Do audiences, particularly children, need to be protected from, or at least warned about the content of media such as movies?
From the beginning, filmmakers knew that pushing the lines of acceptability would produce scandals which would, in turn, increase audience curiosity and ticket sales. Most people today do not realize that early movies contained nudity and graphic (for their time) sex scenes, as in D.W. Griffith’s infamous orgy scene in Intolerance.
Of course such content provoked a backlash from various do-gooders trying to hold back the tide of indecency, particularly the Catholic Church. Is the futility of their quest exposed by how mild this scene seems today after a further century of envelope-pushing? But in the 1910s, this seemed quite risque, even raunchy.
In 1930, Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American (MPPDA), introduced the “Motion Picture Production Code” to allay continuing concerns about immoral films. The Code’s main principles were:
- No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
These principles were followed by page after page of very specific rules of what could not be shown. It looked good, but Hollywood largely ignored it, continuing with business as usual.
The Catholic Church, however, continued to object, and in 1933 created its own National Legion of Decency to rate films for Catholic filmgoers. If the Legion of Decency rated a film C, for condemned, it led to widespread boycotts. When its bottom line became threatened, the MPPDA finally began to enforce its Production Code.
The Production Code is often referred to as the “Hays Code,” after the president of the MPPDA who instituted it, but it would be far more accurate to call it the “Breen Code,” after Joseph Breen, the strict Catholic whom Hays appointed to head the newly created Production Code Administration (PCA).
And administer it Breen did. This led to a very clear division between “pre-code” films released before 1934 and “post-code” movies released after:
No screenplay could be produced without PCA approval; no finished motion picture could be released without PCA approval.
By the 1950s, though, many in Hollywood began to bridle at the PCA’s restrictions and interference. Otto Preminger had the temerity to produce the film The Moon Is Blue after its script had been rejected by the PCA for its risque (for the time) subject matter. And United Artists agreed to distribute the film without PCA approval.
Some theaters refused to book The Moon Is Blue without code approval, but the movie was a big success, at least in part because of its notoriety.
Preminger again flouted the code with The Man with the Golden Arm.
For once the Legion of Decency was more lenient than the PCA, rating the harrowing cautionary tale about drug addiction B, for “morally objectionable in part,” instead of C.
The code slowly began to break down and Hollywood began to push the envelope even further, again drawing criticism and claims that Hollywood was corrupting audiences, especially children. And most states, even some cities, still had censor boards that literally cut the films coming into their jurisdictions to meet community standards. Hollywood needed to do something so it could market a uniform product.
In 1966, Jack Valenti became the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Two years later, he introduced the film rating system:
That system is still the standard today, although there have been a few adjustments over the years.
In 1984, PG-13 was introduced, largely in response to parental complaints about the violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .
. . . and Gremlins (although they inspired PG-13, both of these films remain PG because they were classified before the new rating existed).
And in 1990, NC-17 was created to replace X. The intent was to differentiate serious films for adults, like Henry & June, the film released with the new rating, from “Triple X” pornography.
However, after the failure of Showgirls (at least in theaters; it later became a cult and/or camp favorite on home video), major studios mostly abandoned NC-17 films, contractually obligating most directors to attain no higher than an R-rating.
And here is where we confront the often confusing application of the ratings. For example, the board said that American Pie would be rated NC-17 if it included this version of the scene . . .
. . . but R if it substituted this version:
Am I the only one who thinks that’s an incredibly arbitrary distinction?
The film included the latter version in theaters, but included the former in the “unrated” home video release, thereby selling the same movie twice to those who had to see “what they couldn’t see in the theaters.”
Many filmmakers now shoot sacrificial scenes to make the content they hope to retain seem less extreme by comparison, as Seth Rogen explains was done with Sausage Party:
“We made it dirtier than we’d originally planned because we were expecting some sort of negotiation, so when we first heard it was getting kickback we felt, OK, let’s change as little as possible,” Rogen recalls. “Then we sent that in and approved it, and we were like, ‘What?!’ We thought that would be the first of fifty back-and-forths that would happen.”
If you want to learn more about the real workings of the ratings board, check out This Film Is Not Yet Rated:
Yet, as flawed as it is, the film ratings system has become the model for other industries who prefer self-regulation to outside interference, so we have labels for music and ratings for video games and TV. There have been calls for a universal rating system that would cover all media, but most view this as unfeasible. Plus, since the entire reason for self-regulation is to keep outsiders from meddling, the individual industries would be sure to fight any such universal plan as violating the first amendment, as well as antitrust laws.