1968-75: How 'X-Rated' Became Synonymous With 'Porn'

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by Tony Comstock

Where moviemaking is concerned, the word, "adult" has fallen on rather hard times, having become code for works that are sexually garish, possibly exploitative, and amateurish in execution. But it wasn't always that way.

Before going any further, it will probably help if you look through the photo gallery below. It has movie poster artwork for films starting with The Outlaw (1943) and ending with my own Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story (released 2003, rated in 2007). In between there are films that are more or less famous, made by filmmakers who are more or less famous, and with a variety of hopes as to how they would affect their audience. But what every single one of these films has in common, is that they were made with the intention that they be viewed exclusively by adults.


The Outlaw might be campy, but it was made to the highest production standards of the day, and played in movie palaces across the country. Duel in the Sun is unarguably lurid, but it was produced by David O. Selznick, a follow-up to his triumph Gone With the Wind; something akin to James Cameron following up Titanic by producing an "adult film."

Does something feel dissonant there? If David O. Selznick produced Duel in the Sun as an adults-only film, why does the idea of James Cameron producing an "adult film" seem preposterous? How did we get to the point where "adult film" became code for prurient, puerile depictions of sex?

When the MPAA introduced the X-rating in 1968, there was no conception of it having a pejorative meaning. In fact, if you refer back to the movie poster for Starlet! (slide #6), a film released the same year the MPAA's four-tiered system was introduced, you can see that the producers actually reject the X-rating, substituting their own "XXX" in a faux MPAA-style ratings box, along with the tag line, "So adult one X isn't enough!"

The implication is clear. At this point in time the X-rating is understood to simply denote Adults Only, with no suggestion that the content of a movie carrying that rating will be especially titillating or explicit.

The producers of Starlet! leverage the market's understanding of what the X rating means by describing their own offering as XXX, borrowed from the old practice of using X, XX, or XXX to denote the strength of beer. (Leave it to the Aussies to give us XXXX beer!)

The following year sees the release of Midnight Cowboy with an X-rating. The film is nominated for six Academy Awards and wins three, including Best Picture. In fact, it has been suggested that out of concern over the impact of the depictions of drug use and sexual content in the film on children, United Artists studio boss Arthur Krim self-applied the X-rating to Midnight Cowboy over and above the R-rating the MPAA planned to give it; and this is supported by the fact that the MPAA granted an R-rating to the film, without cuts, only one year later.

During this time it's still relatively easy to find "sexploitation" films that are avoiding any reference to the X-rating at all. Midnight Cowboy maybe be frank, award-winning even, but it's hardly titillating. Sexploitation producers often favored a simple "Adults Only" on their posters with artwork that make the content of the film obvious.

Whatever forces and pressures caused United Artists to take Midnight Cowboy back to the MPAA for the restoration of its R-rating in 1970, it's not enough to dissuade Stanley Kurbrick and company from accepting the adults-only rating for their own work. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange is released with an X-rating, and goes on to receive four Oscar nominations.

I don't mean to suggest that the meaning of X isn't already becoming compromised. Take another look at the POV shot for the sandwich board for the fictional X-rated Cycle Sluts 35 seconds into the clip from Owl and the Pussycat (1970) posted yesterday.

1971 will also see the release of Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, with the provocative tag line "Rated X by an all-white jury." This is by far the most cunning use of the X-rating, playing off its increasingly dubious status as a defiant badge of honor, and generating hype around the film.

It's also not true. The MPAA never gave Sweet Sweetback an X-rating. The X was self-applied, with the provocative headline placed inside a faux-ratings box. And for a time, the provocation worked. But in 1974, caving to the same pressures that were causing other producers to abandon the X-rating, the producers of Sweet Sweetback submitted the film to the MPAA, where it received an R.

There's something important to take note of here. Whether it was the pre-1968 Production Code, or the MPAA's lettered content advisory system, participation in this system has always been voluntary. Prior to 1968, foreign films, independent films, and even some MPAA member studio films were released without an MPAA seal. Unlike other countries, the U.S. has never had a government-mandated, government-run, prior restraint-based ratings system.

This is something of a bug in my butt. I've released my erotic documentaries with and without an MPAA rating. Currently, Marie and Jack (NC-17) is our best selling title. And although our films have faced local difficulty due to the vague definition of obscenity/pornography, we've never had anywhere near the problems in the U.S. that we've had in countries that have mandatory, government-run systems. Now back to our story!

1972 saw sexploitation filmmakers both running away from and towards the X-rating. Zorro touts itself as "The first movie ever rated Z!"--an open gown making sure there's no misunderstanding about what that means! At the same time, Deep Throat and the The Devil in Miss Jones employ positively demure poster art and self-apply the same X logotype as Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange. Go and take another look at the poster for The Devil in Miss Jones (#11). Positive reviews from New York magazine, Newsweek, Playboy, and Variety! Welcome to porno chic!

Time for a dose of reality in the form of Climax Ecology:

Deep Throat was produced for a reported $25,000. A Clockwork Orange had a budget on the order of $2.2 million. In 1973, when A Clockwork Orange was resubmitted to the MPAA, the amount of material removed to garner an R-rating could be measured in seconds. Were Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones to be similarly reduced, the remainder would be a very short film, and not noteworthy in any way. For all the excitement about "Porno Chic", the most celebrated films of the era are at their core, cheaply produced, sexually explicit "actualities" padded by not very engaging low budget films.

And these actualities suffer from the problems that actualities have always suffered from. Once the novelty wears off, unless you have a particular interest in the subject matter, they're boring.

What this means, is that for every Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones there are dozens of less notable films. For the most part, any sort of plot, or pretense of narrative is merely employed prophylactically against the threat of obscenity prosecution.

1973 will see Hollywood's last attempt at an X-rated film. The dour and downbeat Last Tango in Paris will observe all the literary conventions for the exploration of sexuality to be taken seriously, i.e. "Whilst in many places somewhat emetic, nowhere is it aphrodisiac." (See also: US v Ulysses)

After 1973 various independent attempts are made to rehabilitate the meaning of X-rated. Emmanuelle (1974) features the tag line "X was never like this." Mannequin (1974) tries "X has finally come of age." The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) tries an "X" inscribed in a "Q", with the tag: "A quality adult film."

But it's too little too late. No one wants the X-rating. Not Hollywood, not art film producers, not sexploitation producers, not newspapers or theater landlords. Slide #16 is a copy of the poster for Mannequin ("X has finally come of age") where all instances of the letter X have been inked out by hand.

Conversely, wherever the screening of sexually explicit films is tolerated, producers have to make it clear they're going to deliver the goods. Debbie Does Dallas (1978) has a tame poster, but the XXX mark at the bottom promises the film won't be.

Then, almost as if to show they are closing the book on this chapter, Hollywood releases Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and Cruising (1980). Both are emotionally brutal, visually coy, and rated R. The most adult themes, neutered.



Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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