MPAA: Censoring and defining artistic expression

NICOLE BAXTER, Opinion Columnist

With the Oscars just around the corner in February cinema lovers are debating the red carpet’s best dressed, most deserving nominations and greatest acceptance speeches.

Although the awards can be captivating, there is a significant part of the movie that is seldom mentioned at any ceremony: its rating. Many people are familiar with the ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17, but no one ever questions why a movie has a particular rating, or what the criteria is for each category, or who rates the movies.

It is common and possibly overlooked, but the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is responsible for determining the ratings of nearly all movies one sees in theaters.

Established in 1922, MPAA began developing a code of censorship to avoid audiences from viewing “offensive material” based on the morals they held, according to the official website. From then on, the MPAA has gone through various leaders and systems of rating, some more controversial than others. They only recently changed their mission, which makes them appear to be on the side of the studios.

The MPAA says they, “aspire to advance the business of the art of filmmaking and celebrate its enjoyment around the world.” However, there is much evidence and opposition against the association.  After learning how the MPAA rates the submitted films and gives feedback to production companies, some moviegoers question whether they are really trying to promote the art of filmmaking.

Luke Van Cleve, a sophomore theatre major, says, “The raters make the studios cut out so much of their movie if they don’t like it. And it’s mostly the independent companies that have to edit out a lot of their content. They completely strip the movie of all freedom of expression.”

This comes as no surprise considering the MPAA has a membership consisting of at least six of the largest entertainment corporations today. Van Cleve says, “It’s ridiculous how the MPAA will give an independent film an NC-17 rating for something that a Sony or Paramount  film would receive an R or maybe even PG-13 for. They’re entirely biased in their member’s favor.”

According to the association’s website, the current ratings system was established in 1968, which is commonly considered the Renaissance of Hollywood. They claim that the ratings boards are made of an “independent group of parents” and emphasize that their mission is “to provide parents with the tools they need to make informed decisions about what their children watch.”

The CEO at that time,  Jack Valenti, actually boasted about what kind of people the board is comprised of, saying,  “I don’t have any child behavioral experts on the panel,” he added, “I just want ordinary people.” In his own words, the ratings board is “populated by parents, normal human beings, neither gods nor fools.”

I don’t know about you all, but I do not want a bunch of “ordinary people” in California determining what is appropriate for the rest of the world.

Despite what Valenti claims, after executing an investigation on the ratings board, Kirby Dick, producer of the 2006 documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, found that members of the board included clergy and parents of children as old as 24 or people who had no children.

From the documentary’s standpoint, the MPAA unfairly rates films submitted by independent production companies. According to Dick, the MPAA will not provide those companies with a breakdown as to why the film was rated as it was or how they can go about editing the film for a more marketable rating.

The MPAA says that in the United States it is not required for films to be rated. This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated states that a film without a rating from the MPAA is highly unlikely to be purchased by studios and played at national theaters. Dick states that without a rating, a film will scarcely be seen or circulated.

On the contrary, Jack Valenti says that the rating has nothing to do with box office sales, a statement that many producers and directors deem utterly untrue.

The MPAA has tremendous power over what movie goers see and how film producers express their artistic vision, yet they keep their rating criteria and movie raters secret to the public.

Megan Wellik, a sophomore art education major, believes they should not keep that information confidential.

“We should know what kind of people are censoring the movies we watch and what gives them a right to tell us what is appropriate or not,” Wellik said.

For a corporation that calls themselves, “the voice of one of the country’s strongest and most vibrant industries,” the MPAA certainly seems to be conducting their business of “advancing the art of filmmaking” in a suspiciously clandestine manner.

“Something that has such an influence over so many people should have clear and publicized guidelines,” Wellik said.

The biggest issue of concern with this kind of association is that there is no way for them to effectively carry out their intended purpose without extending their ideology unto society. They are an unregulated corporation, and therefore do not have any structured and commonly agreed upon code of principles with which they can rate films.

These raters use their personal tastes, along with their own set of values, to critique a form of art that is considered highly subjective, thus unjustly limiting the artistic expression of the producers and impacting the public in an immeasurable way.