs) is vocal in his opposition to the MPAA ratings, arguing that the ratings place too much emphasis on sex while approving more readily gratuitous amounts of horrific violence. This might very well be the only thing Roger and I have ever agreed on. Another primary argument in opposition to the MPAA rating system points out that films released by major studios are treated more favorably and given more lenient ratings than those submitted by independent outfits.

A final argument points out that while the MPAA claims to be a ratings system, it is hardly systematic. The ratings follow very few hard-and-fast rules and are instead quite subjective, hinging on the sensibilities of those giving the rating. For example look at the recent overturning of the NC17 rating given to Blue Valentine. The film, now rated R, was not forced to revise any content after it successfully lobbied against the adults only rating.

The MPAA considers many factors when rating a film including sex, violence, nudity, language, and drug use. However, the body doesn’t release any specific guidelines as to what content will garner which rating. This often makes submitting a film for rating a bit of a crapshoot and is exactly the issue the Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA project is hoping to explore. By submitting the film for rating and following suggestions of the MPAA for what content must be cut out to receive which rating, Comstock hopes the get a better grasp on exact differences between the ratings.

So what’s so bad about the NC17 rating, you might ask? Mainly the conception of this rating in the minds of most people. According to Comstock, because NC17 replaced the X rating, it largely inherited the X rating’s association with pornography. Also, NC17 films are not given wide advertisement, many papers refuse to publicize these films and trailers are not screened. Many mainstream movie theater chains like AMC and Lowe’s refuse to screen NC17 films, meaning audiences without access to an “art house” theater will not get a chance to watch the film before its DVD release. Many movie rental chains also do not stock films with an NC17 rating.

It’s also important to note, that unlike many countries (the UK included), who have government-run film screening bodies with severe punishment including jail time associated with distribution of “offensive” films, ratings in the United States carry no such legal penalties. There are no laws restricting distribution of films not submitted to the MPAA to be rated. Unrated films are simply labeled NR, instead of being censored by a government authority. However, major movie studios have agreements with the MPAA to submit all of their films for ratings. And films with an NR label are definitely not being screened alongside the afternoon showing of Bambi: Resurrected.


Because murdering women to make a suit out of human skin is clearly appropriate for a 17-year-old audience.

The R-rated The Silence of the Lambs gave me nightmares for weeks. Any time the line about the lotion is quoted I shudder. The Accused, also rated R (clearly Jodi Foster seems to be the source of many of my nightmares), depicts the gang rape of the protagonist on a seedy bar’s pinball machine. Meanwhile Henry & June got the dreaded NC17. Ask any fourteen-year-old what they prefer, nightmares or sex dreams? Ask yourself. A sort of post-fall logic that sees pleasure and sexuality as a threat to the fabric of society seems to be in action here.

What kills more people annually, a little light bondage or deranged serial killers? (Don’t answer that. I understand that a lot of people in hotel rooms have been giving ropes and handcuffs a bad reputation these past few years.) The point is that one of these two has the intent to end in pleasure for all involved. Why is it that images of violence against women are more acceptable than a consenting sex scene?

I believe that any effort to explain the rating system and why certain content earns a restrictive rating while other (arguably more offensive) content is approved is worth supporting. Tony Comstock’s Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA project seeks to do just that. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that views sex as healthy and not somehow on the same level as graphic depictions murder? Or if tolerance was promoted by depicting homosexual relationships as valid and healthy instead of as more offensive than cannibalism? Maybe if our kids watched James Franco don a condom they would be more apt to use one themselves.

Tony Comstock’s Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA is currently seeking support through Kickstarter. The deadline to become a supporter is Monday May 9.

6 Responses to “MPAA: The standard on double standards”
  1. Lindsey says:

    “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that views sex as healthy and not somehow on the same level as graphic depictions murder?” I never really thought about it, but yeah, it would be nice.

  2. Hello and thanks for the write up. Your referring “flaw that you are loved for” is an especially appreciated nod to the film.

    Missed in this write-up, however, that this really isn’t about the MPAA, it’s about the Terms of Service and Community Guidelines that govern what content is and is not allowed on the various corporate platforms we use; what dissenting voices are heard at places like YouTube and FaceBook, what voices are silences, and how transparent that process is.

    For instance, in addition to our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Brett and Melanie Meets the MPAA we also started a Kickstarter project for the Comstock Foundation Subgenius Grant and Residency Fellowship. But just three days after we launched it, Kickstarter TOS’d the project with nothing more than a form e-mail. We had spent most of the previous two days writing person e-mails to our best contact, including managing editors of magazine and diplomats, only to have those efforts rendered useless by Kickstarter’s unexplained action (not to mention the professional embarrassment.

    Very few people will ever put a film before the MPAA, but most of us will use commercial platforms for personal, political, and/or artistic expression. To my mind testing the relatively transparent MPAA content ratings process against these more opaque content ratings systems is a much more important aspect of the project and I wish there had been more focus on that.

    As far as Kirby Dick and “This Film Not Yet Rated”, there’s more to that story than most people know:

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Tony! I think everyone at the Idler is really excited for your project.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Why does an explicit sex scene merit an NC17 rating while a rape scene only an R rating? What do these ratings tell us about our culture’s fears and sensitivities? Kate Sloan discusses these issues through the film Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl‘s attempts to demystify the MPAA ratings in MPAA: The standard on double standards. […]

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