Neuendorf: MPAA needs to update movie ratings system

Zachary Neuendorf

Most associate the Motion Picture Association of America with the green screen shown prior to any film trailer; you know, the screen that tells us whether the following film is either G, PG, PG-13, R or the wretched NC-17.

The intention of the organization is to act as the mind of American parents and regulate the films that may be too inappropriate for children. The problem is how vague and hypocritical these classifications have proven to be. First of all, the secretive guidelines the MPAA live by have been left unchanged since the MPAA’s genesis about 45 years ago. Since then, we have seen not only a significant change in the movie industry, but also in the morality of young people, and it is about time the MPAA caught up.

It is a modern rarity to have a film released with a G rating, suggesting that few films are suitable for young children. To say that what garners a G rating has changed over the years is an understatement. “2001: A Space Odyssey” somehow received a G rating back when the system was still young. But now the system has grown rigid, forbidding a film like “Frozen” from the rating it seemed like it was born to obtain. We need not only look at kid flicks to see the nonsensical, current nature of the MPAA.

This is indicated by the films they punish with a NC-17 rating, a rating that prohibits one younger than 17 to watch the film in a theater, as well as some R and even PG-13 rated films. Often the NC-17 film have acts of sex and some “obscene” cursing, while in contrast, the PG-13 and R rated films contain all that and heaps of violence. A famous example is the indie film “Blue Valentine,” which was originally stamped with the NC-17 rating singularly because of a simulated scene of oral sex between two adults. This is quite alarming standing next to Warner Bros’ “Man of Steel,” whose humongous death toll and violence was awarded a PG-13.

Maybe a less controversial example is how “The King’s Speech,” an inspiring film free of violence and sex, but heavily sprinkled with the f-bomb in a vital scene, received an undeserved R. It is not only the MPAA’s undisclosed, outdated rulebook — seriously, what kid of today’s generation hasn’t heard these vulgarities on a playground or at home? — but also the MPAA’s favoritism toward major studio pictures. Economically, it only makes sense that the MPAA would tend to the needs of their wealthier customers, but that is a sad, sad bias for the entire film industry.

The innovative work that happens at the independent level in the industry is key in propelling the entire film-world forward, by way of fresh ideas and fostering young talent. But the more NC-17 or R ratings these films unjustly collect, the fewer theaters will carry them and the fewer people will purchase tickets. Before you know it, a huge blow strikes the independent film industry, leaving it worse off than it already is. All of this adds up to utter confusion for audience members and frustration from filmmakers, all courtesy of the MPAA.

While the MPAA is necessary and successful in generally distinguishing the targeted age group for a film, the MPAA ought to focus on what they are efficient at doing by updating their 45-year-old process. Roger Ebert offered his idea, and frankly, it is simply brilliant. He suggested the MPAA organize the five disoriented categories into three that are clear-cut: G, for all audiences; T, for teens; and A, for adults.

With the current rating system not even making sense at times, it seems that we are far past due for an update. At this point, many viewers and parents disregard the ratings entirely because they seem to bring so little factual information to the table.

This may not feel like a big deal, but it undeniably aligns with the reach of the First Amendment, particularly the freedom of speech. And if there is ever a chance to clarify or improve that freedom, it should not be ignored.