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Monday, July 15, 2024

Column: Veiled censorship

Sex & Society

Consider these two scenes: In the first, a man goes down on a woman and she has an orgasm; in the second, a man kidnaps, tortures and murders a woman in cold blood.

Now, which would you rather show your kid?

No need to decide — the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has done that for you. According to their standards, the second scene is much more acceptable for the youth of America. Violence such as this would usually garner a PG-13 rating, as evidenced by films like Taken, Alien vs. Predator and the Dark Knight and Lord of the Rings trilogies, to name a few. All of these movies present realistic portrayals of violence and are deemed appropriate for those 13 and older. Why then, does a realistic portrayal of sex automatically earn an R for “restricted,” or worse, the notorious NC-17?

The answer is both simple and baffling: in American society, sex makes people more uncomfortable than violence.

Both sex and violence have always had a prominent place in entertainment, especially cinema, because they are best able to produce the most immediate and visceral responses from audience members.

In 1968, the MPAA created a ratings system to give filmmakers more artistic freedom to delve into these themes, as opposed to the cut-and-dry censorship of years past. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned system has become yet another thinly-veiled way of controlling what all Americans — not just children — are exposed to.

Though MPAA ratings are technically voluntary, they are still extremely influential in the commercial success of a film. An R rating restricts theatergoers to those over 17 years of age, unless a parent is present. An NC-17 (formerly X) rating is considered by many filmmakers to be the kiss of death. Movies with this rating are not only unfairly judged as pornographic by the general public; they are also virtually unmarketable, as most major movie theaters and rental chains refuse to show or carry NC-17 films.

Therefore, filmmakers are often forced to censor their movies according to the subjective moral standards of an anonymous MPAA board. And one of the few consistencies among these board members is a bigger problem with sex than with violence — according to the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, movies are given NC-17 ratings for sex/nudity more than four times as often as they are for violence.

A look at what is acceptable in foreign movies reveals just how backwards the American movie rating system is. Alfonso Cuaron’s award-winning Y Tu Mamá También was made in Mexico, and is something of a sexual coming-of-age story about two young men. Not surprisingly, it features plenty of nudity and sex (and, it should be noted, no violence).

When the movie was released in the States, Cuaron decided to avoid an MPAA rating altogether, since he believed the inevitable NC-17 would be worse for his movie than keeping it unrated. Luckily for him, the movie was a success, as far as foreign films in the U.S. go.

And no, the American population did not collapse beneath the strain of too much sexual exposure.

Not surprisingly, sex scenes which focus on the woman’s pleasure (as opposed to the man’s) usually receive stricter ratings. For example, when director Derek Cianfrance submitted his cut of Blue Valentine to the MPAA, it was slapped with an NC-17.

The movie contains no torture, no murder, no weapons and no blood. It does, however, feature four sex scenes, two of which involve Ryan Gosling’s character going down on his partner, played by Michelle Williams. All of these scenes are shot artistically, acted beautifully and serve a crucial role in furthering the plot and character development.

But there is “explicit” sex.

Sex is deeply ingrained in human nature, and the MPAA’s treatment of it in film is obviously skewed, especially in relation to violence. However, I can’t simply condemn the MPAA. Their rating system is a reflection of the standards of our society, and its decisions are indicative of a pervasive sex-negative attitude in America.

So grab some popcorn, open your mind, and pull up some NC-17 movies on Netflix — you may be surprised at what you find.

For more sexy movie suggestions, contact MARISA MASSARA at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.


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