Earlier this week, the MPAA announced their final rating for the filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, bound for Disney+ on July 3. It would be PG-13, but in order to qualify for it, the film had to lose a few words to conform with the MPAA's guidelines. Those words were "fuck" and "fuckin'" because of the MPAA's rule that a PG-13 movie can only have one instance of the word "fuck," and it may not be used in a sexual context.
Movie studios have stuck to the MPAA's guidelines over what will get a PG-13 vs. R vs. NC-17 rating for decades for one reason: money. Generally speaking, PG-13 movies overperform R-rated movies. No doubt an R-rating for Hamilton would hurt its audience with more squeamish parents who wouldn't even notice if they took their kids to the theater, because "live theater" instead of movies/television.
But the true kiss of death is the dreaded NC-17, which often means theaters will not book the movie; hence it will not be seen; hence it will not make money. This sort of soft censorship is ridiculous in our modern society where swearing has become commonplace on cable, and you can't turn on a YouTube or Twitch stream (you know, what the kids are actually watching) without a stream of profanity and racial slurs that would make a sailor blush.
It is with that in mind, and the fact that the Hamilton soundtrack (available to stream for free on Spotify) is incredibly popular with Gen Z (you know, "the children" we're supposed to think of) and they've heard those fucks multiple times, that this policy is even more ridiculous. Then again, maybe that's why it's dangerous– leading our youth to say things in public like "We call BS!" — the call from Emma Gonzalez and other youth activists working against school shootings. Pottymouths. We must be saved from this onslaught of profanity!
Behold the field where I harvest my fucks. It is empty, and I have zero left to give over the MPAA and their continued mockery of the American film system after how they've treated Hamilton. It is time for this archaic, opaque, secretive body to be disbanded and replaced with a ratings system that makes sense, especially given their long history of discrimination against queer cinema.
The MPAA Fucking Sucks
A film seemingly as innocuous as Zoolander originally received an R rating. After re-editing its "orgy" scene five times, Ben Stiller personally appealed to the MPAA to what needed to get cut. Apparently, the fact that a goat was involved and therefore implied bestiality was the magic element that was the difference between an R and PG-13 rating. The same is true for Hamilton and the magic guiding line between 1 and 3 fucks that apparently says only 17-year-olds should see this instead of 13-year-olds. None of these things are based in reality.
But much worse is what will get a movie rated NC-17, which usually comes down to one thing: an erect penis. Because of this, queer cinema has had a hard time sometimes finding a safe harbor, instead of being relegated to NC-17 land or remaining "unrated," which also prevents distribution to most theaters.
So a film can have all the gratuitous female nudity it wants. Tits and ass and bush for days– you're rated R. But show a penis? You're on shaky ground and in danger of NC-17, and the MPAA hasn't ever been explicit about precisely triggers the line between R and NC-17, but a lot of it seems to be around queerness specifically.
The same double standard exists for violence. A film will have the largest of leniencies to show blood and gore and still remain R rated. The same can be argued for PG-13 movies, which, as long as they are not extremely bloody, can have as many guns, deaths, and explosions as they like and remain PG-13: the lifeblood of the summer blockbuster. It's almost as though our society is permissive of violence, but blood is adults only. So is sex. So are uses of the word fuck. But still, even an utterly bloodless film like Hamilton is in danger of being rated R for language only. What the fuck?
It's almost like the MPAA is an outdated, archaic system designed to prop up America's worst instincts of being permissive towards violence but frightened of sex (especially gay sex) or profanity. Let's get back to cowboys shooting Indians and perpetrating genocide in the colonization of America but show that it was bloodless and, therefore, non-offensive. Those are good, old-fashioned American values. Gone With the Wind is rated G: there's absolutely nothing wrong with it like rape or normalization of slavery. Goldfinger, the James Bond movie, is rated PG even though Bond rapes Pussy Galore. Family values. But Hamilton can only say "fuck" one time. Thanks for protecting us, MPAA!
Another problem is the lack of transparency into who the MPAA Ratings Board is precisely. While technically the MPAA members include all the major studios (and as of last year, Netflix), who the raters are is mostly kept secret other than they are "parents." Fair enough. It's not like they need to be public officials who can be lobbied or bullied by the studios (although this is something people like Harvey Weinstein were infamous for doing among all his other monstrous behavior). But it's also entirely fair to criticize this system for not being transparent, or even fair, as often movies with similar content will get different ratings, forcing an appeal.
One of the other problems is that since this is a studio-led process, and studios have to pay to have raters screen and rate them, this puts independent films at a disadvantage as well. An indie film is much more likely to get a higher rating even with the same or similar content to a studio film. And they certainly don't have all the same resources to appeal a decision they think is unfair.
A Modest Proposal
So perhaps what we should do instead is replace an expensive, opaque, human system, made up of people with inherent biases, with a transparent, free, open-source system that is easy to understand for both filmmakers and film-goers.
The ratings seem to focus on three issues almost exclusively: violence, nudity/sexuality, and language. Imagine a system where every film is rated on a scale of 0-9 for each of these elements. Add the three numbers together; you have an approximate age-rating for appropriateness. And any film that hits an 8 in any one category automatically triggers an "Under 17 not admitted without parent" rule. Reverse engineer the gradations, so you have a system more or less like what we have today: your typical tentpole blockbuster like a Batman or Star Wars is going to be two 4's and a 5, or a 3 and two 5's. Kids movies? Lots of 2s and 3s. Harder stuff? Well, they'll let you know exactly what's in them. Want to see a Deadpool movie where he counts up as the movie goes along to prove he can get to triple 9's? I sort of do. And then Gaspar Noe can also release his films and let people know exactly what's in his movies.
Parental discretion and transparency are the cornerstones for parents who always want to know. In fact, one of the questions I'm most often asked as a film critic is, "Should I take my __ year old to this?" Geez, I don't know. Yes, maybe? It's difficult because people have different standards for what they consider offensive and what they'd let their kid watch. Publish all of the standards online, so everyone knows 1 non-sexual "fuck" gets you a 4 for language. Detail exactly what the content is that gives each film their rating. Then maybe a movie like Knives Out keeps its original script where Ransom (Chris Evans) tells all of the members of his family to "Fuck off" instead of "Eat shit" because they're willing to get an overall rating of a 14. Rian Johnson can do what he thinks is best for his film. People can decide if they give a fuck about language. A transparent system like this lets parents know exactly what's in something and make the choice for themselves.
This would also finally even the playing field for the double standard faced by male nudity, queer cinema, and multiple other niche issues. One major flaw with our ratings system is there is no warning system for sexual assault or rape, which is a bright red line and a major trigger for many people. An explicit warning is absolutely needed. And then we can also have equal opportunity peen in our movies, which is something we desperately need for multiple reasons.
Under this system, Hamilton could still be considered a PG-13 and have all its fucks intact: a 5 for language (more than 1 fuck), 3 for violence (staged dueling, but no blood), 3 for sexuality/nudity (adult situations, no nudity). That seems to be a more fair assessment of the actual content of the film, and a better tool to help audiences evaluate if they want to watch the movie or not. Seriously who out there draws the line and says, "Well, I was fine with one fuck, but three is right out! I guess I'm not watching Hamilton!"
There are other things that constrain our culture: America's continued cultural Puritanism, but also the state censors of many countries, including Asian markets, which now account for a larger share of the worldwide box office than the US. But while we can't change the homophobia of the Thai or Chinese film boards, we can improve our own institutions. It's time to get rid of the MPAA. It's time to put content decisions in the hands of viewers. Fuck the MPAA.