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Bullies from the schoolyard to the MPAA: ratings controversy brings light to problems in Hollywood

By in Opinions

No one likes to be bullied. It happened to many of us as young pups in the schoolyard, and it continues to happen, especially with the rise of cyber-bullying in the information age.

So it was natural that an intrepid filmmaker would have the desire to make a hard-hitting documentary on the subject of bullying. Unfortunately, it seems our desire to click our tongue at the young people of today is superseded by our pathological need to present a sanitized version of everything to our children.

The hard-hitting documentary in question is Bully by Lee Hirsch, which follows the lives of five children in middle and high school. It was made to address the issue of school bullying, and was inspired by several suicides by bullying victims in the recent past.

More than likely, we all saw movies about bullying in school, but Hirsch’s specific vision was one that didn’t pull any punches. He wanted to show all the brutal details that went on in schools across the country, as opposed to other bullying awareness videos that tend to oversimplify and clean up the presentation at the expense of actually hitting the truth of the matter. This frankness has now started to cause problems.

Major Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein picked the film up for distribution, but soon ran afoul of the Motion Pictures Association of America’s ratings board. Bully was quickly slapped with an R-rating for coarse language. The Weinstein Company immediately made an appeal against the decision, since the intention had always been to show the film in schools and an R-rating would effectively prohibit schools from showing it — all because language used by schoolchildren in the movie is deemed far too inappropriate for them to hear.

Harvey Weinstein has called the rating “outrageous” and has made an appeal for a PG-13 rating, which would allow the film to be shown in schools.

“We hope smart people come to their senses,” he said.

Others have joined in the fight. Katy Butler, a high school student in Michigan, has gotten over 200,000 signatures for an online petition to change the rating. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has also rallied behind the film, hoping that the “MPAA can take a stand against bullying and ensure this powerful film reaches children across the country.”

However, the MPAA and NATO (that is, the National Association of Theatre Owners) are not budging. In response, Harvey Weinstein has threatened to pull his movies from the MPAA ratings board and releasing them unrated in theatres. NATO president John Fithian issued a counter-response saying that if Weinstein were to withdraw from the MPAA, “I will have no choice but to encourage my theater owner members to treat unrated movies from The Weinstein Company in the same manner as they treat unrated movies from anyone else.”

This would mean they would be treated as NC-17 and not get distribution. This response has been viewed as petty brow-beating, essentially jacking up the rating of movies because Weinstein has the audacity to question the ratings board. It would appear that the MPAA and NATO are, themselves, being bullies.

The problem is that the MPAA does have very strict rules about profanity in movies. If the word “fuck” is used more than once, the film is given an R-rating. This is what led to the soundly inoffensive The King’s Speech being assigned an R-rating in the United States. Profanity is quantifiable in a way that other aspects are not (there is no strict delineation for how many litres of blood may be spilled in a PG-13 movie, for instance), and that makes an appeal essentially impossible.

Weinstein’s appeal is based on the worthiness of the subject matter and the merit in showing the film in schools, while Fithian responds, “…were the MPAA and NATO to waive the ratings rules whenever we believed that a particular movie had merit, … we would no longer be neutral parties applying consistent standards.”

Perhaps the problem is larger than the MPAA. After all, even if the rating was relaxed to PG-13, any school would be fully capable of refusing to show it for the very same reason it was given an R-rating. So the problem then is a strange cultural obsession with the notion of foul language, to the extent that it supersedes all other concerns. Parents, it seems, are less concerned about the very real and damaging effects of bullying in school than they are about their child being allowed to hear a word that he or she already uses on a daily basis.

From a simple, Kantian viewpoint, the MPAA is doing the correct thing in applying a consistent standard. But maybe the standard is wrong. Hirsch’s documentary is made about school kids and was intended to be seen by school kids, but first it has to pass by a table of men and women aged 50-plus who have the job of deciding what school kids are ready to be exposed to. The dissonance here is troubling, and the controversy erupting over this film indicates that people are less willing to accept these decisions.

Bully will lose its own battle, but it may be a bellwether of the serious changes that need to happen to the MPAA in the near future.

For more information on the movie Bully, go thebullyproject.com.

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A brief history of the MPAA rating system

The MPAA introduced its rating system in 1966 as a replacement for the Hays Code, which had been in effect since 1934. The Hays Code itself came into effect because Hollywood feared government censorship, so they imposed a code upon themselves that placed very strict restrictions on the sort of content allowed in movies. It began to lose its teeth in the late 1950s with the rise of independent theatres and the influx of foreign films. The death knell was probably when Alfred Hitchcock flagrantly defied the code in Psycho and still got wide distribution.

MPAA ratings are G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. PG-13 was added in 1984 in response to complaints about the content being allowed in PG movies. NC-17 — no one under 17 admitted, regardless of parental accompaniment — was added in 1990 to replace the X-rating which had gained too much of a stigma for its association with porn and had fallen out of use. Unfortunately, if there was ever an attempt to legitimize the NC-17 rating, it didn’t work, and theatres continued to treat it with the same stigma given the X-rating, which meant most would not carry those films.

The MPAA has come under fire for some of its ratings. The NC-17 rating is often seen as a method of suppressing independent films, as happened with the recent Shame and nearly happened with the Oscar-nominated Blue Valentine. It is also criticized for the fact that sexual content and profanity are dealt with much more harshly than intense violence.[/box]


Graphic: Brianna Whitmore

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