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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight and the MPAA

The Motion Picture Association of America has long been a target of criticism for its secret, often-arbitrary, moralistic, and frequently non-sensical movie ratings. The focus is totally on sex, nudity, profanity, and (as of recent years) drug use, while violence often gets a free pass. The board often focuses on individual words, scenes, or shots in isolation, ignoring context and the work as a whole. The result is that a rating often turns on whether the image of an orgasm lasts for five seconds or ten (some version of this story was told about Boys Don't Cry) or whether the nudity was "sexually oriented." And the board has long been accused of being much tougher on independent films than studio releases. Much of this story was told in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. But despite years of criticism, nothing has changed much.

But I wonder if the Dark Knight could be the tipping point. The film got a PG-13 rating, but just about every review and commentary I have read has included a line that the rating was inappropriate, given the overall tone and themes of the film, as well as some of its violence. Some commentators have gone so far as to directly warn parents against letting young teens and tweens see the movie and to criticize the MPAA for giving it the lower rating. Of course, since the ratings process is secret, we do not know why the movie received what it di. But all the facts are in place to support every criticism and conspiracy about the MPAA: the movie has dark and violent themes, but no sex, drugs, or dirty words; it was released by a major studio; it is a franchise movie, based on characters with which young teens and tweens are familiar; and it was intended as a summer blockbuster and an R-rating would have seriously cut into audience and profits.

The PG-13 rating famously was created in 1984 as a middle-ground category between PG and R, after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That summer blockbuster movie received a PG rating despite similarly dark and violent themes that scared the target audience and outraged parents, viewers, and commentators. If Dark Knight produces similar parental outrage, the solution will not be an additional rating category--additional categories would be pointless. Any solution will (finally and mercifully) require a more fundamental change to the system.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 22, 2008 at 11:35 AM in Current Affairs, Film, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Comments

As commenters elsewhere have noted, the contents of the movie (while darker than Batman Begins) are much tamer than the contents of the average Batman comic book, which parents likely wouldn't bother reviewing prior to their child's reading of it. It would be a rather immature 13 year old who wouldn't be able to handle it. That said, my 8 year old will certainly not be seeing it.
None of this is meant to be taken as a defense of the MPAA. Truly concerned parents, though, might want to visit http://www.kids-in-mind.com/ for a detailed description of potentially troublesome scenes before taking their kid to see a movie.

Posted by: NonVoxPop | Jul 24, 2008 3:52:10 AM

Dick's doc is entertaining, but, unofrtunately, not very accurate. Don Lewis' Hollywood vs. Hardcore is a better take on the material. The interesting thing is that filmmakers can now use precedent in appealing ratings, so the next indie filmmaker trying to get a PG-13 can use The Dark Knight and its rating to argue his or her case.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jul 22, 2008 11:49:47 PM

Some would say that the fact that the violence wasn't necessarily blood-gushing is the problem, as it arguably makes it more realistic and less easy to dismiss as fantasy.

Posted by: Hauk | Jul 22, 2008 7:02:55 PM

The content was violent but the blood-gushing was lacking throughout - you can't really see much of the "disappearing pencil" and there was another time when I asked myself "wait...did the Joker just cut his throat?" I feel as though that's where you see the MPAA bumping up films to R-ratings.

Posted by: anon | Jul 22, 2008 3:42:40 PM

I agree that this may thea tipping point... The "pencil disappearing trick" still haunts me, and I've seen my fair share of violent movies in my 23 years.

Having seen "This film is not yet rated," anything that lessens the credibility of the MPAA is music to my ears...

Posted by: anon | Jul 22, 2008 2:38:40 PM

I don't think PG-13 is inappropriate for the Dark Knight. Much of the darkness of the movie is probably too deep for the average 13-yo to understand. Even if I'm wrong about that, do we really need to shelter kids from dark themes and ideas? If so, we better not let them watch CNN and learn about what's going on in Darfur. Or read about why some people are unhappy the Olympics are in China.

Someday a tipping point might come, but I don't think this will be it. For some reason, we're "OK" with violence, but not sex. Look at the GTA Hot Coffee thing: No one got that upset about the murderous rampages the character goes on, but they flipped out that the character has sex. Similarly, no one is going to be that upset about Joker's murderous rampages, but all bets would be off if he visited a prostitute. Interesting values we have.

Posted by: Justinian Lane | Jul 22, 2008 12:40:35 PM

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