The PG-13 Fuck

March 16, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

There was a time when I used this space for occasional rants against the MPAA. It was all repetitive venting, of course, since what I wrote carried no more weight than the angry words of anyone not directly associated with the secretive group of men and women who assign ratings. But I couldn't stop myself. After reviewing Kirby Dick's documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated and interviewing Dick over lunch, I went on a crusade. Eventually, however, I did what many crusaders do when they lose their head of steam and gave up. Besides, I reasoned, it didn't matter much to me. I'm over 17. I can see any movie I want, irrespective of the rating.

Here I go again...

Of course, thinking that my age renders the MPAA irrelevant is foolish. There are many reasons to dislike the ratings system but the biggest danger is the de facto censorship. Movies are frequently cut and manipulated to achieve a particular rating, with NC-17 productions often watered down to achieve an R, and R material being neutered to meet PG-13 "standards" (whatever they may be). This happens more often than we would like to believe. Some directors don't care, but some anguish over the decisions forced upon them by the realities of a commercial marketplace where PG-13 can sell millions more tickets than R.

Sometimes, I'm amazed with what directors can get away with in a PG-13 movie. When it comes to violence, the line between PG-13 and R has changed substantially in the nearly three decades since PG-13 entered the American movie-goer's lexicon. When it comes to sex and nudity, it has tiptoed in the opposite direction. In the early '80s, prior to PG-13, bare breasts could occasionally be glimpsed in PG movies. Nowadays, one has to be James Cameron filming Kate Winslet in order for a nipple to make an appearance in anything with less than an R. Now is not the time for another lengthy diatribe about American prudishness, but I'll get around to it at some point.

It's the profanity rule that I have never been able to understand. We all know it: one "fuck" is okay for a PG-13. In rare circumstances, a respected director might be able to sneak in a second one. Three or more makes it an R. The people doling out ratings never apply intelligence or judgment to this rule of thumb - they follow it like scripture. That's what has happened with Bully - too many fucks. When the MPAA attempted to explain the reasoning, they came across like out-of-touch idiots. The only thing that has (thus far) prevented them from reversing their decision is misplaced pride.

I suppose some people are offended by the word "fuck." I'm not sure who they are, but they must exist. But the idea that children under the age of 17 need to be protected from hearing the word more than once or twice is ludicrous. What kind of a bubble do they think our kids are living in? When I was young, people would gasp if someone said "fuck." Today, no one bats an eyelash. The world has changed, but the MPAA thinks it's 1970.

Truth be told, I don't want my two-year old son being exposed to profanity at his young age. If someone curses in his hearing, I give them a nasty look. Ideally, I'd like to keep him away from "bad words" for another few years. The reason is simple: I want him to develop his vocabulary and be able to vocalize feelings and emotions without resorting to damns, shits, and fucks. It's not because I'm offended by the thought of him cursing - he will eventually - but overuse of profanity is lazy. I recognize that when he starts going to school, he's going to be exposed to the words that scare the MPAA.

Based on the ratings' criteria, high school is R-rated. Every teenager hears more than two fucks every day. So why should this be a gating criteria for them being allowed into a movie without Mommy or Daddy by their sides? What self-respecting 15-year old is going to be seen with a parent in a theater? They'll sneak in or pirate it. Both are equally viable options. So, in the interest of "protecting" children from bad words, the MPAA is encouraging subterfuge and copyright infringement. Way to go!

The last time I wrote about this issue, I received an e-mail from a man claiming to be affiliated with the MPAA. I can't verify his legitimacy, but I can't imagine anyone making such a claim if it wasn't true. He explained: "The MPAA is well aware that children under the age of 17 hear profanity in classrooms and hallways. That isn't what [the one-fuck rule] is about. The movie industry wants to be responsive to parents' concerns and does not want to be seen as encouraging or condoning profanity." On the surface, this might make some kind of twisted sense in a fantasy world where children only did things they parents approved of, but there is a serious logical fallacy in the argument. How many PG-13 movies feature violent behavior? Live Free or Die Hard, anyone? So the MPAA condones bloody mayhem and murder but has a problem with profanity? Huh?

The obvious fix is to do away with the ratings system altogether. Not only would such an admittedly radical move eliminate the ugly specter of censorship from the motion picture industry but it would wipe away the hypocrisy associated with patrolling who sees what. Or, as a compromise, there could be two categories - General and Adult. The latter would be reserved for movies with extreme violence, gore, graphic sex, etc. - things no kid should be seeing - and would be restricted to those 18 and older. But G/PG/PG-13/R would all be combined into "General." Yes, that means a 12-year old boy could see boobies. If he's interested, you think he hasn't already?

I'm all in favor of parents at least being informed of the content of what their children are seeing. I applaud the MPAA's decision to provide "descriptive content" comments. Get rid of the ratings, but keep these. Give each film a label saying something like: "This movie contains occasional profanity, some nudity, and graphic violence." Under the current system, that movie would get an R. So a 14-year old wanting to see it would buy a ticket to a PG-13 movie, locate the theater showing his R-rated choice, and go there.

Too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities to the MPAA. They don't want their kids seeing naked women, so they rely on the R to act as a shield. In a system without ratings, parents would have to pay more attention. That doesn't mean the kid still won't see something inappropriate - teenagers have been lying to their parents since long before there were moving pictures - but at least it puts the responsibility back where it belongs.

The best thing about the Bully controversy is that it has shined a light on how outdated and inflexible the MPAA is. It would amount to a small victory to have the R overturned as a result of public disapproval, but until something is done to fix the broken system, this kind of thing will recur.

Note: The above column has been rated R for profanity. It contains too many fucks. If you're under 17 and reading this without a parent or guardian sitting next to you, shame on you! And when you go to school tomorrow, be sure to wear earplugs. You might not be able to hear your teachers but at least your virgin ears will be protected.