MPAA must not censor female sexuality

The board’s powerful ratings system may harm the portrayal of women in film.

Sam Jasenosky

Actress Evan Rachel Wood condemned the Motion Picture Association of America on Twitter last week for altering a sex scene in her new film “Charlie Countryman.” Wood claims the MPAA altered the scene because someone on the ratings board was uncomfortable with a man-on-woman oral sex scene.

Wood isn’t the first to criticize the ubiquitous ratings system. The MPAA recently defended its system after an Annenberg Public Policy Center and Ohio State University study found gun violence has tripled in the most popular PG-13 releases since 1985. The study hinted at potential issues in the ratings system.

MPAA ratings board head Joan Graves defended the system in an Associated Press interview, saying it serves its purpose of representing American parents.

Kirby Dick, director of the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” said in the film that the MPAA’s ratings board is controversial within the film industry. According to the film, the MPAA said board members’ identities are kept secret from the public to deter any outside influences.

However, during the film’s investigation, Dick said he learned that there are holes in the MPAA’s claims. Most notably, Dick’s investigator found that some of the board’s members don’t even have children, contrary to the ratings board’s claim that it exists to represent American parents.

This lack of transparency is an issue due to the MPAA’s power over the film industry.

Since its founding in 1968, the MPAA has grown in popularity after replacing the former moral censorship guidelines for films, or the Hays Code. In 1984, the ratings board created the PG-13 rating that expanded the rating system.

Throughout Dick’s film, many filmmakers argue that movie theater chains respect the system so much that most theaters refuse to carry films with NC-17 ratings. Thus, films with that rating will likely perform poorly.

According to “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” the issue with the MPAA’s power began to surface when films containing scenes of women experiencing sexual pleasure became more likely to receive a rating of NC-17 than films depicting violence or male sexual pleasure.

Although no film distributors have a legal obligation to follow the MPAA’s ratings, some feel its power is a form of censorship. Theaters want to appeal to the largest audience possible, and carrying films with NC-17 ratings could alienate parents from the theaters altogether.

The MPAA doesn’t actively acknowledge its influence over the industry. “This Film is Not Yet Rated” cited a USA Today interview in which a ratings board spokesperson said, “We don’t create standards; we just follow them.”

Wood’s criticism of the MPAA’s ratings board emphasizes the system’s problematic nature in society. Wood argued that altering a sex scene in which a woman is being sexually pleasured “is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex.”

If this mysterious board decides what movies are widely available, the public deserves transparency.

Censoring the sexual enjoyment of half of the American population only perpetuates the stereotype that women shouldn’t expect to enjoy sex.