What's Wrong with the MPAA?

I've been wary of the MPAA ever since I saw the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. The MPAA, for y'all not aware, is the Motion Picture Association of America. You can find their ratings website here if you like to self censor.

Now, I will grudgingly admit that for a parent the idea of a rating system does make sense. I would want to know what my child would be seeing, and the MPAA, on a theoretical level, provides that service.

However, the MPAA isn't even good at its theoretical job in my opinion, and I'm here to tell you why. Keep up, we'll be delving into a place where logic has lost all footing.

The problems are as follows:

1) The MPAA uses similar words without exposition.
I did a quick survey of the ratings of the top 43 critical movies (as judged by their aggregate Rotten Tomatoes scores) and found some wonderful examples of the Association not coming off as very associated. The Devil Wears Prada was rated PG-13 for "some sensuality." The word sensual, to me, conjures up images of strawberries fed to each other and light music. Something to the effect of, "That's sensual, my love." Now, as a parent you're supposed to discern the difference between that rating and The Illusionist's PG-13 for "some sexuality." For good measure, The Illusionist has "violence" thrown in as a descriptor, meaning you can ratchet up the sensuality to full blown sexuality and chuck in some violence and you're still covered for a PG-13. As a big fan of words I'd guess the difference between sensual and sexual is some sort of actual flesh on screen. Thankfully this delineation can't be found anywhere on the site, so we're all left to guess.

Want more? The Queen is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. So for you moral police scoring at home, a few naughty words = strawberries = death + sex. They are all the same. Don't look behind the curtain. Move along, nothing to see here.

2) The MPAA describes things very oddly.
Rocky is rated PG for "boxing violence" and "some language." Boxing violence? Really? If I go to a movie about boxing there will be ... boxing? As a parent, if you don't know Rocky will have boxing violence your children should be whisked away from you in the dead of night. If the MPAA had just thrown a "violent" tag on there I wouldn't have had a lot of room to complain, but nope, let's all salute obviousness on the violence front. Also, note you can use "some language" but if it gets "strong" you are nailed with the PG-13. What is the difference, the actual scientific difference? Undefined. Unexplainable. Who knows?

Invincible gets a PG for "Sports Action" and "Mild Language." Sigh. Mild equals some but is less than strong. Got it. Sports action, crazy! A movie about football has sports action, which for the record, tells me precisely zero. I'd rather they tell me if the movie didn't have sports action. The Pursuit of Happyness gets a PG-13 with only one knock, "language." Now the equation reads: mild equals some, which is less than just plain old language or strong language. If a film gets the PG-13, shouldn't the language have to be "strong"? Is that too much to ask, one little standard on your brandishing of ratings? The real issue with Pursuit of Happyness is the homeless issue, but clearly the MPAA couldn't think of a great way to convey that. Would "homeless action" have worked, guys?

3) The MPAA is unclear when it gives any rating at all.
Here are five movies. Please tell me what they will be rated. I'm using the actual MPAA reason for rating, of course:
Movie A) Language, drug references, brief comic violence, crude and sexual humor
Movie B) Language, nudity, extremely crude and dangerous stunts
Movie C) Disturbing images, sensuality, intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace
Movie D) Intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content, nudity
Movie E) scenes of graphic violence, disturbing images

I will give you a zillion dollars (brief comic exaggeration) if you can go five for five based on the MPAA descriptions listed above. It's impossible. I would wager that even an employee of the MPAA couldn't do it based on the facts given. Why? Because they MAKE NO SENSE! I gave these examples to five coworkers in an extremely unscientific test and here are the results:

Movie A) Everyone correctly called the movie as PG-13. Kudos, my friends. The movie was Talladega Nights. I think the "brief comic violence" may have been the dead giveaway. Point for MPAA.
Movie B) Again, all five nailed it. The movie was Jackass 2, and I bet the stunts put it over the top for people.

So at this point the MPAA look like pretty clever folk. Not so fast, my friends, the rest of the test was much more brutal, perhaps because people used their established mental guidelines from the first two.

Movie C) The movie was Mission Impossible 3, and three nailed the PG-13. However there were guesses of R and PG too (believe it or not, some poor desensitized soul).
Movie D) Ding! No one called this as a PG-13 but it was. The movie was Casino Royale. Every single person called this an R. I guess they don't know the big studios pay for the MPAA to exist, and Casino Royale needed to be a cash cow. Well done, MPAA!
Movie E) Again, zero for five. The movie was Apocalypto, rated R, and all five had it pegged at PG-13. They couldn't have known that everyone now hates old Mel and would have rated the film NC-17 if they could have gotten away with it.

So, out of 25 predicted ratings, my pool nailed 13 correctly. A dart board would have been just as effective, and so I rule your rating null and void, my little MPAA, null and void.

Really, this column could be a book because the examples (based only upon 43 movies) go on and on. Consider Flushed Away, Monster House, Nancy Mcphee, and The Ant Bully. All are rated PG, two have "language" tags, but one is "some" and the other is "brief." All three have humor issues, but three are "rude" and the other is just plain "crude." If you guessed that having a toilet title isn't rude, but instead crude, you win the door prize.

In fact, let's have some fun and look at this term by term as we wind up. There seem to be seven categories that can get you busted with the MPAA. Humor, Language, Violence, Sex, Imagery, Nudity, and Drugs. Avoid all those and you've got a G. Here is the breakdown by category:

Humor
Six of my PG movies have humor, ranging the gambit from crude, to rude, to mild. Strangely only one PG-13 movie has a humor issue, Talladega Nights with the crude and sexual kind. Clearly the MPAA doesn't find R-rated movies very funny at all, as none of them were docked on the comedy front. Wipe that smirk off your face.

Language
Fifteen of 16 films rated R had language tags, with "pervasive" being dwarfed by just plain old "language." Apocalypto was the lone R without a language ding, so if you're looking for an adult film but don't like the cursing, this is your stop. On second thought, I swear they cursed once in Mayan, and yes, I am serious about this, the subtitle was a naughty word. Seven PG films had language, from "mild" to "brief" to "some," and seven PG-13 films followed suit, though generally they just rated them flat-out "language" there too.

Violence
Violence ranged from "boxing" to "strong and brutal." The MPAA are big fans of the words "graphic" and "intense," though they are never mixed, and it's impossible to tell the difference. Certain PG-13 films had intense violence, while some R ones had strong violence, and Babel just had plain old "violence."

Sex
If you have "sex," "sexuality," or "sensuality" you are ranking PG-13. My personal favorite for sex was the delicious "some sex" descriptor given to Little Miss Sunshine. Some (now I love that word, I don't have to back it up and no one can prove I'm wrong) films were given PG-13 for "sexual content," some for "some sexuality," some for "some sensuality," and a few for plain old "sensuality." That's not confusing at all!

Imagery
This was the toughest one to quantify because the MPAA isn't exactly clear on what it doesn't like. "Disturbing images" was popular, though "mild peril" and "some peril" could also get you into trouble. "Thematic elements" and "mild thematic elements" also made guest appearances.

Nudity
You are looking at PG-13 if you've got nudity, whether "brief" or "graphic." You can have sexuality without nudity (heavy petting, I'd guess) but only one remarkable film got dinged for nudity without any sexuality at all. Children of Men had the audacity to show a nude pregnant woman and thus had to be kept after class.

Drugs
Here is another way to get yourself a PG-13, and God help you if you have someone having nude sex while cursing and doing drugs. "Drug references" (are you high?), "drug use" (let's get high), "drug material" (hey, are those the tools with which to get high?), and "drug content" (anyone here high enough to know what that means?) were all reasons to give you the rating of R, unless you had Will Ferrell in a NASCAR spoof.

Interestingly enough, I've seen only one NC-17 film in the past few years. I saw was Where the Truth Lies, but I can't tell you why it's rated NC-17 because it's not. They surrendered their rating to the MPAA Gods, instead choosing to not accept the least "voluntary" system ever. An unrated film can't be shown anywhere in the world.

Surrender. It's a good word where the MPAA is concerned. Surrender to silliness!

On the other hand, maybe it's a positive that it is so easy to poke holes in their sad little system. If everything made sense about it, if the moral judgments and censorship were smooth and clean, we'd no longer have a bumbling preacher to guffaw at. No, instead we'd have the perfect monster.

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Laremy Legel
Mail Laremy Here.