The Big Picture

  • The MPAA film rating system, especially the NC-17 rating, can significantly impact the commercial success of a film’s theatrical release, often favoring studio productions over international or independent films.
  • The MPAA’s rating system is outdated and reflects puritanical perspectives, penalizing movies with sexual content while letting graphic violence slide.
  • The MPAA’s contradictory perspectives are evident in how they rate movies, allowing adult-themed studio-backed films with an R-rating to be successful while harshly rating art films and those depicting queer sexuality with the NC-17 rating. It may be time for the MPAA’s decision-making to be re-evaluated to better connect with contemporary movie audiences and their evolving sensibilities.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system was introduced in the United States nearly 60 years ago, with very few alterations since its conception. From G to NC-17, the MPAA’s rating can seriously impact the commercial viability of any film’s theatrical release in the country, typically favoring studio productions and dissing international or independent ones, using contradictory ordinances to decide a movie’s rating fate. While the NC-17 rating is rarely used, two films in 2023 have been seriously affected by the rating, which only permits “legal adults” to see them. In the early months of the year, Brandon Cronenberg‘s psychedelic social commentary Infinity Pool was initially rated NC-17 before being re-edited to receive an R rating (later made available in an uncut version by supportive distributors, Neon). Most recently, director Ira Sachs was very vocal about his latest work, Passages, receiving the “adult only” rating and the MPAA’s outdated perspectives that borderline cultural censorship. In a world that has drastically developed since the MPAA introduced its rating system and the evolution of streaming services placing nearly every movie at the tips of our fingers, is it time to finally get rid of the often damning NC-17 rating?

How Did the MPAA’s Rating System Come To Be?

Matt Dillon and Janet Jones in The Flamingo Kid
Image via 20th Century Studios

The MPAA film rating system we know today was born out of the desertion of the Hays Code in late 1968, designed to create a classification system that would aid parents in determining whether a movie was suitable for their children. A branch of the MPAA called the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) determines the rating awarded to a film, with a noteworthy requirement for CARA committee members to be parents with young children. While there is no legal obligation for filmmakers to have their work rated, the lack of a rating can often lead to marketing and distribution complications, ultimately impacting a movie’s US box office earnings.

RELATED: ‘Passages’ Review: Franz Rogowski Stars in Love Triangle Tale of Selfishness and Ego

Since its inception, the rating system has undergone minor changes in its rating names and classifications. Once known as “M” and later “GP,” the PG rating entered the picture in the mid-1970s, and PG-13 was only created in 1984, the first movie receiving it being Garry Marshall’s The Flamingo Kid. The NC-17 rating was renamed in 1990 –– which had been known as the X rating since 1968 –– but was decidedly too associated with the branding of pornography from the decades before. While the MPAA’s rating system has had some switch-ups in the names for its classifications, the evolution of the system has largely stopped there, meaning that movies are still judged and rated based on unfairly outdated sensibilities and standards.

The MPAA’s Contradictory Perspectives on the NC-17 Rating

James McAvoy in Split
Image via Universal Pictures

While the MPAA only gives a few movies the NC-17 rating each year, it can be perplexing to understand the methodology behind their decision-making in many cases. Contrary to popular belief, the CARA uses no uniform standards, so contradictions are made in the process, and movies are rated on a case-by-case basis. For example, some movies can get away with strong or offensive language, while others are penalized. Many films can get away with flashes of nudity or sexual content, while others are slammed for it, largely dependent on the context of a film’s themes and messaging. The MPAA puts a massive emphasis on sexual content and tends to let graphic violence slide (Poltergeist, Split, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), so most frequently, movies that feature sex as a significant part of their narrative are the ones that will receive the NC-17 rating. This penalization of sexual content often reflects the puritanical perspectives of the MPAA’s rating system.

Spanish icon Pedro Almodóvar has been a staple auteur for many decades, with his filmmaking style revered by audiences worldwide. Yet, many of his works are blasted with the NC-17 rating when it comes time for their theatrical debuts in the United States. Almodóvar has always been hailed for the passion and sensuality in his work, never seen as an exploitative or gratuitous perspective. Still, it can be assumed that the MPAA is harsh on rating his films due to the elements of gay and queer desire that run through much of the director’s filmography. Law of Desire and Bad Education are two of Almodóvar’s NC-17-rated films that have been questioned over time. Other examples of films that have been deemed NC-17 for representations of queer sexuality have been Bent (1997) and Mysterious Skin (2004). In a country where it can be challenging to find commercial audiences for subtitled movies, the NC-17 rating often seriously damages a film’s box-office revenue.

Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad

Unlike Almodóvar’s art films, many studio-backed movies with adult themes and content can just slide by with just an R-rating. For example, Universal Studio’s American Pie (1999) and Sony’s Superbad (2007) made over a staggering $200 million each with their MPAA-approved R-ratings. While these movies are respected as teen classics to many, this does not take away from their emphasis on crass humor, sexual content, and strong language, all revolving around high school characters, many of whom would not be able to see these movies in theaters if they were real-life figures, due to being underaged. The contradictory perspectives of the MPAA are pretty obvious with both of these films, which seemingly chose their ratings since the movies focus on teenage characters, regardless of the over-sexed themes that they center around. So, according to the MPAA, underage youths can handle content revolving around actors portraying their age but should not be influenced by the more adult themes of such films as the NC-17-rated Passages. Make it make sense.

In modern-day America, does the MPAA even hold power in the decision-making over what those 17 and under are watching? In a world that offers so many choices of what to watch through streaming, does the MPAA’s rating system carry influence outside the ID checks done by box office employees? It may be time for the MPAA’s decision-making to be re-evaluated to stay more connected to contemporary movie audiences and their evolving sensibilities. After all, cinema is just an artistic expression meant to challenge our perspectives and help us grow, particularly when it comes to the often demanding work that tends to be sidelined with the NC-17 rating. If the MPAA reconceptualized its perspectives, it may lead to higher success for movies and grow their viewership, strengthening the power of cinema during a time when it needs it the most.

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By mrtrv

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