Film Theories: Art and the rating system

by Nathan Weinreich / Beacon Correspondent • October 15, 2015

The NC-17 film is unfairly judged by the public in America today. Many have not even heard of a modern movie rated so harshly, and still more have not actually seen one. While they are deemed inappropriate for anyone 17 and under, these motion pictures are not pornographic or overly vulgar in nature; that stigma only came about through decades of false associations and misrepresentations.

Censorship has been present within Hollywood since the days of the Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, in the early 1930s. Until then, movies pushed the boundaries of social conventions through risqué dress and attitude. The Hays Code prohibited depicting themes of profanity, nudity, and white slavery on screen, among many others. Even in those heavily restricted days, some films refused to abide by these conventions, and were thus set apart as “arthouse.”

Many movies bent the rules of the Hays Code until its replacement by the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system in 1968, the most famous being “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Blow-Up.” Both of these 1966 films were condemned by the code for vulgar language and nudity, respectively. Because of their refusal to cooperate with the restrictions it put forth, the Hays Code began to lose popularity in favor of the up-and-coming MPAA system. 

With the decline of the strict Hays Code came the first iteration of the voluntary rating system used today: “G” for general audiences; “M” for pictures where parental guidance was advised; and “R” restricted to people over 16 years old, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The MPAA trademarked these first three labels, but were later encouraged to include “X” for movies containing themes deemed too adult for the other categories. This last rating was left untrademarked. Obtaining one of these labels was essential to a film if they wanted to have a chance of being shown in theaters, as the rating system essentially served as a seal of approval that it would make money or not. An unrated movie is almost guaranteed not to be shown in commercial cinemas.

Over time, the MPAA made minor, arbitrary changes to their system, like raising the age for R and X films to 17, replacing M with PG, and adding PG-13 after the releases of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins” in 1984. All the while, movies filed under the harshest of ratings were losing popularity because of their ever-growing association with pornographic films that labeled themselves X without the MPAA’s permission.

In the earliest days of the X rating, films like “Midnight Cowboy” and “A Clockwork Orange” were accepted as art by the public, despite their adult themes. Because the label was not trademarked, however, extremely graphic pornography could wear it as a badge of honor, like how some musicians use the parental advisory sticker to sell their records. Some pornographic pictures called themselves XX and XXX in an attempt to draw in a larger audience, all the while remaining within their legal rights. While the MPAA didn’t define X-rated movies as strictly pornographic, audiences conflated the two together, and these films lost their popularity in mainstream theaters.

In the early 90s, the MPAA changed X to NC-17 in an attempt to rebrand their system. While this new label did initially disassociate the rating with pornography, it quickly became known as the new X. Many cinemas still refuse to screen NC-17 rated movies, and the public doesn’t generally accept them.

However, this rating is not meant to signify pornographic or purely lewd content. Arthouse films are frequently given an NC-17 rating, and most commercial theaters refuse to screen them. Steve McQueen, famous for his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” directed a Golden Globe-nominated NC-17 film in 2011 called “Shame.” Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 picture “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the Palme d’Or in 2013, despite its rating. If they were made by Americans, these heavily-praised films would most likely have had to tailor their themes to the guidelines of the MPAA in an attempt to lower their harsh rating. Because of their market in foreign countries that do not adhere to these guidelines, however, they can exist as they do with praise instead of criticism.

Pornography tainted X and NC-17, but that does not mean that professional films with these ratings are bad. Neither were meant to connote purely erotic content, but rather a tier of adult themes above those in R movies. Society’s refusal to accept these movies is holding back arthouse films from breaking into the mainstream, and up-and-coming moviemakers are suffering for it. If the public follows directors in accepting the NC-17 rating, cinemas could shift toward playing more art films. These movies are not meant to be vulgar for vulgarity’s sake, but rather to portray art through a more human lens without worrying about conforming to the restrictions of the MPAA.