1. Parenting
Carey Bryson

The MPAA Ratings Board Stands Up to Bully

By March 1, 2012

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A debate has been heating up for  a while now about the MPAA rating system in regards to the movie Bully, set to open in theaters on March 30. The division of the MPAA that handles doling out ratings for movies, the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), is being ganged up on by filmmakers, celebrities, and others for upholding the "R" rating of the movie. I spoke with the head of CARA, Joan Graves, about the intricacies of the situation and the difficulty of assigning movie ratings (read the full interview with Joan Graves here). But first, here's a rundown of the issue:

Bully gets an "R" rating. What does that mean?

Bully is a new documentary by filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by The Weinstein Company). The film documents the epidemic of bullying in American schools, following the stories of five families tragically affected by bullying. Brave kids have come forth in the documentary to expose the problem through showing the world their own heart rending experiences.

I have not seen the film yet, but from what I have read it is heartbreaking, poignant and thought-provoking. The film is aimed at kids in middle and high school. But, it received an "R" rating from the CARA due to language; specifically, seven uses of the "f-word." TWC sought to appeal the rating, but the appeal was denied by one vote.

An "R" rating means that many schools that had planned on screening the film will no longer do so. It means that kids who are bullied, who are bullies, or who are bystanders will not be able to go to the theater to see the movie without an adult present. Since many parents don't care and won't take their kids, and because many kids won't want to talk to their parents about the issue much less have them tag along to the theater, a certain number of kids who would have seen the movie and gotten the message may not.

Therefore, Harvey Weinstein and others have launched an all out attack on the MPAA, threatening to withdraw from the organization altogether. Of course, if they do that they will face an even steeper challenge in getting the film in theaters and getting kids to see it.

Should the MPAA change the rating because the film is a meaningful documentary?

The general standard for the ratings board is that more than one "f-word" means the film gets an automatic "R." The points being made for bending the rules are:

  1. Context matters. Kids can get into see PG-13 movies that have gratuitous violence and profane, demeaning language, but not this important documentary which is rated "R" because of seven instances of a word they probably hear at school that many times in an hour.
  2. The ratings system completely out of date and unrealistic to begin with. Surely a 16-year-old can handle seeing a movie about what life is really like in middle and high school.
  3. Kids need to see this movie. The subject is highly important and could make a difference in a lot of kids' lives. They need to be able to see the movie with or without a parent.
  4. The ratings board is an unregulated, unfair, misrepresented, studio-funded scandal, as it's made out to be in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
  5. Ratings have consequences, and it's not fair to filmmakers.

Obviously, there are some issues with the system. How could there not be? The ratings board has guidelines, but assigning a rating is a highly subjective process. To get to the bottom of these concerns, we first have to consider the purpose of the ratings board.

The purpose of the MPAA is to provide information about content to parents. Period.

Regarding the Bully rating backlash, Joan Graves has written a detailed response which you can read on the CARA website. In it, she notes that, "The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films. Our ratings reflect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere in between, would rate a film."

On context...

Again, the system isn't perfect. But currently, the ratings board leaves it to parents to decide which "R" rated movies are worthy to view and which are not. Sure context is important, of course! But the current system has no way to take that into account. The movies are rated based on the content, and kids are not admitted to "R" movies without parent consent. So, parents get to make the choice. Yes, Bully has hard language, therefore, it's rated "R." Now I get to decide whether it's a good movie for my middle-schooler to see or not.

It is not for CARA to determine whether the movie has merit or not. When I spoke with Joan, she reiterated this saying, "All we're really doing is putting a rating to indicate the content. If we rated the same content differently according to whether we liked the movie or not, we would be censors, because we'd be censoring what we didn't like."

Maybe there needs to be a new classification system for non-fiction and educational works. But as of now, there isn't one, so CARA has to work within the guidelines and let parents know that there is material in the movie that is adult in nature.

On the criticism that the ratings system is outdated...

EW.com reported Michael Moore as attacking the ratings system in general saying:

"I've had that problem with the MPAA every time I've wanted to put a movie out it seems. Every one of my movies except one are rated R and it just kills me. Their strict guidelines are outdated and rigid and I don't understand why they don't see that."

To that criticism, Joan responds:

"I think it's easy for an adult in the media to think that harsh language doesn't matter to parents. And it may not matter to parents once their kids are 30 and 40 and maybe in their 20s [laughs], but we know from really direct questions in our surveys that they do care. They want to be the arbiter of what their kids are exposed to. So what they want us to do is give them the information and then they'll act on it."

Therein is the key to this issue. What do American parents want to know about a film? To many American parents, language is a big issue, regardless of whether or not kids hear it at school. How does the MPAA know what parents want? Joan says:

"We do run surveys from time to time and focus groups in areas across the country. We ask objectively how parents feel about certain things, including language, so we know we're not just hearing from the complainers. I do hear from a lot of parents via email and on the phone, sometimes letters. And what I want to do is make sure that I'm getting the right information, not just hearing from the people who are overly conservative. So, we do try to keep on top of it with surveys and focus groups."

Admittedly, it is impossible to define a one-size-fits-all system when no two parents will agree on exactly what constitutes offensive content. However, there is some general consensus among many parents. Apparently, according to MPAA surveys, a large percentage of parents don't like the f-bomb.

Although the ratings are just indicators for parents, they do have real world consequences, and I get that. Filmmakers can get all of their celebrity pals and political cronies to gang up on the ratings system and argue that there needs to be some adjustments made and some more transparency in the board selection. Bring some good ideas to the table. Use your clout and the avenues available through media coverage and your membership in the MPAA. I'm all for positive change, especially if those attacking the system are respectful and recognize that the CARA people are just trying to do their job as parents would want them to. But, please don't forget that the purpose of the ratings is to help parents and other moviegoers who want to be apprized of general content before paying hard earned money and devoting a couple of hours of their life to watching a film.

Ratings are not our only tool. They are not the be all and end all, and parents still have to do some digging, but they simplify movie going and a classification system of some sort is necessary. There is certain content I just don't want to see, and certainly that I don't want my kids to see. I don't want a movie rating to be dumbed down just because it's determined "educational" or "meaningful" by some filmmaker or board member.

In the case of Bully, I'm sure the film is as worthy as its creators deem it. I too believe the message is vital, and I want it to get out there through this documentary and every other means. Still, I would not want my middle-school child to see the movie without my consent. And that's not because of the language, which I know is part of the irony here. There is some heavy and disturbing stuff being brought up in the film, and these are things I want to discuss with my child. I will not have a Hollywood executive deciding that this film or any other is fine for kids to see without parents.

I realize that kids need to be disturbed about this subject. I would be fine with a school district or similar group determining that this movie is important and needs to be seen. I would consider signing a permission slip to allow my child to see the film at school or as part of a school screening. But the MPAA doesn't get to make that call (even if exceptions have happened in the past, that doesn't mean it was the right call). The filmmakers don't get to make that call. If according to the established guidelines the film has "R" content, then it has "R" content. If the guidelines or the process needs to be adjusted, that is a valid argument and should be considered with all affected parties in mind.

In any event, the filmmakers can use the rating to drive home the fact that a "day in the life" of a bullied kid is an "R" rated experience. That says a lot in itself. If this film is as good as they say it is, let's all get on the bandwagon and let people know that kids need to see it. Teachers and parents need to talk about it. An "R" rating does not have to be a death sentence or stunt the impact of the film.

March 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm
(1) David B. says:

Thanks for going through the effort to post this article. As a parent, this is a tough issue for me. Yes, I think the MPAA has some flaws and there are some movies that are rated wrong in my mind – especially Gunner Palace. When Gunner Palace can use the f-word 42 times with violence and Bully only use the f-word 7 times and get a different rating, something clearly needs to change.

That said, Hollywood directors that generally seem very out-of-touch with the real world and what most parents feel is appropriate bullying the MPAA over the rating just doesn’t make sense. Hollywood is not going to decide what is appropriate for my kids.

The irony in this whole thing is the movie is about bullying yet that is what it seems like this group of people are doing to the MPAA. Maybe they need to watch their own movie!

March 1, 2012 at 4:04 pm
(2) Caroline Calkins says:

Great article, Carey. I think it’s a shame that CARA seems to find its methods impartial and benign. Time and time again, we see films with big budgets and studio backing skirt these apparently universal standards for adult content, bringing into question the merit and appropriateness of the rating system. Film ratings are so intensely culturally affected, a film may have completely different audiences in neighboring countries. It’s a nigh-impossible task, but we would do well to examine each film not on the basis of a checklist of naughty words and images, but on close inspection of its themes and intentions.

Also, why don’t they release a ‘school screener’ version with bleeps?

March 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm
(3) kidstvmovies says:

Thanks, Caroline!

It’s true that a film’s themes and intentions are key in whether or not the movie is “good” for kids or other moviegoers. The current CARA system does not work that into the ratings for the most part, leaving the task up to moviegoers. Luckily, parents can go to many other sources to get the lowdown on themes and intentions before going to the movie. Working that information into a ratings system would be useful, but difficult.

At least, as a parent, I appreciate the broad stroke ratings and brief descriptors CARA does provide. This becomes less useful the more mature a film is, however. For parents with kids, it’s useful to know if a film is considered “G” versus PG or PG-13 and a brief description of why. I can generally tell based on these descriptors if I am okay taking the family or if I need to preview it first. The language, sexual content and violence are key factors in deciding if a movie is appropriate for my kids.

As movies become more mature, however, it becomes much more difficult to classify and quantify content. Themes become much more diverse, with some being raunchy and some meaningful despite having similar “content.” Still, there needs to be a point at which we decide that movie theaters shouldn’t let kids in without a parent.

A school screener for Bully with bleeps would be acceptable to many, but the filmmakers want it to be “real” and don’t seem think it would have the same impact. I disagree.

March 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm
(4) critter says:

changing something base on just launage would effect the way the movie is being shown. the kids already know there launage this not a fansty movie from hollywood this about real life. and the real bullies are the people who think “r” rated is ok for this moive… those are the real bullies not to mention that i remember back in the day this is not movies but games. Nintendo used to have its own ratings system till ersb came into play. games and movies are different. Though if NIntendo did there own ratings… i don’t think movie film makers would have any hard time doing it. There a difference between bullying and oppose what these people believe in.

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