Is the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board acting like a bully?
The flap over an R rating the board slapped on a documentary titled "Bully" has caused some people to say yes.
"Bully" takes on the topic of kids bullying kids, and it's meant to enlighten teens, both bullies and their victims, about the topic. An R rating would mean much of the audience for whom the movie is intended could not see it in theaters without a parent or guardian.
The R rating came because the film contained the F-bomb six times. The word is not used in a sexual context in the movie, but as an expletive. Canada, noting that fact, gave "Bully" a PG rating.
The Weinstein Co. appealed the R rating, as it has for other movies in the not too distant past.
Remember "The King's Speech"? The best-picture Oscar winner about Britain's King George overcoming a speech impediment included a scene in which the king repeats the F-bomb over and over in a therapy exercise.
Weinstein lost its appeal of the R rating on that one, though you could argue that its lesson in both history and humanity is excellent subject matter for teens. Eventually a version of "The King's Speech" without that passage was issued, for those who simply wouldn't see it with that word included.
This time Weinstein got support from some big-name actors and even some movie theater chains when it insisted it would not trim the F-bombs but would instead issue the film without a rating.
That normally results in an NC-17, and theaters don't allow any young people into movies with that rating. But several large theater chains said they would make an exception in this case, allowing young people to attend.
Then came word that three or four of the F-bombs had been trimmed, resulting in the ratings board issuing the preferred PG-13 rating.
The howl being raised includes claims that a ratings board should do more than count F-bombs in choosing a rating. What about context and meaning?
There have been notable exceptions.
"The Hip Hop Project," another documentary, got a PG-13 despite 17 F-bombs. "Gunner Palace," a documentary about troops serving in Iran, is PG-13 despite 42 F-bombs. "All the President's Men," about the Watergate scandal, is rated PG despite seven F-bombs.
But generally, the ratings board now tolerates no more than two before slapping a film with an R.
I know from calls and emails that many moviegoers, particularly older ones, steer clear of any movie laced with profanity. And not just the F-bomb. One woman living in senior care, who arranges movie night for her group, asked recently if "The Descendants" might be released without the F-bombs so her group could see it. I had to tell her I didn't think so.
It's worth acknowledging that if movies are going to realistically reflect our society, there are places and social settings where it's commonly used. You want to be real, you can't avoid it.
There are also movies that hammer the F-word till it grates.
I just don't think it should, all by itself, determine a movie's rating.
A colleague recently asked if I thought there has been ratings inflation in recent years. Are the worst of today's PG-13 movies what used to be a clear R?
Maybe. He recalled going to see "Anchorman," rated PG-13, with his wife and being relieved afterward that they hadn't taken their young teen daughter. Comedy in general is a lot dirtier-minded than it used to be.
My beef is that the levels of violence commonly found in PG-13 films should be as much of a concern as — no, more than — F-bombs and glimpses of nudity. The ratings board seems more lax about killing than it is about sex. Have you seen "The Hunger Games"?
Violence as entertainment is so prevalent, not only in movies and television but particularly in video games, that it's hard not to believe there's a link to mass slayings in this country.
I think parents in general find the MPAA ratings helpful in determining what their kids can see. It's not totally broken, but it might bear some tweaking.
Ratings are subjective, no matter who's doing them, and one parent will disagree with another about what's suitable for their children to see.
What's most important is that parents be actively involved, screening questionable material before their kids and, often, viewing it with them so they can have a discussion about it afterward.