How Did 'Blue Valentine' Change Our Concept Of NC-17?
Five years ago, "Blue Valentine" did something groundbreaking: It convinced us, albeit briefly, that Ryan Gosling was a fugly loser who nobody would ever want to be married to.
But that wasn't the only game-changing thing about this drama that followed a bad romance from bright start to sad undoing. "Blue Valentine" also did its part to normalize the onscreen depiction of a certain act of physical intimacy -- and to call out Hollywood's obnoxious double standard when it comes to rating sexually-explicit scenes.
Two months before its release, the MPAA handed "Blue Valentine" the box-office kiss of death: an NC-17 rating, which would have barred anyone under the age of 17 from seeing the film in theaters. The rating came as a result of a scene between newlyweds Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), in which Dean performs oral sex on his wife.
The MPAA's decision infuriated producer Harvey Weinstein (who memorably compared his movie's rating to the easy R rating obtained by "Piranha 3D" in EW, ranting, "How did Piranha 3D get an R and Blue Valentine gets an NC-17? A penis got coughed up in the movie by a piranha!") But the most scathing criticism came from Ryan Gosling, who straight-up blasted the ratings board in an all-out feminist rant.
"You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen," Gosling said. "The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film."
Unsurprisingly, the MPAA ended up caving under immense pressure shortly thereafter and downgraded "Blue Valentine" to an R.
But that moment, one of the most memorable times when a major male movie star leveraged his popularity to deliver a serious message about sexism in Hollywood, had more permanent results, too.
Where guy-on-girl oral sex used to be vanishingly rare onscreen -- and films that dared to include it were often forced to cut those scenes to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating -- it now turns up much more often as part of the normal, ordinary repertoire of sexy things people do in movies. And when the MPAA does take issue with these scenes? The actors in them take a page out of Gosling's playbook, and take issue right back:
Of course, "Blue Valentine" was much more than that one scene or the controversy surrounding it; it was an amazing, devastating film, one that earned Michelle Williams a well-deserved nod from the Academy with a Best Actress nomination.
But if "Blue Valentine" has a larger legacy in cinematic history, it'll be this one: That someday, the movies we love will depict all kinds of people going down on all kinds of other people, with equivalent degrees of frequency and enthusiasm -- and without a sexist double standard.