Movie Ratings Overrated

By James Alan Fox 9/2/2001

fter much delay, director Tim Blake Nelson's newest film, O, premieres this weekend amidst a sea of controversy. Updated to a modern-day high school setting, this contemporized version of Shakespeare's Othello portrays graphic scenes of violence, including the rape of Desi (named after Desdemona).

Some industry operatives, including Nelson himself, insist that film violence is needed for realism. Notwithstanding the importance of violence for the plot, my concern is more with the R rating that O has been assigned. Although this mature classification is undoubtedly well-deserved in light of the film's potency, I suspect the rating will do more to attract young audiences than deter them.

Experimental studies conducted by Professor Joanne Cantor at the University of Wisconsin have clearly shown that movie-goers--particularly teenage boys--are most drawn to the media version of "the forbidden fruit"--to films that carry an R rating or a parental warning. In this research, boys shown a bland synopsis of a fictitious film but told that it was rated R were significantly more likely to indicate a desire to see the forthcoming movie than those subjects told that the film was PG.

For youngsters, the rating is a self-applied gauge of maturity. If you're not part of the "mature audience," then that must make you part of the "immature audience," and what self-respecting, red-blooded American adolescent wants to be labeled that?

So teens today scan the movie section of the newspaper looking not for the number of stars given by the reviewers, but for the all-important letter given by the Motion Picture Association of America indicating age appropriateness. Any film with parental guidance (PG or PG-13) is seen as "kids stuff," since most teenagers consider themselves to be too grown up to require guidance from their parents on what movies to see. By contrast, R-rated movies are definitely cool.

The rating system lets the motion picture industry off the hook. While some film-makers have toned down their teen-oriented scripts, too many others have placed artistic license over the public interest. They continue to spice up their movies with strong language, nudity, and scenes of rape and murder--ostensibly for the sake of realism but more to enhance box office appeal. Many films having plots that teenagers would enjoy (e.g., Lethal Weapon 4, Election, or Scream 3) are supposedly restricted from them because film-writers have thrown in a couple of swears or a pair of bare breasts in order to secure the more profitable R rating.

The end result of movie ratings is that they encourage gratuitous violence and nudity without effective controls in place. Rather than forcing the industry to act responsibly, the rating system shifts the responsibility over to parents and theaters to be the movie police, hardly a foolproof arrangement.

Youthful ticket sellers are now supposed to check the ID's of their contemporaries (maybe even school friends). Sometimes these movie gate-keepers instruct teen movie-goers on how to beat the system: "Buy a ticket for the PG film then walk across the hall to see whatever you want"; or, "If an usher asks where your parents are, just say they went to the bathroom or to buy popcorn."

Director Nelson recently characterized his O as "an R-rated movie for a younger audience with very adult sensibilities." Perhaps he hopes that teens and their parents will attend the film together (permitted under the R restriction). But for many adolescents, the only thing more embarrassing than being seen buying a ticket to a PG film is to be seen in the theater sitting next to their parents. In essence, the film's youthful orientation and its adult rating are contradictory.

Also problematic is that the ratings system is overly simplistic, mixing apples and oranges, plus bananas and pears. The R rating, in particular, can signify a film that has profanity, nudity, explicit violence, blasphemy, or sensitive themes such as race, homosexuality or death, For example, American Pie II (billed as a teen flick) and Hannibal (about as graphic as it gets) carry the same R rating, yet are hardly similar in content.

I am not suggesting that we further complicate matters by adding separate codes for language, violence, and sexual situations (as TV as done), but that we scrap the ineffective and counter-productive system altogether. Replace it with a narrative description of the film content sufficiently detailed to help careful parents make informed choices. It may take some time and effort for mom and dad to investigate, but nothing done well comes easy.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.