August 17, 2009
Group Wants to End MPAA Ratings
Conservative 'Movieguide' launches petition to drop system and adopt another -- but what?
"The MPAA's ratings system never worked really well, but it has gotten much worse since it added the ambiguous PG-13 rating," said Movieguide founder Ted Baehr said. "Parents, especially mothers, can no longer trust the ratings for movies, especially in light of the PG-13 ratings for movies like THE LOVE GURU and LAND OF THE LOST, and the R ratings for pornographic movies like BRÜNO." (Just an aside here: Especially mothers. Huh? That's an insult to dads like me who care very much about teaching our children how to be discerning. Just the realm of "especially mothers"? Come on.)
Baehr claims that the MPAA ratings system is not "based on standards." Well, that's not exactly true . . .
The MPAA does have standards (you can read them here), but they're apparently not up to Baehr's standards, which he says are based on the "Code of Decency." He urges the MPAA to ditch its ratings system and return to this "Code."
Movieguide doesn't say what it means by the term "Code of Decency" -- at least not here. They referred to it here in calling for, among other things, the elimination of all R-rated movies and "most" PG-13 movies: "We support a return to the Moral Code of Decency and the vetting of all scripts for movies going to public theater and DVD retail within 20 years, if not in 3-5 years. That would probably include the elimination of all R-rated and NC-17 content as well as most PG-13 content."
Movieguide keeps capitalizing the term "Code of Decency" as if it's some official document or something, but it's not. (Go ahead and google it: You won't find it anywhere but at Movieguide -- and at places quoting them.) Perhaps they are referring to the old Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), which was in effect from 1930 to 1964 and included such requirements as these:
> "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it." (Wow. Who's going to determine that arbitrary criteria?)
> "Correct standards of life . . . shall be presented." (Again, according to whom?)
Or, perhaps, Movieguide was referring to the National Legion of Decency, which was even stricter than the Production Code. The Legion of Decency, founded by a Catholic Archbishop in 1933, put every film into one of three categories: "morally unobjectionable," "morally objectionable in part," and "Condemned by the Legion of Decency." That system has since been slightly revised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting; you can read its current ratings guidelines here.
So I'm not sure if Movieguide, when calling for a "Code of Decency," is referring to the Hays Code, the Legion of Decency, some blend of both, or something of Movieguide's own making. (Perhaps they want to call all the shots?) They're unclear. But when you're calling for the abolition of something -- in this case, the MPAA's rating system -- you're obliged to be clear what you want to replace it.
Don't get me wrong: I'm the first to acknowledge that MPAA's system is flawed, and some of its ratings seem way off the mark. Many people have opined how to fix it -- even suggesting to scrap it and start all over. I'm fine with that discussion, and I think the motion picture industry should be open to any suggestions on how to fix it. But any such suggestion needs to offer a specific solution, not merely a mention of a nebulous "Code."
Movieguide's article quotes Baehr as saying that "the entertainment industry must return to the kind of system it had during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Golden Age of Television, when it was a wonderful life in America because Mr. Smith went to Washington, Ricky still loved Lucy, and the Bells of St. Mary's rang out across the whole land." That's all well and good, but again, where is the definition of this "system"? A link, please? (A minor quibble here: Is Ricky and Lucy's marriage really a model? Seems like many, if not most, of the episodes involved one of them deceiving the other. Funny, yes. But still, deceit was the rule.)
Finally, the petition itself simply states: "I sign my name to the official petition filed by Movieguide to end the MPAA Rating System and instead establish standards-based ratings which are not controlled by the entertainment studios."
That's it. It does not specify what should replace the MPAA's system, except that whatever it is should not be controlled by the entertainment studios. While there's certainly merit in the call for a system that isn't "controlled by the entertainment studios," I think it would behoove the potential petition signer to know precisely what he/she is signing up for, rather than merely what he/she is signing against. Is Baehr suggesting that he and/or Movieguide should set the ratings? And if so, does that mean the elimination of all R-rated and most PG-13 movies, as they have called for? Heaven forbid.
Yes, the MPAA system is flawed, and it should be held up to scrutiny. It's a system that does make mistakes and errors in judgment. But ultimately, whether it's the MPAA's standards or Movieguide's or some nebulous "Code of Decency," the ultimate responsibility lies with parents, who must do the necessary research into films before deciding whether or not they -- or their children -- will see a particular film.
It's irresponsible to rely on a single "rating" to make an informed decision. A moviegoer must know himself/herself (or his/her children), must know his/her conscience (and their children's), his/her sensitivities (and their children's), and his/her level of maturity -- spiritually, emotionally, psychologically -- before deciding whether a film is appropriate or not. And no simple rating system alone can do that.
Some people like to think that they can decide what's right for everyone; we get enough e-mails here to validate that, e-mails essentially saying, "NO Christian should EVER watch such-and-such a movie, and if they do, they're clearly not a Christian, or they've deceived themselves and are headed straight to hell." Seriously.
The MPAA's ratings system is far from perfect, but for me, anyway, it's just one tool in a process of learning to discern. I've never decided to see a movie (or not) based solely on its rating (with NC-17 being an exception, of course). I've never ruled out a movie simply because it's rated R, and I've never assumed a G or PG movie is "safe for the whole family." That's irresponsible.
Good discernment is more than just a snap judgment based on a couple of letters, numbers, or stars. Good discernment requires more digging to be better informed.
What do you think? Would you sign that petition? Is the MPAA's rating system broken? If so, how would you fix it? Should it be scrapped altogether? If so, what would you replace it with?
We'd love to hear your comments. And keep your opinions and disagreements civil, please.
The folks at Movieguide, partly out of response of this call for more clarity, have updated their petition with more specifics about suggestions for how they would replace the MPAA system. There are some good suggestions in their new list, so it's a start. The proposed solutions are more specific than they were the other day, when I first blogged about this, so I appreciate their clarifications.
Still, some of their suggestions could be difficult to enforce or interpret. No. 4, for example, says, "Detailed and protracted acts of brutality, cruelty, physical violence, torture, and abuse shall not be presented." If so, we'd have no films like The Passion of The Christ, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, and many more -- unless those films were toned down in such a way as to not graphically present such horrors . . . and then I'm not sure how "true" such films would be to their subject matter. Similarly, No. 2 reads, "Evil, sin, crime, and wrongdoing shall not be justified." While there's a seed of a good idea in there, I'm not sure it's realistic, and it depends on what is meant by "justified." Can sin be depicted in movies? I would certainly hope so; how else can a filmmaker illustrated the reality of a fallen world in need of redemption. Does it mean that the sinner shouldn't be depicted as "getting away with it"? I hope not, because that certainly happens in the real world all the time -- another indication of our fallen nature. Does it mean that filmmakers should at least pause before depicting habitual sin without consequence? I'd be a bit more likely to nod at that sentiment, but even then, there would have to be exceptions.
The point: Even if the flawed MPAA system is overthrown, and an outside group determines the standards instead, there will never be a perfect system, there will always be debate about what the ratings/standards really mean and how they can be interpreted, and so on. I'm all for improving the current system, but I'm also convinced that no system will satisfy everyone. But I'll give Movieguide a hat tip for continuing the conversation and at least looking for answers.
What do you think? Read Movieguide's proposed changes, and let us know your thoughts. Sign their petition if you're comfortable with it; if you're not, feel free to offer criticism, but offer solutions too. And not just here; let Movieguide know too. It's a conversation worth having.
(Image above from Movieguide's website.)