Filmmakers in the middle part of the 20th century were required to self-censor their work by complying with the so-called "Hays Code." As detailed in our page on the Hays Code, high-profile Hollywood scandals and a number of films whose content was considered racy caused certain segments of society to become concerned about movies and the moral values depicted in them. Some communities formed censorship boards, and others threatened to lobby the federal government for censorship of movies. This was something the film industry seriously wanted to avoid, and the Hays Code averted that threat.
The public by the 1960s was no longer alarmed by film content. There was a need for a system that could accommodate mature content while avoiding demands for censorship. The major movie studios, who together form the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), appointed former Johnson administration insider Jack Valenti as head of a new ratings board. Films would be submitted to this board for review and be assigned a rating appropriate for their content.
The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) is the official name of the board that assigns ratings to films. Most criticisms of CARA fall under one of two general categories: inconsistency in the way ratings are assigned and the board's secretive, anonymous operation.
General admission ratings
The original ratings included two general admission and two restricted categories. These ratings are based on the board's feelings about what a parent would feel comfortable allowing a child to see. A G rating means that the film is considered suitable for viewing by people of all ages. A PG rating does not restrict any ages from attending a movie, but recommends that an adult be present with younger viewers or at least aware that the movie has mature content. This content may include an increased level of violence, certain forms of profanity, and occasional brief partial nudity. The PG-13 rating was added in 1984. It was created largely through the efforts of Steven Spielberg and was a response to increased levels of violence in Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This rating indicates that a film is intended to be seen by viewers over the age of 13.
Any drug use, profanity with a sexual connotation, explicit sexuality or nudity in a sexual situation earns an R rating, which means that viewers of ages 17 and under are to be admitted only when accompanied by a parent or other adult guardian. The most explicit sexual and violent content earned an X rating, which prohibited the admission of viewers under age 18. The X rating was the only one that filmmakers could use freely with no need for submission to the ratings board. Contrary to some popular belief, there never was a XX or XXX rating: These were marketing devices invented by the pornography industry.
Some serious films had content adult enough to earn an X rating, such as the Best Picture Academy Award-winner Midnight Cowboy, but pornography grew in popularity around the same time. Pornographers were free to self-apply the X rating, and before long the X rating was assumed to strictly mean pornography. No X-rated films were released by any major studio after around 1975.
The NC-17 rating was introduced in 1990 and was first applied to the biographical drama Henry and June. Its intended purpose was to provide a new rating that could be applied to films with adult content while avoiding the pornographic image associated with the X rating. Filmmakers could continue to give the X rating to their own movies, but CARA would no longer use it. The board believed that X was no longer a theatrical rating, as pornography had by then moved to home video. This move failed: The viewing public did not understand the difference. They believed NC-17 to be nothing more than the X rating with a new name.
The adult rating stigma
This stigma creates big problems for a movie rated NC-17. Television stations and newspapers will not run its advertising, theaters will not show it, and chain stores will not carry it for sale or rental. An NC-17 rating is commercial death, and an R or NC-17 rating can restrict a film from the very audience for which it was intended. This was the case with the documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11, which included a public beheading and other violence, and Bully (2012), which is intended for teenagers who are subject to bullying but was initially rated R for profanity. But I'm a Cheerleader, whose message was directed at teenaged audiences, was rated NC-17 because of a brief masturbation scene that contained no nudity.
Major studios will not release an NC-17-rated film, and directors' contracts usually require them to deliver R-rated films. An independent film can be released unrated, but it will face the same problems as an NC-17 film and can expect to be shown in no more than about 400 theaters nationwide. Major studios don't have that option and must submit their films for rating. The question of where R ends and NC-17 begins becomes important. Millions of dollars may ride on the rating a film receives.
A filmmaker who disputes their assigned rating can appeal the decision. Their case then goes to a different board, one which handles only appeals. The methods and decisions of both the ratings board and the appeals board have come under increased attention and criticism.
This Film is Not Yet Rated
Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated examines how CARA makes their decisions and details criticisms that have been raised against them. Numerous filmmakers who have had difficulties with the ratings board tell of their experiences in interviews. Several film critics are also interviewed, and they give perspective on how the industry in general regards the ratings system. The film is entertaining and at the same time informative and thought-provoking.
This Film is Not Yet Rated avoids a dry, documentary feel through the inclusion of clips from films that received, or barely escaped receiving, NC-17 ratings. It also gets a welcome element of intrigue through its use of a private investigation agency, whom Dick employed to uncover the identities of ratings board members. Dick uncovered the names of all CARA members and filmed most of them, then submitted his film for review. The film received its expected NC-17 rating, then was submitted to the even more secretive appeals process.
The anonymity of the ratings board is troubling. Their identities are ostensibly kept secret to shield them from outside influence, yet their job duties place them in direct contact with the very people who can influence them. No other country keeps the identities of its ratings board secret, and no other US agency that determines public policy keeps its members anonymous. It seems unlikely that such an arrangement is necessary or effective, and it is susceptible to corruption, as demonstrated in the film. The board members are claimed to be members of "average American families," whatever that means, with school-aged children. In reality, most its members have children who have grown up and moved out. The fact that someone would bother to lie about this suggests that there is a motive for doing so.
Fox in charge of the henhouse
The identities of the appeals board members are even more secretive than those of CARA members, but Dick also was able to find their names. It turns out that there's good reason to keep their names secret: The appeals board is composed almost completely of heads of theater-owning corporations. A couple of studio executives and clergymen are thrown in for good measure. This seems to be a serious conflict of interest. Publicity from this film led the MPAA to announce that CARA members would no longer be anonymous, but the appeals board still is.
Dick seems alarmed that the clergy is represented on the appeals board, but a more valid question may be, "why those clergy members?" The two present at the time of filming, one Catholic and one Protestant, are apparently the only two ever to have been on the appeals board and have served since the ratings system's inception. There is no representation of other faiths: There are no Evangelicals, Jews or Muslims on the board. It makes sense that a board intended to avoid calls for censorship would include clergymen, who might otherwise be the ones who head those calls for censorship. But why those two and only those two?
This raises a second point that was seemingly unnoticed by Dick: CARA is supposed to represent "average American families," but the composition of that group is not very "average." An Asian woman was the only non-white on that particular version of the board. This is in Southern California, no less. Whose set of standards is this system intended to protect? The ratings might not come out any different if there were any blacks or Latins on the board, but why exclude them?
CARA is operated by the MPAA. The MPAA is made up of the major studios, so it should be no surprise that their decisions favor the major studios over independents. Matt Stone notes that getting an R rating for his major studio-backed South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut was a much smoother experience than doing the same for his independent production, Orgazmo. Director Wayne Kramer has noted that no films released by Lion's Gate, a list that includes American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction, The Cooler and later Fahrenheit 9/11, have ever won a ratings appeal.
An important point about CARA is that their decisions are politically motivated. This accounts for some of their inconsistencies. When director Colette Burson accused them of applying a double standard to her film Coming Soon, a CARA board member informed her that Americans have a double standard toward female sexuality and that the board's decisions have to reflect this. So to some extent, board decisions may have little to do with their own opinions and everything to do with what they assume the general public wants. But can a board whose composition is so different from that of the general public truly be in touch with what the public wants or thinks?
This likely also accounts for their unequal handling of homosexual subject matter, a point that was demonstrated in TFINYR, and their higher tolerance of violence than of sex. This latter is the opposite of how other countries' ratings boards operate.
It's the little things that don't count
Many apparent inconsistencies in CARA's decisions come from misunderstandings about what they look for. Every complaint that their decisions are more conservative than in the 1970s is matched by someone who looks at an R- or PG-13-rated film and wonders how it got away with the rating it got. Studies do show that the ratings have grown more lenient over time. The key to the board's decisions, and what drives some of their most controversial verdicts, is that they have clear definitions of which lines can't be crossed. A filmmaker may be free to jam-pack their film with all the violence, profanity or sexual innuendo they want as long as they don't cross any of these thresholds. "Quality," or in this case the intensity of the material, matters more than the quantity of the material.
This may explain why something like Austin Powers in Goldmember gets a PG-13 rating despite a constant barrage of off-color humor. As long as none of the magic words are spoken and there is no explicit sex, the board doesn't much care about the amount of mature content. Or immature content, in this case. These trigger situations combine with double standards to produce absurd decisions, as when But I'm a Cheerleader gets an NC-17 for a moment of clothed female masturbation while American Pie shows food rape, which by CARA's own standards should qualify as deviant sexual behavior, yet gets an R.
The point at which these lines are drawn can seem incredibly prudish. That perception is magnified when a film contains savage violence but receives an NC-17 rating for a relatively tame moment of sexuality. This was the case with The Cooler, in which a glimpse of pubic hair that lasted for a second and a half was the difference between an NC-17 and an R rating.
Basic Instinct: Testing the limits
One of the earliest and highest-profile films that required trimming down to an R rating was Basic Instinct. The NC-17 rating was still new, and director Paul Verhoeven systematically tested it to find out exactly what he could get away with. Basic Instinct was recut and resubmitted several times before it finally passed, and at the end its levels of sex and violence were still so high that there was a general opinion that Verhoeven and studio pressure had worn down the board.
Basic Instinct originally contained violence and sex which both were at NC-17 levels. In discussions with CARA and in the editing process, he trimmed some scenes and recut others with footage shot from different angles. The board is more tolerant of sexuality depicted in close-up than in long shots that show the actors' entire bodies, so Verhoeven filmed scenes from a variety of distances. Rather than delete a shot, he substituted a different angle until he got a version that was considered acceptable. Instead of cutting scenes entirely, he shortened them until they passed. Verhoeven essentially reverse-engineered CARA's decision process to find out where the lines were drawn.
These lines can often, as seen with The Cooler, become nitpicky and strange. The result is that there is a chill on mature depiction of adult subjects. Sexuality is considered acceptable when given the leering treatment it receives in teen comedies but is seen as threatening when handled in a grown-up manner. When we shape this kind of environment for ourselves, what does our society become?
What does all this mean for us?
There is value in a ratings system. As a parent, I find it useful to know what a film's rating is. Yet I don't know why it got that rating, so its value is crippled. Should there be a wider and more descriptive array of ratings? No. I mean, there obviously should, but far too many people are far too lazy to bother deciphering such a system, no matter how simple and clear it is made. People seem to do fine at memorizing ten-digit telephone numbers, but we generally choke when asked to learn anything else in groups of larger than five or so.
The stigma attached to the NC-17 rating hobbles the system's effectiveness and limits the available solutions. It should be enough that admission is restricted, but when these films are kept entirely out of theaters, it puts a heavy restriction on artistic expression. TFINYR unwittingly points out what may be a disturbing example: Is it a coincidence that since his battle with the ratings board over A Dirty Shame, John Waters has never again directed a film? Any sincere attempt to fix the ratings system must find a way to legitimize the NC-17 rating.
A truly useful system needs to be built on the principle of being truly useful. Our current system is a cosmetic measure intended to stave off demands for government censorship: a sham. We definitely don't want government censorship, but there are filmmakers who would prefer even that to the current system. As stands, they are given no specifics about how to comply and must make arbitrary cuts to their own work until they get approval. CARA claims that they don't censor, and they technically are correct, but it is a censorship system because filmmakers are given a goal and a mandate to achieve an R rating.
Do we need to scrap the system and start over? It needn't be that severe. If the board revised their purpose and made a few tweaks to their procedures, it could go a very long way toward creating a fair and effective ratings program.