Leading anti-censorship crusader George Carlin once said, “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” If so, attempts to conceal certain language, as well as certain visual content, is an attempt at double concealment. The United States’ reputation for prudishness among Europeans is not undeserved. After a year in which several horrific acts of violence occurred and the outcry began again against violence in the media and the decline of Western society, it seems appropriate to consider the history of this debate.
Film is probably the most seminal medium of cultural transmission. Its unprecedented combination of story, visuals, sound, and sociopolitical context means that it can interact with viewers on multiple levels. Film’s power was embraced by propagandists in the U.S. and abroad; its importance is attested to by scores of film journals, magazines, and academic departments across the U.S. and Europe. And despite the increasing availability of audiovisual media distributed through private channels, movie theaters continue to rake in millions of dollars in domestic gross.
As most Americans know, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) gives a rating to every film released in U.S. theaters. The rating is intended to measure and indicate the offensiveness of the film. This practice underscores the volatility of the film product, but, I argue, shapes the filmgoing experience and enforces the American conservatism against artistic excess.
The Production Code, also called the Hays Code after the studios’ consultant on indecency, Will H. Hays, more fairly ought to have been called the Breen Code, after Joseph Breen, who assumed control of the Production Code Administration devised by a Catholic interest group of the intimidating title The Legion of Decency. Their mission statement, which suggested the film industry involved “the dissemination of the false, atheistic and immoral doctrines repeatedly condemned by all accepted moral teachers,” encouraged the MPAA (then called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, considering the studio monopolies) to control the content of their films rather than judging them afterwards. The Code abhorred all anti-religious, anti-family, pro-violence, pro-lust, and anti-American sentiment in films. The precedent was set for censorship of films, although the buck passed from studio head to director in the 1960s.
Since the Code was lifted in 1968, filmmakers could make films with any content (although certain classic films did not always abide by the Code, with little repercussion). The Code had already been weakened by the decision in U.S. vs. Paramount, which dismantled studios’ control of the theaters and thus allowed the distribution of independent (read: naughty) films. In addition, Catholic interest groups did not hold as much sway over the film industry. Without the selection being limited to studio-grown films that expressed the “American” values held by the Hays/Breen Office, and thanks to an influx of profanity and nudity in 60s films, it became necessary to classify films according to their level of offensive content. It is important to note that the ratings system was enacted by MPAA President Jack Valenti in an attempt to guide parents rather than enforce filmmaking values. In effect, though, the ratings reflected the ideologies of a conservative section of society, represented by the Classification and Ratings Administration, and solidified certain elements of content as “immoral” or “offensive.” The ratings system, although technically voluntary, is required for films released in theaters; moreover, distribution is limited for films with higher ratings.
Throughout the various incarnations of film censorship organization, four primary concerns remain constant: the depiction of sexual or lewd acts, the demonstration or justification of violence, the portrayal of minorities, and the construal of what the MPAA now vaguely refers to as “thematic content” and what the Hays Office blatantly called “blasphemy.” Unfortunately, the high ratings given to films that depict these types of content do not completely prevent the distribution of films, nor do they effectively tackle the social concerns that are often blamed upon film. The same problem applies to that endless scapegoat for teen violence, video games.
This construction of the offensive film is inextricably tied to the pejorative social context of certain “swear words.” These words are deliberately and effectively negative, and have such a neurological effect upon utterance as to divert from other pain. As with all types of symbols, there is nothing inherently volatile or negatory about these words. In fact, they’re used quite commonly* (more if you’re a character on premium television), despite their “taboo” label. Most swear words in English are of Germanic origin. As Latin was not only the language of the church but the language of the learned classes, it’s understandable that the Germanic words in English would come to be regarded as common and profane (itself a Latinate meaning “outside the temple”). Ultimately, the social construction of swear words is largely influenced by class divisions. Moreover, the psychosocial impact of swearing is entirely shaped by our level of rejection to them (hence why people who swear more often experience less of an analgesic effect from swearing). Should we discourage children from swearing? Perhaps, but it provides them little benefit to make the words taboo. On the other hand, teaching the children total acceptance of the words deprives them of an instant painkiller.
Since the portrayal of minorities and women in film is something I’d like to write in a future post building off of this one, for now I will conclude by reviewing the prudish tendencies of CARA. According to the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, CARA allows films with proportionately more violent content than sexual content to pass with a PG-13, while films with proportionately more sexual content are given an R or NC-17. Moreover, films with some sexual content but no violent content are more likely to be given an R. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt argue that this reflects a latent bias against sexuality that does not occur within conservative-minded frameworks of romance and heteronormativity. The film controversially features an exposé of CARA members (some of whom are not eligible to keep their seats according to CARA’s own by-laws) and a montage of rape scenes from PG-13 movies. Although the documentary’s thesis could be said to be overly deductive, it is interesting to consider the gender divisions, heteronormativity, and relative offensiveness of sexual acts portrayed in film. We know, for example, that a certain film with a nude painting scene, followed by adulterous sex, had a PG-13 rating despite a high on-screen body count and general terror. But Blue Valentine, featuring a loving straight couple engaged in oral sex, was slapped with an NC-17, while Gods and Monsters, featuring nude art scenes and a homosexual central character, was given an R rating. Zoolander evaded its R rating for its orgy scene only by omitting the goat who was scripted to be involved. Admittedly, it’s easier for a child to ignore the shot of two sweaty heads backlit by candlelight that adults decode as “lovemaking,” than the more explicit shot required to show oral sex. But this defense cannot extend to homosexuality, and cannot explain the excessive violence, in particular sexual violence, deemed suitable for teenagers. While I do not attribute teen violence entirely to media consumption, one can only deduce, based on the explicit function of the MPAA, that violence is simply considered less offensive than sex. It is more easily coded as an extension of the character’s personality; it may even be justified by the committing character’s reasons, be they national defense, lover’s avenge, or speciesist superiority. Sex is also coded, but is hidden within character archetypes. Thus sex is acceptable for the leather-clad female action hero, but not for a gay woman. It is acceptable for the heterosexual Prince Charming, but not for the teenage sex hound. There are exceptions (hello, Grease). But if an MPAA rating is a measure of the offensive potential of a film, we must question the cultural source of those conclusions, and what might actually happen if a child sees two men kissing. Would it be so different from seeing a man and a woman kissing? And of a sex scene and a slaughter scene, which is more likely to shape a child’s view of her social world—or give her nightmares?
The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio
Breaking the Studios: Antitrust and the Motion Picture Industry (PDF)
A History of the Cinema, Eric Rhode
Jack Valenti’s pamphlet on the ratings system