Mature Audiences Only: Sex and Censorship at the Movies

Can we all just finally agree that the ratings system currently used by the Motion Picture Association of America is misguided, outdated, and increasingly irrelevant?

I realize I am not saying anything particularly original or revolutionary here, as people are basically complaining about the MPAA everywhere and all the time now. These complaints vary, but most of them fall into two major categories. First, there’s the inconsistency issue: the ratings sytem seems to be applied subjectively and arbitrarily. So, for example, using the word “fuck” more than once is supposed to result in an R rating, except sometimes, as with The Social Network, it inexplicably doesn’t. Meanwhile, the sexually explicit The Wolf of Wall Street avoids the NC-17 rating for no perceptible reason aside from being directed by Martin Scorsese, while less explicit (but sadly Scorsese-less) films either have to cut material for an R or else accept the NC-17, knowing that the NC-17 typically results in much lower profits. This situation was discussed perceptively by director Jill Soloway, who was forced to make a number of cuts to Afternoon Delight in order to avoid an NC-17.

Martin Scorsese, MPAA Magician
Martin Scorsese, MPAA Magician

Second, the rating system seems to be based upon a strange, confusing, and often disturbing sort of moral code. In the MPAA’s version of good old-fashioned American morality, violence (war, murder, torture, decapitations) is largely acceptable, but sex is very bad — especially sex that strays from the “typical” image of a man and woman rolling around in bed together or that results in visible female sexual pleasure. Soloway has suggested that “the sexual agency of female characters” offends the MPAA. She’s not alone in this assessment. In order to secure an R rating, for example, director Fredrik Bond had to cut a specific scene from his movie, Charlie Countryman, which featured actress Evan Rachel Wood receiving oral sex.

Shia LaBouef and Evan Rachel Wood in Charlie Countryman
Shia LaBouef and Evan Rachel Wood in Charlie Countryman

Wood herself has noted her disappointment with the MPAA and her anger with this bizarre and sexist sexual morality, most notably on Twitter. I’ve combined several sequential tweets here but left everything else exactly as she wrote it:

“After seeing the new cut of ‪#CharlieCountryman I would like 2 share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a woman’s sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make ‘love’ was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people ‘uncomfortable’ but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered. This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex, especially when (gasp) the man isn’t getting off as well! Its hard for me to believe that had the roles been reversed it still would have been cut OR had the female character been raped it would have been cut. Its time for people to GROW UP. Accept that woman are sexual beings. Accept that some men like pleasuring woman. Accept that woman don’t have to just be fucked and say thank you.”

Well, exactly. Wood’s remarks are, in my opinion, important ones. The MPAA ratings reflect disturbing biases about gender and sexuality. And this isn’t new.

William H. Hays
William H. Hays

The Motion Picture Association of America formed in 1922 (it was, at that point, known as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) with the express purpose of regulating film content to ensure a “clean moral tone.” In 1930, the Association adopted the Production Code, often called the “Hays Code” after censor William H. Hays, which specifically forbade profanity and nudity in all movies. Unsurprisingly, the Hays Code also reflected many of the particular prejudices common to mid-twentieth-century America: it prohibited any depiction of miscegenation, for example, as well as “ridicule of the clergy” and “any inference of sex perversion.” This rule against “sex perversion” was vague (apparently the MPAA was investing itself with the authority to determine what kind of sex was normal and what kind of sex was deviant), but it tended to serve as code for homosexuality. Not only were directors prohibited from showing or alluding to homosexual sex acts, but they were also forbidden to depict homosexual characters at all. Consequently, when Howard Hawks made Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, into a 1946 movie, he could not refer to the sexual orientation of two of the characters. These rules underscored the popular view of same-sex relationships as abnormal, other, perverted, wrong. The Hays Code, in other words, both reflected and shaped American perceptions of sexuality.

When MPAA President Jack Valenti introduced the ratings system in 1968, it was intended to grant filmmakers some degree of freedom from this sort of across-the-board censorship, permitting them to tackle previously forbidden themes if they were willing to accept a rating of M (in 1968, the M meant that parental guidance was suggested), R (children under sixteen had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian), or X (no one under eighteen allowed under any circumstances). Homosexuality remained taboo; in fact, in 1959, Geoffrey Shurlock, head of the Production Code Association, claimed that virtually any theme except homosexuality could appear in the movies. By 1969, movies with homosexual characters or themes, such as Midnight Cowboy, did get released, but they received an X rating.

The MPAA tinkered with these ratings in subsequent years. They changed the M rating to the PG rating, and they added the PG-13 rating, which allowed for a middle ground between PG and R — a decision inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but first utilized for Red Dawn. They also replaced the X, which had taken on an association with pornography, with the NC-17, which they typically applied to provocative and explicit, but non-pornographic, films, the first being 1990’s Henry and June. Henry and June included steamy sex scenes, and its themes of same-sex relationships, prostitution, and adultery  also transgressed the MPAA’s version of sexual morality.


But, of course, no amount of tinkering could solve what is, in my mind, the key problem with the system: the fact that “taste,” “morality,” and “decency” are nebulous and subjective terms that are almost always imbued with various forms of both conscious and unconscious bias and bigotry. What that meant, in 1930, was that romance and love could appear on screen, but not between people of different races or between people of the same gender. By 2014, the particular prejudices have certainly shifted, but the principle remains the same. We have, in short, a system that grants The Wolf of Wall Street – a movie that features two orgies and approximately two thousand different forms of misogyny – the R rating, while movies like Blue Is the Warmest Color and Afternoon Delight, which emphasize female sexual agency, receive the NC-17. It’s a system that perpetuates prejudices. And because powerful players like Martin Scorsese are typically the only ones who are granted exceptions, it’s also a system that treats smaller and independent filmmakers unfairly – and that’s a shame, because those are the very people who are frequently trying to challenge the biases and boundaries that I’ve been discussing here.


Look, in addition to being a historian and a feminist, I am also a mother. I want information about movie content! I regulate what my children watch; I try to be as informed as possible so that I can make good choices for them. But I absolutely do not rely on MPAA ratings as good indicators of which movies will be acceptable or unacceptable for them — because they aren’t good indicators. They do not help. And I’m guessing that more and more parents feel the same way. They might find violence more objectionable than sexuality; they might find rape more objectionable than oral sex. And adults can presumably do their own research and determine what kinds of movies they want to see.

So, what’s the point of the MPAA ratings system again? Why are we still using it?

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Great points throughout. Sometimes I like going way back and watching the movies that came out just before the Code was implemented in 1930; filmmakers and actors had lots to get out of their system! And international films are always an option, too – like 1931’s Maedchen in Uniform, about lesbian desires in a girls’ school in Berlin.

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