After the MPAA refused to change the rating on Bully, a documentary about the impact of vicious anti-gay harassment on teenagers, from an R to a PG-13, Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing Bully, has suggested that it might be time for him to depart the MPAA. Weinstein is a showman par excellence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s using the ratings system as a way of bringing attention to the movie. But he’s also correct that the ratings system isn’t working to truly get people the information they need to make decisions about what movies their children should see, and in setting standards for which content children absolutely shouldn’t be able to see without their parents present.
First, we need to move beyond the contradictory ideas that ratings simultaneously need to be responsive to community standards, and that they also should be consistent over time. It’s much more important that ratings be responsive to contemporary community standards, broadly defined, than it is that they be consistent from the onset of the ratings system until the present day. If we were still abiding by the standards of the 1947 People v. Wepplo decision that declared material obscene ” “if it has a substantial tendency to deprave or corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire,” most American popular entertainment couldn’t be marketed or made at all.
More importantly, the American public as a whole isn’t actually served by holding on to certain old standards. A significant majority of Americans believe that gay couples should at least be able to get the legal protections of civil unions, and we’re edging towards a majority of Americans supporting equal marriage rights. It doesn’t serve the interests of that majority to treat depictions of sexual contact between gay couples differently than depictions of those same acts between straight couples—it serves a minority who are resistant to the consensus that the rest of the country has reached about the normalization of gay couples.
It also doesn’t particularly serve the public interest to have the only grounds for a movie to be moved from R to PG-13 even if the profanity it in would normally trigger an R rating is if “based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.” That doesn’t leave any room for precisely what Bully is trying to accomplish: illustrate that certain language is the opposite of inconspicuous, that it’s pernicious, and damaging, and that it can take lives. One would hope that most American parents believe that it’s a worthy goal to communicate to their teenagers that harassing their peers to the point of suicide is horrendous and a message that doesn’t have to—and in fact shouldn’t—wait until children are of age.
We need a ratings system that more clearly breaks down the reasons parents might find a movie unsuitable for their children, and that provides some sort of context for tagging a movie with those elements. I’ve long thought it might make sense to have a universal ratings system that applies across popular media so parents don’t struggle with the different, and not particularly analogous, systems that are used to label music, movies, television, and video games. And while I don’t think it’s perfect, the television ratings system that appears before programming begins and breaks ratings down into discrete and clear elements seems to me to be the one that provides parents with most information. Parents expose their kids to different things at different rates—I might let my kids hear mild curse words before I let them see Darth Vader cut Luke’s hand off—and they should be given information consistent with that. It’s very, very difficult to reconcile efficiency in label with the goal of providing as much context as possible to parents, but we need more than a single tiny box with several letters in it to truly serve the needs of communities and individual families.
Linda Holmes raises a vital point about Bully that illustrates the difficulty of getting a ratings system right. In theory, it would be good for every student to see a movie about the worst consequences of bullying and harassment with an adult who can help talk through its lessons, be that teacher or parent. But there are also students who may be struggling dreadfully with these issues who might not be safe seeing the movie with a parent or teacher because those people are among their tormenters. We live in a day and age when teachers can use the platforms they have to make life harder for gay students, and when gay teenagers have disturbingly high homelessness rates because their parents are not always supportive. When the ratings system is based around parental decision-making rather than an impossible-to-reach standard of audience wellbeing, it’s going to flounder in cases this one.