Ratings systems fall short, understating modernity

by Benjamin Tran / Beacon Correspondent • April 16, 2015

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Film and TV ratings and other forms of censorship objectively assess subjective moralities.
Film and TV ratings and other forms of censorship objectively assess subjective moralities.

There is something profoundly, and even comically, fascinating about America’s various parental rating systems. When I was 10, scanning through the entertainment section of the New York Daily News and hypnotized by the colorful, magnificent movie poster ads, I was drawn to the ratings. “Strong bloody violence, pervasive language, and some sexual content,” read one enigmatic description.

My fond curiosity in deciphering movie ratings grew into an understanding of their irrelevance: Despite being a great source of amusement to me, America’s media rating systems, from the Motion Picture Association of America to TV Parental Guidelines, are simply a farce. These systems are inconsistent and nonsensical, and America’s tendency towards censorship as a whole may simply be a mere reflection of the paranoia rampant in the ethnocentric American consciousness.

With the widening availability of and exposure to free online media sources like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix, the attempts to shield children from the “inappropriate” have become almost futile. We must consider the possibility that over-censoring, especially in the case of trivial things like vulgar language, may do a disservice to the youth in that it tries to conceal from them the profanities of real life.

There are countless examples with which we can demonstrate the system’s erratic proclivities. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood was given an R rating by the MPAA in 2007 for “some violence.” But there is only one scene of recognizably harsh violence, and the action is mostly off-screen. The MPAA’s rating implies that viewers under 17 can’t morally comprehend the severity of that film’s off-screen death, but are mature enough to handle kids slaughtering one another for sport in 2012’s The Hunger Games, which received a PG-13 rating.

The real problem may lie not so much in the actual rating system itself, but in the isolationist and naive mentality that puts into power these structures that influence what we can show our children. This is the same mentality that has led our generation down a path of participation certificates and everybody’s-a-winner trophies, the mentality that has us as Americans adopting a subconscious disposition of self-importance and provincialism. With the digital age fully underway, and the innumerable amount of content available at any time with just a click, one must wonder whether organizations like the MPAA or T.V. Parental Guidelines are even worth the tiny corner spaces they take up on the screen and paper.

This is not to say that we should be exposing kids to graphic material like pornography, which is just as easy to find as any other media genre in this day and age. If a child is turned away from a movie like Superbad, he or she can quite simply find it online and illegally stream it, maybe even, along the way, finding more risqué content in the search results.

These ratings may aim to guard children from elements beyond their moral comprehension, as their proponents argue, but it has now become even more ineffective with the increasing scope and accessibility of media.

The task of censoring has become almost as impossible as our attempts at regulating the internet, as particularly movies, TV, and social media have all become intertwined online. And out of all the censorship targets defined by the parental advisory boards and the MPAA, cursing in particular seems to be the most unjustly and unusually sensitive issue. It is thus a perfect encapsulation of how our priorities on what is “vulgar” do a disservice to growing minds.

We must be honest and face the facts about modernity. It is, and will continually be, impossible to “censor” anything. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. There is nothing in mainstream cinema or TV that is as remotely profane or cerebrally damaging than the themes and messages deeply embedded in popular culture. The obsession of status, power, and appearances are as corrosive to the soul, if not more so, than anything the MPAA or parental advisory boards can put their fingers on.

That’s because there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the obscene. What is damaging to one child may be safe for another. It really comes down to the parents and the values they instill in their kids, as it always has. From these values, they will know how their children will react to certain content.

We shouldn’t completely abolish systems that attempt to guard young people from mentally-damaging material. It will be very interesting to see how censorship boards will adapt to the inevitably increasing exposure to new media. But it is more important, even vital, to encourage and teach the next generation to think and decide for themselves what is inappropriate or profane rather than giving it all the same label.