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The MPAA: Repressive or Ineffective?


Many things have been blamed on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in the last few months. Through its movie, TV and video game rating systems, the MPAA is seen as the moral arbitrator of our culture. Filmmakers claim it is restrictive; that it does not allow for artistry in filmmaking; that it is arbitrary in its judgments; and that its intent seems to be to control filmmaking instead of inform parents. Politicians blame school shootings such as Columbine on movies and music, claiming that the MPAA is less strict on violence than on sex. The MPAA defends itself by appealing to the mass culture, which seems fairly content with the system as a whole. Is the MPAA doing its job? Should its restrictions be relaxed? Or should they perhaps be tightened? Probably the MPAA is doing the best it can in our society. If restrictions were to be relaxed, the MPAA wouldn’t be fulfilling its purpose to protect children; if restrictions were tightened, it runs the risk of compromising the First Amendment.


The Motion Picture Association of America was formed in 1924 as an internal “censor” to keep the movies relatively clean. At that time, Hollywood morals were already looser than those of the general culture, and the films matched the morals. A voluntary censor was beneficial to studios because of the power of the Catholic Legion of Decency and the number of Catholics who didn’t go to those movies that the Legion denounced as immoral. Movies have always been a commercial enterprise; if something does not make money, Hollywood will not make it. Every major studio conformed to the MPAA Production Code.

In 1966 Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA. He is still president now, and it was he that envisioned the present-day ratings system. Valenti saw that producers and studios were more willing to release their movies without a Code certificate rather than edit questionable scenes. This was commercially possible because of the decline of American morals in the 1950s and 60s. Valenti’s ratings system was to be a guide for parents. He still holds this as the system’s goal, and he believes that the system is working.

The MPAA rating system is completely voluntary. No filmmaker is required to submit his film to the MPAA for a rating, but most do. The Ratings Board (composed of 8-13 parents) views the film, gives it a tentative rating, discusses the rating, votes for the rating, and completes a form giving his or her reasons for the rating. A filmmaker may edit the film and resubmit it for a lower rating; or, if he believes the rating is inaccurate, he may appeal to the Appeals Board. After the Appeals Board has reached a decision, it may not be repealed.


“The ‘out-of-control’ MPAA process…is ‘effectively trampling the freedom of American filmmakers.’” It is true that the MPAA has some stringent rules concerning sex, violence, language, sensuality, nudity and drug use. It is also true that the rating itself is voluntary. Filmmakers have the freedom to put anything into a movie. However, most theaters shy away from showing NC-17 (the highest rating) films, and virtually all high-profile rental companies refuse to carry films with an NC-17 rating. Thus, a film rated NC-17 is virtually dead commercially. Since the studios are out for the money, most directors are contractually obliged to deliver an R rating or less. The question is: Is film art or money? The answer is: Both. Certain films are seen as “art films,” and others as “summer blockbusters.” The former are generally rated R, the latter PG-13 or G. The MPAA can not judge whether something is “art.” That is not its job. R vs. NC-17 is between filmmakers and their studios. It does not involve the MPAA.
“The notion that this is voluntary is just nonsense—you’re hammered by this system. I think it’s basically designed to control us rather than inform the public.” An NC-17 is not commercial suicide because of the MPAA but because of the theater owners refusing to play them. Any movie is legally allowed to be shown, no matter what its rating. The views of most theaters on the subject cannot be construed as the views of the MPAA. The MPAA is also not responsible for enforcing its rules, though I believe it ought to be. This, too, is the prerogative of each theater.

The MPAA can seem very arbitrary at times. For example, in this summer’s film American Pie, which is about a group of high-schoolers competing to lose their virginity before the prom, one of the protagonists has intercourse with an apple pie. The MPAA dropped the rating from NC-17 to R after the director removed two of the four thrusts into the pie. What good does it do to cut half of the objectionable material out? Is not that which is left just as objectionable as that which was removed? To be effective, the MPAA must be consistent in its rules and requirements. Film critic Roger Ebert suggests an “A” rating—for “adult”—to differentiate between art films and pornographic films. Valenti argues that this would force the MPAA “to make qualitative judgments—in other words, be critics.”

The MPAA does not claim to enforce its ratings. The enforcement is voluntary by theater owners and video retailers. Most theaters and video stores do not check ID or even ask if you are seventeen. We know that children want to see high-rated films due to the universally sinful nature of humans, therefore children raised without much parental guidance are not necessarily going to abide by the ratings. This is only going to get worse with time. Theater owners and video retailers should have stronger rules to keep children out of R rated films. Most theaters display these rules, but do not enforce them. If the MPAA wants to keep its image clean in front of the general public, it needs to enforce the rules it has instituted.


While the MPAA may apply voluntary ratings to films and encourage filmmakers to edit questionable elements from their films, it may not force them to do so. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression. Despite the comparative moral decadence of this era, the thoughts behind the Amendment are sound. Because of the wisdom of our forefathers, the MPAA is severely restricted in its ability to control filmmakers. Though we may at times decry this ineffectiveness, we must agree with it as long as our culture is corrupt. If we allow the MPAA to be the moral arbitrators of our culture, how can we be sure they won’t decide that all things Christian should be cut out?

Although the MPAA has certainly made some mistakes, some of them glaring, it has rated tens of thousands of films accurately. Since they are correctly rated, the films do not stand out from a rating standpoint. Still, the MPAA is right far more often than it is wrong. When it is wrong, it must be noted that the MPAA is not God, it is not the Bible, therefore it is not infallible. It is a human institution made up of secular people trying to do their best for the parents of America. As such, it does a very good job. The MPAA cannot be expected to represent the feelings of all of the population all of the time.

Finally, the MPAA is not a nursemaid. It is a guide for concerned parents who are willing to consult it. If parents do not teach their children write from wrong, how can they blame the movies and the MPAA for all the atrocities that their teenagers commit? Movies and music have been cited as reasons behind the Columbine shooting, and it is certain that those kids were influenced by the movies they watched and the music they listened to. But who allowed them to be exposed to those movies and that music? Ultimately it is the parents, who ignored their responsibility to their children in the early formative years of their lives.


I certainly have not answered all the questions raised by this issue. That would take much more room than I have. But I believe that the MPAA is, above all, a group of people just like you and me. They are concerned parents, trying to provide concerned parents with useful information. Do they make mistakes? Of course. Do they apologize for those mistakes? Unfortunately, no. Not much is heard from the actual members of the Ratings Board. Jack Valenti is the main spokesperson for the organization, and he defends nearly every decision to the death.

Should filmmakers be allowed to do anything they want in their films? From a Christian perspective, no. There are some things that are not appropriate for any age group, and these things should not be presented on the screen. But since the leaders of the film industry and the MPAA do not come from a Christian perspective, I think it is dangerous to give the MPAA too much power over what is done in movies. The Constitutional right of expression and its effect on us is a topic for another paper. Suffice it to say that as long as we live in a non-Christian culture, we should be careful when we limit anyone’s rights; before too long, it may be our rights as Christians that are limited.

The MPAA is doing an excellent job overall. Certainly we could be finicky, but who among us is without reproach? The main thing the MPAA should do that it does not is to enforce its ratings in theaters and video retailers more strictly. If an R rating means that children “under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian,” to quote from the official definition, then theaters should not allow children under 17 to enter the film without their parent being there. Besides keeping children out of damaging films, this would increase the involvement of parents in their children’s lives.

And that is the real answer to all of these problems. If parents cared enough to research movies before taking their children, or even to watch the films first—and then to use their knowledge for the good of their children--I believe we would have fewer incidents of teen violence, fewer disputes between filmmakers and the MPAA, and less need for the ratings system as anything but a simple guide.



Essex, Andrew. “NC-17 Gets an F”. Entertainment Weekly #498, August 13, 1999; pp. 20-21

Nashawaty, Chris. “Pie in Your Face”. Entertainment Weekly #494, July 16, 1999; pp. 26-28


This paper originated as a paper for College Composition II, Missouri Baptist College, Fall, 1999.

©1999 by Jandy Stone