by Doctor Science
This Film Is Not Yet Rated does a great job of exposing many of the deep problems with the movie industry's MPAA ratings, but I think it overlooks a big one. It seems to me that the movie ratings board hands out R and NC-17 ratings based on two general factors: how much they dislike the violence, and how much they like the sex. Just as pornography has been defined as "what turns the Supreme Court on", NC-17 is defined in practice as "what turns the Ratings Board on".
Cut for a major work in the canon of Western art, may be NSFW in parts of the US.
I'm posting about this now because the following quote has been going around on the tumblrs the past week or so:
America treats sex, not violence, as the biggest threat to families and the nation, starting with Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings bestowing action flicks that brutalize half-naked nymphets a PG-13, but anything suggesting female pleasure the deathly NC-17, as happened with the marital cunnilingus scene between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine.Similar points were made last year, when Sucker Punch had to be edited to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R. Emily Browning, who was the lead, said
I had a very tame and mild love scene with Jon Hamm. It was like heavy breathing and making out. It was hardly a sex scene... I think that it's great for this young girl to actually take control of her own sexuality. Well, the MPAA doesn't like that. They don't think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality because they're from the Stone Age.In other words, a soft-core love scene got an R rating, but when they cut it to look more like rape they got PG-13.
I don't know what the f**k is going on and I will openly criticize it, happily. So essentially, they got [director] Zack [Snyder] to edit the scene and make it look less like she's into it. And Zack said he edited it down to the point where it looked like he was taking advantage of her. That's the only way he could get a PG-13 (rating) and he said, 'I don't want to send that message.' So they cut the scene!
Frankly, this makes no sense. From the movie-maker's POV, where the R rating is hurtful and restricts the audience, they are being punished for showing a more loving, less rapey relationship. I don't actually think that's the MPAA's intention.
I started thinking about the ratings issue from the perspective of a fanfiction reader. As you probably have heard, a majority of fanfic involves romance and/or sex. Most fanfic is read and written by women, and despite the conventional wisdom that women "don't like porn", it's usually the case that, all other things being equal, more sexually-explicit fanfic is the most popular. This has been known ever since the late 90s at latest, when writers started putting hit counters up on their websites and saw that stories labeled "NC-17" consistently got the most hits. Women definitely *do* like porn, as long as it's the kind of porn they like.
In fanfictionland, then, "NC-17" is not at all the kiss of death it is for movies -- on the contrary, it tends to pull readers rather than otherwise. NC-17, MA, Explicit are all marks of the good stuff, not marks of shame. People still like and read plenty of things that are equivalent to G or PG movies, but there is no shred of community disapproval (and plenty of cheers of approval) for extremely sexually explicit material, at least if it's marked clearly enough that Net-Nanny-type programs can keep the kiddies out if their parents think that will work.
What I suspect happened with the scene that was cut from "Sucker Punch" was that it was pretty sexy and arousing. I think there's real good news in the fact that "a woman being turned on by consensual sex" is rated as *extremely* sexy, that it's pretty much the gold standard of sexy.
It should be a cause for general rejoicing that rape (or what in fanficdom we call "dub-con", dubious consent) scenes are experienced as generally *less* arousing than sex scenes with enthusiastic consent. The trouble comes in because ratings aren't just estimates of sexiness, they're -- in practice -- statements about acceptability, about what is appropriate to film.
So enthusiastic consent, because it's sexier, gets a higher rating (and lower acceptability) than rape, because rape can what happens when an enthusiastic-consent scene gets edited to be unsexy. I get the feeling it's some kind of corollary of Gresham's Law, or something, where the unsexy drives out the sexy, until it seems as though it's more acceptable to show rape than happy sex.
In fanfictiondom we have warnings, as well as (or instead of) MPAA-like ratings. At The Archive of Our Own, for instance, there are standard warnings an author can choose for their story:
- Graphic Depictions Of Violence
- Major Character Death
- Rape/Non-Con[sensual sex]
- Underage [sex]
So, I think the split personality of the MPAA ratings, and especially the way they often seem to "approve" of violence more than sex, is at least in part due to them trying to combine the functions of "ratings" and "warnings". They need to recognize that the conflict is producing a fairly disgusting unintended consequence: that rape appears to be "more acceptable" than consensual sex.
The easiest way around this, given the current structure of the ratings system and its place in Hollywood, would be for the raters to make a conscious, explicit agreement to rate less-arousing nonconsensual sex scenes harder than more-arousing consensual sex scenes. To factor *out* how much it turns them on, basically. That means that the raters would have to think about and discuss sex possibly more than they are comfortable with, because it takes conscious work to filter out one's gut feelings.
I don't know if that would do a good enough job, given the massive inconsistencies and illogic in the ratings system. I just looked at FilmRatings.com's Twitter feed, for instance, and the most recent three tweets were:
On what planet are "some language", "brief sexuality, nudity and some language", and "bloody violence, strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use" on the same level? If these movies were fanfic at the AO3 they might all be rated "Mature", but "Kiss of the Damned" would also have at least one archive warning, for Graphic Depictions Of Violence, and probably Rape/Non-con, too -- though since movie-makers and reviewers don't take rape seriously, at least by the standards of fandom, I can't clearly tell from reviews how much of an element it is in this movie.
 or was -- the MPAA cracked down on us about 5-10 years ago, and said no-one else can use the G/PG/PG-13/R/NC-17 system. Many people (including fanfiction.net) use the fictionrations.com system, which draws its lines slightly differently from MPAA. As The Archive of Our Own becomes more of a default, more people are using their General Audiences/Teen And Up Audiences/Mature/Explicit system -- if you can even call it a system, it's barely a set of guidelines.