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Bullying Documentary’s Rejection of ‘R’ Rating Questions Relevance of MPAA

COMMENTARY | “Bully,” a documentary about the troubling effects of bullying on children and their families, which was set for a limited release in Los Angeles and New York on March 30, has reignited the debate about the criteria the Motion Picture Association of America uses to determine film ratings. The Weinstein Company, the film’s distributor, announced Monday they plan to release the film without a rating from the MPAA . The documentary had received an R rating, due to profanity used by some of the bullies, a decision that raised protests across the country, from Washington to Hollywood, from stars like Meryl Streep to teenage victims of bullying.

The MPAA, chaired by former Senator Christopher Dodd, determined that one profanity-laced scene in particular meant the film had to receive an R rating. The organization refused an appeal from The Weinstein Company to lower the rating to PG-13. An R rating would mean those under 17 could not see the film without a parent or guardian accompanying them. Critics of the decision contend this would limit access to the film for those who need to hear its message most.

The Weinstein Company argued the harsh language is integral to the documentary’s effectiveness. A petition started by a Michigan teen , a victim of bullying herself, which has received hundreds of thousands of signatures, asked the board to reconsider the rating in light of the value of the message and lessons of the film. But Joan Graves, head of the Classification and Rating Administration for the MPAA, said the board’s decision was based on the need to give “consistent” information about content for parents, not on the quality of the film.

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Graves may have said it is the MPAA’s goal to be consistent in its ratings scales, but to outside observers who do not understand the rating criteria, the MPAA’s decisions often seem neither consistent nor fair. Of course Graves is correct in saying the organization cannot start taking the value and quality of films into account when determining ratings. This would lead to an all-too-Orwellian oversight of what messages filmgoers should and should not see.

But the organization’s alphanumeric ratings do not signify a particularly clear assessment of a film’s content, as their criteria are not shared with or understood by the public. Some have used the contrast between R-rated “Bully” and the blockbuster new release “The Hunger Games” – a story about teens forced into fighting a match to the death, rated PG-13 – to illustrate the unfairness of the MPAA’s standards.

The Weinstein Company tried to work within the system in their appeal to the MPAA to change the rating of “Bully,” but ultimately decided it was better for the accessibility of the film to eschew a rating altogether. Perhaps they are starting a trend of powerful Hollywood figures challenging the standards and weight of MPAA ratings. After all, the debate should not be over how many times actors can say a curse word in a film to qualify for a certain rating from the MPAA, but over the extent of the MPAA’s continuing influence and relevance.

Anyone concerned about unsavory elements a film might contain has a plethora of resources to turn to. A simple Internet search would tell them what to look out for. There are entire websites devoted to telling parents exactly which elements of a film would be unsuitable for which ages. These sites can give a more thorough impression of a film’s objectionable moments than a simple letter or number, and they are easy for concerned parties to seek out.

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A letter and number determined by a secretive organization should not be able to dictate what messages or words a child is exposed to. That is a decision for each family to make on their own. Perhaps some safeguard, such as an Adult or Mature rating, should remain, to prevent minors from seeing films with truly violent, profane, or sexual content in theaters without their parents’ permission. But it is pretty obvious that the film “Bully” does not fall into that category. The latest decision from its filmmakers is a repudiation of the MPAA’s inflexible, incomprehensible standards and a vote of confidence for parents and guardians to decide what is best for their children. The MPAA rating system is outdated, and should be overhauled, if not thrown out altogether.