On Wednesday, Motion Picture Association of America president and former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd announced a change in the movie ratings system, but it's not the one that people have been asking for. In the wake of the shootings in Aurora and Newtown last year, some pundits, parents, and other concerned citizens have called for the MPAA to revise their ratings system so that films with any graphic violence would merit an R rating. The thinking: An R drastically reduces a film's box office gross (you have to go all the way to No. 72 on the top-grossing movies of all-time to find an R, The Passion of the Christ), so a revision of the ratings standards would create a natural incentive for studios to cut out the bloodshed.
But Dodd had a different kind of change in mind. Instead of tweaking the content standards, the MPAA will use bigger font to describe the adult content and criteria in a film that produced its rating.
They are calling it the "Check the Box" approach, and it's an awful idea. Not only will it do nothing to prevent gun violence, but it could lead to more children and teenagers seeing violent films because it highlights the elements that are most tantalizing—the adult content. It shouldn't be a surprise that the plan is ineffectual; the MPAA is funded by six major Hollywood studios, and it is their mission to promote the industry and ensure profits. It follows that the aim of the ratings system has never been to prevent anyone's admittance to a movie—only to, as Dodd put it Wednesday, "inform parents and allow them to make their own decisions, considering their children's sensibilities and unique sensitivities."
But that assumes that parents can and will control what movies their children will see, an increasingly dubious proposition in the Internet age. If anything, advertising that a movie has "grisly violence" or "strong sexual content" could make teenagers want to see it more. As a child, I remember scanning the content descriptions beneath cable movie listings to see whether any had enough adult content for it to be worth my while. The MPAA's new labels will not stop anyone from seeing movies with adult content; it will only save children the trouble of squinting.
As a child, I remember scanning the content descriptions beneath cable movie listings to see whether any had enough adult content for it to be worth my while. The MPAA's new labels will not stop anyone from seeing movies with adult content; it will only save children the trouble of squinting.
Historically, movie studios only make serious moves towards self-regulation when Congress forces them to, and in in many ways, this latest cosmetic tweak is a proportionate response. President Obama has done little to make good on his promise to include violence in the media as part of the post-Newtown discussion. His comprehensive gun violence package, the centerpiece of which failed in the Senate on Wednesday, included only a $10 million allocation to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the link between video games, television, and movies, and real-life violence. This is the definition of token, especially since numerous studies already exist on this topic. Congress has done even less. Senator Patrick Leahy, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised to bring studio executives to Washington for hearings on violence in the media. But so far, Leahy has not called a single witness from the Hollywood community to testify, a fact that makes it hard to forget he has close ties to the industry (his two biggest campaign contributors are Disney and Time Warner, and he has even appeared in several Batman movies).