Recently, I read the book Banned Films by Edward de Grazia and Roger Mewman, a moderately interesting history of film censorship in America, from the birth of the motion picture all the way to 1982, when the book was written. Although that's twenty-five years ago now, only three films have been banned in the United States since then: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (nationwide, due to "copyright infringement"), The Last Temptation of Christ (initially banned in Savannah, Georgia but it eventually opened), and The Profit (nationwide, for libel). (I don't know if there's any reading material about film censorship in Canada, but I'm going to look around because I would definitely be interested in reading more about that.) Much of the book had to deal with obscenity laws and problems with the definition of the word "obscenity", and the different bodies that had been set up over the decades that attempted to rate and censor the movies. The book ended with a small section on the familiar MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) ratings, something I've always been interested in: how can a group of people sit in a room and assign a rating to a movie without set, defined criteria (or at least, no publicly known set of criteria)? The system is, of course, voluntary, in the sense that film distributors are not required to submit their films for a rating, but since many theaters will not play unrated movies, the system is sometimes referred to as de facto censorship, a sentiment echoed in the book. However, since there had been changes in the rating system since 1982, I went to the bastion of all pop culture knowledge, the untrustworthy but good-hearted Wikipedia, to fill in the gaps.
Starting in 1968, there were originally 4 ratings: G (general audiences), M (mature audiences, parental discretion), R (restricted, no-one under 16 without an adult guardian), and X (no-one under 17 admitted). The ratings went through a number of changes over the years, and now the MPAA has five ratings:
- G: General Audiences; All Ages Admitted
- PG: Parental Guidance Suggested; Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children
- PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned; Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13 (a rating that was created due to what people saw as too wide a gap between PG and R, and was suggested by Steven Spielberg after public outcry after his films Gremlins and Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom were rated PG)
- R: Restricted; Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian
- NC-17: No One Under 17 Admitted (formerly No Children Under 17 Admitted)
It’s generally thought that Canadian film ratings are more permissive than the MPAA ratings, so I thought I would check out what the Canadian film ratings are. However, I discovered something VERY interesting about the Canadian film ratings system: there’s no such thing. Well, technically speaking. While the home video ratings are the same nationwide, there are SEVEN different provincial rating systems in Canada! According to the Media Awareness Network: "British Columbia classifies films for Saskatchewan and the Yukon. Alberta classifies films for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Nova Scotia classifies films for the Maritimes system which includes New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Newfoundland and Labrador does not follow a film classification system." Ontario, Manitoba, and Québec have their own ratings boards. (I know that only adds up to six; I can't figure out what the other system would be.) Despite the different review boards, the provinces (except for Québec) use essentially the same ratings (the phrasing is from the Alberta board, which I use because it's the province I live in):
- General (G): General viewing. Suitable for viewing by all ages.
- Parental Guidance (PG): Parental guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children.
- 14A: Suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age and older. Persons under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain: violence, coarse language and/or sexually suggestive scenes.
- 18A: Suitable for viewing by persons 18 years of age and older. Persons under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain: explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity and/or horror.
- Restricted (R): Admittance restricted to persons 18 years of age and over. Content not suitable for minors. Contains frequent use of sexual activity, brutal/graphic violence, intense horror and/or other disturbing content.
- Adult (A): Admittance restricted to persons 18 years and older. Content not suitable for minors. Contains predominantly sexually explicit activity.
- Crank: Could see it in Manitoba theaters (14A) but not in Ontario (18A) or the USA (R).
- Halloween H20: Same as above.
- The Ice Harvest: Could see it in Ontario theaters (14A) but not in Manitoba (18A) or the USA (R)
- Kinsey: Same as above.
- Snakes on a Plane: Same as above.
- Munich: I could see it in the theaters in Canada (14A) but not the USA (R); however, upon its DVD release I couldn't rent it in Canada (it's 18A)!
It's not like I'm flat-out against film rating systems. I do understand the need to give parents an idea as to what a movie's content is, even if in most cases, you know what you're paying for. Nobody needs to tell a parent that maybe Alien vs. Predator contains scenes of violence and may not be appropriate for their five-year old. But sometimes, you can be rather surprised at what you see in a movie. (I remember seeing the trailers for Garden State and thought it would be really funny; while it was very good, funny is not one of the top five adjectives I would use to describe it.) However, you can bet that if I was seventeen years old, I would be pissed if I couldn't go and see The Departed, just because some group of concerned citizens felt that I was unable to handle the content until I was suitably aged. And I know many young people can get around those ratings; I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut when I was too young to get in and the ticket-takers were actually checking IDs, because I simply looked old enough; they didn't even card me. I took my then-14-year-old brother to go see Fight Club, acting as his "adult guardian", because I knew that he'd see it eventually, and I'd much rather him see it with me and have a thoughtful discussion about it than for him to see it with his friends and think how cool it was. Wouldn't it be better to have parents having a little more information about what might be "objectionable" in the movie as opposed to a ratings stamp? I know that there are often small taglines at the end of the rating (i.e., "Rated PG-13 for strong language and scenes of comedic violence"), but most parents just look at the rating and leave it at that. I'd rather have a teenager of mine see a movie that was 18A for strong language and suggestive sexual content than one that was 18A for scenes of graphic violence and gore. But in my experience, most parents can't see past the label.
Which brings me to my last question: aside from parents, does anyone actually use these ratings when they rent a DVD or go out to a movie? I know I don't. I look at the movie and say, "I want to see that" or "No, I don't want to see that". I could care less if it was G or PG-13 or 18A or R. Does anyone else bother with them? Is anyone still reading?
Meh. Just something that's been on my mind.