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The Ineffectiveness Of The Film Ratings System

2558 words - 11 pages

John Small, a fourteen year old boy in Uptown St. Paul, proceeds into the Suburban World Cinema, anxious to see Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. He is equipped with a parental note, replete with the phone number where his parents can be reached to verify that they did indeed author the note should its authenticity be questioned. John pushes seven crumpled-up dollar bills and the folded note into the metal dugout under the box office window, only to be met with a tinny, disinterested voice booming through the round silver speaker mounted on the window: "No children under seventeen allowed! Sorry. This note isn't gonna cut it."

The incident exemplifies a pressing issue in the ever-topical ...view middle of the document...

For films with the controversial NC-17 rating, the theatre is prevented from letting young John Small and his under-aged ilk from seeing a film despite his parents' permission. In fact, had John actually been accompanied by his parents, the theatre would have had every right -- some would even say responsibility -- to refuse his admission. The printing of the NC-17 rating often does not read -- as would be reasonable -- "Intended for Adults Only" but rather the more rigid "Not to be Attended by Children Under Seventeen."

The NC-17 rating -- the current classification for films containing "adult" content and themes -- was invented to assuage the difficulties that became epidemic since the adult film industry discovered that the ratings board had never patented the X rating and made the "X" synonymous in the common American lexicon with hard-core depictions of sex. As critic Richard Corliss explains, "The idea was to remove the stigma of pornography that the X rating bore and allow serious filmmakers to explore provocative styles without worrying that the parents of a 14-year-old might be offended" (64). NC-17 was supposed to assist parental decision-making. But the entry-prohibiting power of NC-17 places the decision in the hands of the theatre owner, not the parent or guardian. Far from advisory, the NC-17 rating is regulatory.

The regulatory nature of the NC-17 could be argued to assist parents by giving a supportive voice to their disapproval (assuming they disapprove their child's seeing the film, of course). But the system itself is inconsistent. Other ratings -- G and PG, particularly -- are not regulatory. Suppose John Small were the progeny of parents who believe that all profanity and depictions of sex and violence, however "tame," are unconscionable. They would forbid John from seeing PG and PG-13 films. But, as he is fourteen years old, John would not be turned away from the box office, even without a note. In the case of NC-17 films, the cashier is expected to act in loco parentis, no matter what the parents' actual wishes may be. In the cases of other ratings, parental wishes are not even consulted. In the first instance, a parental decision that a child is mature enough to see Bad Lieutenant is overruled; in the latter, the parents' desire to keep their fourteen year old from seeing a PG-13 film is inconsequential. The subjectivity of any rating system in a creative industry calls this inconsistency of implementation and authority into question. And who is making these powerful ratings decisions? The ratings board consists of twelve members chosen by Valenti and the board's chair (also chosen by Valenti) to serve voluntary two to five year terms. Information about this cabal has traditionally been closely guarded. Nonetheless, a few details have managed to slip out. "All the board's current members are between 35 and 74, all are parents [The seventy-four year old has children who would be affected by ratings?], and all live...

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