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.
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).
The idea that movie violence and real-life violence are linked is, to say the least, controversial. But it's a link that polls have shown much of the public holds. And interestingly, even many people in the industry seem like they are up for discussing it. After the shooting in Aurora, influential producer Harvey Weinstein called for an industry-wide summit to discuss the effect movie violence may have on real-life bloodshed. Just a day after the tragedy in Newtown, Jamie Foxx said that Hollywood cannot say that "violence in films...doesn't have a sort of influence." This is noteworthy because both Weinstein and Foxx are closely linked with writer/director Quentin Tarantino, who has exploited movie violence with more glee—and more success—than any filmmaker working today. Further, the trade paper Variety issued in January a substantive special report on the issue of violence in the media, featuring multiple viewpoints on the issue and artful collages of still photographs from famous violent movies juxtaposed with gruesome real-life violence. In the issue's introduction, editor-in-chief Timothy M. Gray urged filmmakers to "think about every word and action and whether they devalue human life" and noted that there is "a fine line between catering to the public and pandering to their basest instincts."
This is what we call a preemptive strike. Hollywood is very sensitive to the need to self-censor as a means of avoiding public backlash and government regulation, and it is in its best interest to show that it takes its responsibility seriously. Would Congress ever actually try to censor the movies? It happened once before. In the 1920s, Hollywood was under heavy scrutiny for its culture of immorality, crystallized in the minds of the public by the heavily publicized trial of silent-film actor Fatty Arbuckle for manslaughter. In response to the outcry, legislators in 37 states introduced more than 100 bills to set up state film censorship boards. Hollywood was getting nervous, so the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America hired William Hays, a former postmaster general, and paid him $100,000 per year to create and implement the Production Code, a list of subjects that studios were urged to avoid. The list consisted of items labeled either "Don't" or "Be Careful," with the former applying to subjects that should be avoided at all costs (profanity, childbirth, miscegenation) and the latter to those that could be depicted but only in a sensitive and careful fashion (the use of the flag, sympathy for criminals, sedition). The list gets pretty weird and is worth a full look.
Of course, the important difference between then and now is that film was not recognized as a protected as a form of free speech in the 1920s. It was not until 1951 that censorship of films was officially ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Still, it might only take some difficult questions by Congress to inspire the MPAA to make a more substantive change. At the very least, Leahy should follow through on his promise and bring people like Harvey Weinstein to testify before his committee. Should Congress ever get serious about the role of Hollywood in inspiring gun violence, the MPAA might get out in front and implement real reforms. For now, though, we have the MPAA's tepid solution that may do more harm than good.