‘Bully’ and the Evolution of the MPAA Ratings System

Roger Ebert, invaulable as always, intervenes in the controversy over the R rating of Bully with a reminder of what the MPAA was trying to do in the first place when it introduced its ratings system:

The MPAA began to set this trap for itself when it got into the ratings business in the first place. It was intended at the time not to promote public decency in language, but to provide the motion picture industry with a plausible way to head off local censorship boards. When I started at the Sun-Times, the city had a board of censors made up of the widows of police captains, and their rulings were often inexplicable. There was also the question of whether censorship was even constitutional. Jack Valenti, in 1968 the new head of the MPAA, came up with the rather brilliant notion that a new code should be “voluntary,” and thus no test of the law. Studios and theaters would be asked for voluntary compliance…

The one thing the MPAA cannot ever do, Valenti argued, is get into the business of value judgments. It can advise parents that a film contains the f-word, for example, but not whether that use is appropriate. Now that 20 members of Congress have come forward to sign a petition protesting the R rating of “Bully,” we can assume that the film uses the word for justifiable reasons.

And he also reminds us that Valenti’s code was a break with the Hays Code, the set of rules that dictated that, for example, even married couples in the movies had to be portrayed sleeping in different beds. If the MPAA’s ratings system has become more conservative than the communities it’s meant to serve, and if it’s no longer helping movies get into communities and in front of audiences that might otherwise be barred from seeing them, then it’s not fulfilling its original intention. Such certainly seems to be the case with Bully, which had schools prepared to bus their students to see it, and has a strong case for letting teenagers, especially those whose parents might not be appropriate and supportive discussion partners, see it on their own. If that’s so, there’s precedent for breaking with the past and starting over.