The Great Courses

Morality and the MPAA

Jan 14, 2014 at 9:55 AM
4 years ago

I saw an eye-opening documentary on Netflix recently called "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which (finally!) asked the question: Who are those anonymous and unaccountable censors at the Motion Picture Association of America?

Well, according to the findings of a tenacious private investigator, they're largely religious, and the MPAA appeals board includes 2 members of the clergy. {Sigh.}

So essentially, we have a dozen unaccountable mystery men/women potentially basing a film's rating and release options on a religious definition of morality.

film ratings

It was also interesting to note how often hard violence earned the "R" and nudity/sex required re-edits to avoid the dreaded "NC-17." A chainsaw in the mouth is fine. A same-sex couple making love for too many on-screen seconds requires MPAA intervention.

I also found myself wondering if the more puritan elements within the MPAA secretly enjoyed "previewing" films loaded with the very "perversions" they're required to lambaste at Sunday church.


It has often been said that "obscenity" is one of the most ill-defined terms in terms of culture, and in terms of law, as it bends wildly based on the subjective interpretations of individuals. One person's grotesque display of bare skin is another's artistic celebration of the human experience. What one parent deems unacceptable for any person to view (both minor and adult), another parent sees as a healthy reflection of the real world.

I have no children (a couple of soon-to-be stepchildren, though), and having emerged from the insular cocoon of Christianity into the larger "real" world, I wonder how I'd approach the issue. Would I do what my parents did whenever skin appeared on screen, squirming uncomfortably and blurting, "Don't look!" Would I blanch when a protagonist yelled "goddammit" during a tense sequence?

I'll spare you the suspense. The answer is no. In fact, the knee-jerk protests of my theologian parents actually created a "forbidden fruit" atmosphere, making me even more interested in what lay behind the curtain. The more restricted it was, the more intriguing it became. And almost every teenager knows how to circumvent the system.

family guy nude

But I also don't think that young minds should have unrestricted and unsupervised access to material that they might not be mature enough to process. So how would I decide how much film-related violence, sexuality and language was "acceptable" for a 9-year-old? And would the stamps of censorship by the MPAA and/or the FCC (Federal Communicatons Commission) have helped or hindered in this matter?

And one last thing. Does anyone else think that the clumsy television overdubs of obvious swear words actually draw MORE attention to the profanity? When Die Hard 2's John McClane says, "Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon," who (including youngsters) doesn't know what he actually said in the original film version?

My favorite example of laughable TV censorship is Samuel L. Jackson's now-famous line in "Snakes On A Plane." (Actually, the bad overdubs finally made the film watchable, but I digress.)

How do you approach the introduction to violence, sexuality and "adult" language to the young and impressionable eyes/ears/minds in your own life, especially as your views aren't bound by holy books and pulpit preachers? (I may have to ask Darrel Ray about all of this when he does the January 28th podcast with me.)

One thing I do know.  I'd like any media ratings board to be diverse enough to reflect the whole of a population and not just the Jerry Falwell crowd, I think there should be more than a dozen seats at the table, and I think the identities of America's morality police should be public information.

And get the {CENSORED} clergy off of the payroll!

-Seth Andrews

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