WTF MPAA?

Two upcoming films recently received their official ratings from the MPAA. So, I have a question for you. Which of the following descriptions given by the MPAA was rated NC-17? 1. Some explicit sexual content. 2. Crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens. If you guessed number two you are wrong.

If you’re serious about film you’ve probably heard about Steve McQueen’s new film about sex addiction. Shame has been receiving rave reviews on the festival circuit. Its’ lead actor, Michael Fassbender (my favorite actor working today), received the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival this past September. Ever since its’ premiere, the most talked about aspect of the film has been its’ realistic, unflinching depiction of sex addiction and what rating it will receive. Everyone’s assumption was that it would receive an NC-17 rating. As you can tell (by the huge writing in this trailer) that’s exactly what it received. But is it warranted?

According to the MPAA:

An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.The rating means no kid under 17 or under can see the film.

Based on that description I would have said, yes, Shame should be NC-17. The film is meant for adults. However, many people fear this would prevent the film from being released because the NC-17 rating is very stigmatized. A lot of theaters refuse to screen films with that rating. This is because the rating is still associated with the X-rating or even considered pornography.

Over a decade ago Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 and he decided to release the film Unrated. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’ve seen or at least heard of Requiem for a Dream, but did you see it in theaters? Even though most people have seen Requiem for a Dream it made practically no money at the box office because it couldn’t be advertised the way a normal film would, let alone a normal independent film.

Even though he had just made an independent cult classic, Aronofsky spent the next 6 years trying to get films funded. That’s six years out his filmmaking career. Do you know what he made the next 6 years? The Fountain (underrated science fiction excellence, Grade: A), The Wrestler (Golden Lion winning film at Venice that reestablished him as one of the best working directors today. Grade: A+) and Black Swan (the critical and box office hit that allows him to do whatever he wants even though he should have had this privilege years ago. Grade: A+). We should have at least two more films by Darren Aronofsky.

Back to Shame. I was worried something similar would happen to Shame. I thought I might not get to see my most anticipated film of the year until sometime next year on DVD, but something very unexpected happened. Fox Searchlight bought Shame. Initially I figured they’d try to force Steve McQueen to recut the film to receive an R rating (even though everyone knew he’d refuse). Typically, Fox Searchlight release kind of safe “independent” films (films that have an interesting mix of mainstream and independent aesthetics or straight up studio films pretending to be independent. You know, The [500] Days of Summer of the world – they want to make money after all). But they’ve been making riskier decisions lately (Never Let Me Go, Black Swan, The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, now Shame). It almost feels like it’s all been leading to this. Fox Searchlight has decided to embrace Shame’s NC-17 rating.

I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner. The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer. (Steve Gilula)

I’m so proud of Fox Searchlight for doing this. It’s something that should have been done a long time ago. I believe de-stigmatizing the NC-17 rating will lead to more powerful, real films. Honestly, someday I want to make films that may or may not have been NC-17. If that’s no longer a big deal, myself and other much more talented filmmakers will be able to allow their films to go wherever the story should without second guessing. So at the beginning of the day I was perfectly fine with Shame’s NC-17 rating. Then I saw the trailer for Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover) new movie, Project X.

This trailer is for the second film in my first paragraph. To recap: Project X is rated R for Crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens. Seriously? This gets an R rating but Shame could never possiblly get an R rating? The comparison of these two films is just one of the many examples of the MPAA’s hypocrisy. Let’s start by breaking down the trailer.

First 25 seconds are of a kid talking into his camera, revealing this is a found footage comedy? (Semi interesting).

0:28: this movie is a celebration of bad high school behavior! Yay.

0:30: “Tonight’s about having sex with those evil women who aren’t attracted to us (I’m paraphrasing).” Sexy dancing from a high school “girl”- although the actresses are obviously women (I try to always refer to females over 18 as women, not “girls”,  because they are women and the term “girl” is used to take away their power.)

0:31: Woman licking a guy’s neck.

0:35: Two women grinding on each other.

0:37: One woman licking another woman’s nose.

0:38: Sexy dance by a new woman.

0:43: Woman sucking a lollipop.

0:47: Woman seductively getting out of a pool in a sexy black bikini.

0:48: Same woman being thrown into a pool by a guy.

1:00: Idolized blonde woman grinding some guy.

1:01: Woman in her underwear about to have sex.

1:02: Some guy using a leaf blower to blow some woman’s skirt up, revealing her underwear (because it’s so funny to have your butt shown to a whole party).

1:03: Woman making out with some guy.

So… there about 40 seconds in this trailer that feature women. In those 40 seconds women are never treated as people, merely sexual objects. And they are treated as sexual objects 13 times (or every 3 seconds). Can we stop and think about how this influences teenage boys? Maybe you don’t want to admit it, but sexism is alive and well. Currently, a woman makes about $0.75 for every $1.00 a man makes. Movies and other forms of media continue telling young men, “You are better. You deserve any woman you want. If they won’t give it to you they’re a prude, a bitch. And if they do give it to you, well, then they’re a slut. You see, it’s a lose-lose situation for them. Take advantage of it. We have. And look how much money we earned, by ourselves of course.

Apparently it’s perfectly okay for kids to see a movie that completely glorifies the sexual exploitation of women, but they can’t see the film that’s actually critiquing the effects a hyper-sexualized society has on people. If Project X had come out a couple of years ago I bet this would have been one of the films that inspired Steve McQueen to make Shame. And that’s why this film is so important. It’s holding a mirror up to our society and forcing us to see how fucked up we are. Project X perpetuates the status quo while Shame challenges it. This is why Project X passes by with a R rating and Shame receives an NC-17 rating, and why I am now outraged by the rating. It truly is a form of censorship.

So now what? Go see Shame. Tell everyone you know that cares about real films, our society, politics, life, anything to go see it. Make Shame a financial and critical success. Help de-stigmatize the NC-17 rating. Realize we live in a patriarchal society and find some way to stand up to it every day.

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About Sean Temple

Filmmaker, Progressive, Feminist, Emerson MFA Student, Director of HUNT. I use film to critique our society and reveal the struggles real people deal with every day. View all posts by Sean Temple

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