In 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America, headed by Jack Valenti, a former Washington aide, created a system that we see nearly every day, and which dictates what the young and the old, and everyone in between, are able to watch and absorb on the big screen. While this system likely seemed outrageously unfair to our twelve-year-old or sixteen-year-old minds as we were barred from seeing PG-13 or R movies without adult supervision, after turning seventeen the film rating system feels quite irrelevant. You still can’t drink, you are one year away from being considered an independent adult; the one change is that you can now go to a movie theatre and see anything you want, right? Wrong.
I do not think that a system of telling adults and children in advance about the content of films is inherently a bad or detrimental idea. In fact, studies have shown that seeing violence on television or in video games desensitizes children to violence, an effect that the MPAA does not, unfortunately, take into account. However, this particular system is, in its current form, essentially censorship, and wholly lacks transparency. The MPAA is a secret board that makes unequivocal decisions, which are often, as revealed in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (TFINYR), prejudiced against sex (especially as compared to violence), and homosexual relationships and sex as opposed to heterosexual ones. So why is this harmful? If the MPAA rates a film NC-17, which it is far more likely to do if the film includes nudity, homosexual relationships, or a focus on female pleasure, many studios and theatres will be reluctant to produce or screen that film. This significantly affects both the revenue from box office sales and, more importantly, societal conceptions, expectations, and norms regarding violence in general and particularly sexual violence and violence against women, female sexuality, and homosexuality. What we do and do not see on screen is thus potentially detrimental not only to those who identify as members of these groups, but also to society as a whole. To everyone.
Let’s start with one of the best films ever made: Boys Don’t Cry. If you have not seen it, you need to go find it right now or, at least, read this article. The movie, which was released in 1999, before the struggle for LGBT rights was even seen as a significant issue, is based on true events in the life of Brandon Teena, a transgender teen living in a Nebraska town, who, in 1993, was brutally raped and murdered by two young men when they discovered that he had been born female. In her interview with TFINYR, writer and director Kimberly Peirce explained that the MPAA had given her original submission of the film an NC-17 rating, and had listed three reasons as to why they had made that decision: 1) in one scene, Brandon goes down on Lana (his girlfriend), and when his face reappears in the shot he wipes the cum from his mouth; 2) the scene in which he is gang raped; and 3) Lana’s orgasm is “too long,” and thus is “offensive.” The first and last reasons clearly reflect the MPAA’s illogical and unsubstantiated aversion to female sexuality and pleasure, a phenomenon that is evident in the vast majority of films in which sex scenes are almost always from a markedly male perspective. Women have been, and continue to be, desexualized in their societal representation and women who are comfortable with or who explore their sexuality labeled with hurtful slurs. While masturbation has historically been a taboo topic it is now more widely accepted and seen as “normal” for males in both practice and daily conversation, but if a female mentions anything of the sort, she is labeled as “crude,” “crass,” or “overly sexual,” to name a few. Society as a whole does not like to think of women as it thinks of men: as human beings who have needs. Thus, an inherent awkwardness dwells in the idea of females masturbating, as it contradicts their representation as chaste and innocent. The MPAA originally rated the film Jersey Girl as NC-17 because of a specific conversation about masturbation between Liv Tyler’s character, who says, “I masturbate, like, twice a day,” and Ben Affleck’s character. The MPAA labeled But I’m A Cheerleader, a satiric film about “gay rehabilitation,” as NC-17 because of a sex scene between two fully clothed women and a scene in which a fully clothed woman is masturbating. The film was released the same year as American Pie, which includes a graphic scene (i.e. minimal clothing) in which a young man masturbates on his kitchen counter. These ratings both reflect and perpetuate the societal trend that, in many cases, males are allowed to be comfortable with, even proud of, their sexuality while females are not. In addition, sexuality centered around a lesbian relationship in Cheerleader adds another layer of complication in terms of how threatening many find it; not only does the film show female sexuality, but also it shows it in a context entirely devoid of male presence or sexuality, which is extremely rare in film or television. (Perhaps this sense of a “threat” is the culprit behind the enormous lack of decent queer female films.) In mainstream movies, this rejection of female sexuality often translates into sex scenes centered around male pleasure, or in which penetration, which for many women does not alone result in an orgasm, is the primary or only activity. As Allison Anders put it, the vast majority of films consist of “a denial of female pleasure. Male pleasure too…Nobody gets to cum basically”.
What concerns me is the way in which these scenes teach young people about sex. (Also, few films, except perhaps teenage ones in which the kids struggle to get access to a condom, or are not sure quite how to use it, include moments in which the audience is aware of partners stopping to ensure use of contraception, be it birth control or disease prevention. Doing so would be a start in sending the message that it is not “uncool” to be concerned and conscientious when it comes to protection.) People thus establish expectations for themselves and their partners that are unrealistic, which perpetuate both heteronormativity and gender normativity, and which prevent them from being free to explore and learn from each other in ways that are pleasurable to both. As a cis-woman, I cannot and will not presume to know the male experience of these mass media portrayals, but I think that if I were a male who had grown up watching these films and television shows, I would likely believe that the penis going into the vagina equals (heterosexual) sex and not much else matters, and would either feel inadequate if my partner did not derive pleasure from this or not be terribly concerned, because it must be their problem, right? Similarly, as a female, it was not until being in relationships with women and exploring queer culture that I learned that sex could be anything different.
In terms of the second reason that the MPAA gave for originally rating Boys Don’t Cry as NC-17 – sexual violence – I agree that it is important to make a conscious effort not to normalize atrocious acts such as these through media representation. However, with or without this scene, the film is ultimately based on a true story. Brandon Teena’s death was a tragedy, as well as part of a larger problem that existed then and still exists now: transphobia. Seeing his death as anything less, as some scene that can be removed from a film to make it digestible, is a disservice to him and to our own future. People sometimes commit crimes out of hate, and the longer we hide from that fact as a society the more people that will be hurt while we wait to change not only our laws but also our culture. In the context of MPAA ratings, it is also extremely hypocritical; rape, domestic violence, and various forms of abuse are commonplace in films, yet, aside from Boys Don’t Cry, they rarely warrant NC-17 ratings. More likely than not, the violence and pain of this scene served as a vehicle by which the raters could justify suppressing the distribution of the film, when in fact they were more afraid of the controversy of the relationship between Brandon and Lana, the exploration of female sexuality, and the first mass media product in which the main character is trans.
Over the years and across genres, it simply does not seem to be violence that is the problem to MPAA raters. For example, consensual adult sex is consistently used as a reason to rate movies R or NC-17 whereas extreme violence, as long as no blood is shown, can be rated as low as PG-13. Blood requires an R rating, but what that ultimately and practically means is that we are teaching teens that violence has no consequences, that people killed by guns or punches are generic, faceless, and bloodless, and that the act of killing is simply a means to an end, with no ripples extending beyond. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky posed the question: “you can shoot as many bodies as long as there’s no blood and it’s PG-13…what are we training our children for?” Hollywood’s conception of violence is not only entirely false but also extremely detrimental to a society already plagued by violence, in which over 10,000 people die per year from gun violence.
Maria Bello, an American actress, highlighted this strange system in which sexuality is viewed as a subject which needs to be carefully monitored and censored, whereas violence is not. She explained that European filmmakers deal differently with these issues; they see sex and sexuality as “part of life and part of human nature. We have desexualized sex…as something that is implicit in being a human being.” One film in which Bello acted, The Cooler, received an NC-17 rating allegedly as a result of the fact that her pubic hair was visible in one scene, although producers thought it was more likely because the shot remained on her face for the majority of the sex scene. David Ansen echoed her concern, explaining that he did not understand “how much more concerned [the MPAA] seem[s] to be about sex than they are about violence.” In the U.S., four times more movies received NC-17 ratings as a result of sex scenes as opposed to violence. The ultimate irony is that the one exception appears to be, as with Boys Don’t Cry, when the violence is real. Director Michael Tucker chronicled, without a script and without censorship, the lives of soldiers in Iraq. The film was originally given an R rating, but Tucker appealed, explaining that it was important for younger audiences, who are often the target audience for glamorized war films, to see what war truly is. Tucker explained: “you can’t rate reality. And if you can’t deal with it, don’t send people to war.” The film eventually opened in theatres with a PG-13 rating in the U.S.; however, it never surpassed limited release.
So, what can we do? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s a start though to be aware of the problems of representation in our society, and the fact that these skewed representations are both a cause and an effect in a vicious cycle of stereotypes and shame. Question everything you see, and be aware of the empty spaces in between: what we have been prevented from seeing. Laws, mass media, and culture are tied together in a strange web; they hide, prop up, pull down, bring back, and push forward the others. Mass media misrepresentation is a symptom of the fact that our culture and our laws devalue certain groups and extol others, whether clearly or subtly. Fixing one leg of this triangle will not fix the others, but it is also impossible for the proverbial tripod to stand up if two of the legs are still broken. As young adults, often the target demographic for the film industry, we have power to affect change just by choosing the movies we watch, and by refusing to accept only what we are given. Because there is so much more to reality, so much more ugliness and so much more beauty, than what the big screen, and those who control it, paint as reality.
 Parentheses because often strap-on penis in vagina or penis in anus is assumed to be the only way anyone has sex, which is untrue.