November 23rd, 2006

Forbidden Lore

Secrets Children Were Not Meant to Know, in, This Film is Not Yet Rated

The ultimate internal publicity stunt in This Film is Not Yet Rated comes 2/3rds of the way through the movie, when director Kirby Dick assembles the movie up to that point into finished form and submits it to the MPAA to be rated. This is a gesture calculated to piss them off, because almost the whole film up to that point is devoted to the hiring of a lesbian private detective agency whose surveillance and social engineering pay off by revealing the MPAA's most closely guarded secret, namely the current year's membership of the Film Rating Board. He submitted, even knowing that they were going to come gunning for him out of spite if nothing else, so that he could stand in front of the appeals board and document that process. That pays off, too; despite their determined efforts to protect their privacy, he manages to "out" all 12 members of the appeals board, too.

And while it is not the most entertaining part of the movie (that would be Ka-Chew! Productions' animated bits), nor the most compelling, these collective "outings" or revelations do turn out to be what I think are the most important part of the movie, the part that best explain exactly what's wrong with the movie ratings system in the US and why it turned out the way it has. You see, the first thing he documented is that the MPAA is flat-out lying about who rates the movies in the first place. The MPAA's website says this about the Film Rating Board:
"There are 10-13 members of the Board who serve for periods of varying length. ... There are no special qualifications for Board membership, except that the members must have a shared parenthood experience, must be possessed of an intelligent maturity, and most of all, have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents so they can view a film and apply a rating that most parents would find suitable and helpful in aiding their decisions about their children and what movies they see."
... and almost every word of it is a lie. In 2005 there were, documented, exactly 9 members of the Board, not 10-13 of them. As for shared parenthood experience, at least two of them have no kids, and almost all of the members who do have kids, their kids are grown adults in their 20s and 30s, not the "age 4 to 15" that the MPAA has always said their Rating Board's members' kids were. And as for their ability to "put themselves in the role of most American parents," that's the most interesting thing of all: a less representative board you would be hard pressed to assemble. Seven white people and two Asians, and all of them at the high end of upper middle class or the lower end of wealthy. The "14 to 18 members" of the appeals board turn out to be twelve: two motion picture studio executives (talk about conflict of interest when they're rating independent films!), eight executives from the major movie theater chains, and permanent ex-officio representatives from the National Council of Churches and the American Council of Catholic Bishops. According to the MPAA, the ex-officio clergy representatives are supposed to be silent observers; according to an anonymous insider from the appeals board, they participate fully in the appeals deliberation process and do vote. Nor is the anonymous tipster the only evidence we have for the latter; the one time we hear a vote count from the appeals board it was 9 to 3, which can only have been possible if both clergymen voted. So, yeah, everything about the process is built upon a lie.

But here's the most important implication of the lie, to me. It's not that they're lying, but that what they're covering up is this: the board that decides what films kids can and can't see is judging them on very specific standards of both race, religion, and social class. These decisions are being made by 21 white and Asian upper middle class southern Californians, all of whom know each other socially. Two of them are even next-door neighbors. And the director found out, to his shock (and to mine initially, although I think I've figured it out) that the appeals process specifically doesn't allow you to cite any previous film's scenes and/or rating as a precedent for why your film should be treated the same. The board and the appeal board are reserving the right to judge all films by one and only one standard: does it make a white upper middle class late middle aged Catholic or mainline Protestant southern Californian uncomfortable to think about the possibility of a child seeing this movie? If you're a black parent, whether you'd want your kids to see it or not is irrelevant. If you're Hispanic, same. If you're a gay or lesbian parent, your standards are not interesting to them. If you're a poor or working class or middle class parent, your concept of what kids grow up already exposed to and knowing about never factors in. In fact, oddly enough, the two biggest denominations in this country that still threaten film boycotts, the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God? They don't get consulted, either, and why guys like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and John Ashcroft and Donald Wildmon are okay with letting the hated National Council of Churches and Catholic Church be the official representatives of organized professional Christianity on the film rating appeals board and not people more aligned with their own viewpoints and perspectives strikes me as a fascinating question. (It's entirely possible that they don't know this yet.) And why is this? Rather obviously, if you know your religious history of the USA, it's because the Episcopalians and the Catholics are socially acceptable churches among the old-money upper and upper-middle class.

What does social class have to do with this? There is a school of thought that says that all art in general, and more importantly all popular art and entertainment, should be aspirational, not documentary. It should not show life as it usually is, it should show life at its best. It should not show people at their worst or people doing just okay, at least not as heroes, protagonists, or main characters. The characters in popular fiction that the audience is intended to root for and identify with must, according to this school of though, be people who are characters of extraordinary virtue, hard work, and perseverance. Those who hold this viewpoint believe that it is the responsibility of the artist to give people something to hope for, and more importantly something to look up to, to set their own standards by, to aspire to be as good as. And this is, very specifically, a white middle class and upper middle class view of art.

Take, for example, the documentary about infantry life during the US invasion of Iraq, Gunner Palace. Although it won a PG-13 from the appeals board on literary and journalistic merit, the main nine-member rating board voted it unanimously as an R, for one and only one reason: soldiers in combat say "fuck," "fucker," and "motherfucker" a lot. Some of this is because of combat stress; people who are getting shot at do not devote a great deal of their attention to self-censorship. But considering to what extent it is almost entirely rural, inner city, and working class kids who become infantryman, I recognized the way they talk instantly. In my working class neighborhood growing up, virtually everybody talked like that, virtually all of the time. Some of our parents, the ones who clearly were hoping that their kids might improve their lot in life and make it into the middle or upper middle class, tried to restrain themselves and their friends from using "that language" in front of kids, specifically so that we kids would grow up with speech patterns that would make it easier for us to fit in among the more-restrained upper-middle-class kids if we got a chance to mingle with them socially or at work in later life. Frankly, to "swear like a longshoreman" or "like a truck driver" or "like a sailor" are clichés because that is how working class adults actually talk. And the thought of their own upper-middle-class friends' kids being exposed to language that they might emulate, that might make them sound like they grew up on the fabled wrong side of the tracks, makes the all-upper-middle-class members of the Film Rating Board very, very uncomfortable.

Compare, also, the depictions of sexuality on both the R and NC-17 sides of the line. This film does that, a lot. The best-used filmic device in This Film is Not Yet Rated does exactly what film makers are not allowed to do during the appeals process. It split-screens basically identical sex scenes from over a dozen each of films that were rated R with films that were rated NC-17, so that we can see specifically what it is that makes the white and Asian upper middle class late middle aged raters uncomfortable when they see a sex scene. Sure, there are some sex acts and some levels of graphical explicitness that make them uncomfortable no matter who the characters are and what the movie's about, but that's not the point of the split screen sections of this documentary. What the split screens clearly show is that even when all other details are the same, it's okay to risk children seeing things with their parents if the characters are portrayed as plasticized or idealized, but becomes unacceptable to show in any mainstream theater if there is even a drop of perspiration showing. And it is okay to show almost any sex act obliquely and from the right angles, but only as long as nobody's orgasm lasts longer than a couple of seconds. What we are seeing here is the classic Victorian upper class fear of "coarsening," of any reminder that human beings are a species of mammal and that like any other animals we have basic biology.

We're also shown something I'd written off as an exaggerated complaint until they showed me so many parallel examples, but it does seem to be that I was wrong and it's true: the white upper middle class late middle aged Film Rating Board believes that it is inevitable that teenage boys have sexual urges, but sincerely believes that no teenage girl has any sexual urges of her own. There are countless examples of teenage boys masturbating in R rated films, and comedies about teenage boys who want to have sex but have trouble finding partners of their own choice are a staple of film making for as long as there have been movies, at ratings all the way down to PG. But show a teenage girl who masturbates, or show any other indication that a teenage girl might also want to get laid, and suddenly the film is in NC-17 territory. In the upper middle class fantasy world, it is essential that their daughters, the future mothers of the upper middle class and the wealthy, have their virtue preserved, so they remain virtuous enough to raise upper middle class and wealthy children. And in their fantasy they think that it's much easier than it is in reality, because in that fantasy all they have to do to keep their daughters from experiencing any sexual desire or feelings of their own is to keep them protected from external influences. Again, it's "coarsening" theory.

For example, Kevin Smith talks about when he was initially told that he couldn't have a scene in Jersey Girl where a woman admits to a male friend that she masturbates twice a day and still get a PG-13 rating. ("What can I say," the character says to her friend when he is shocked by this, "I get bored easily.") In this movie, Smith describes talking about on the phone to a member of the Film Rating Board about that decision. (Among the MPAA's lies: raters' identities are kept secret to protect them from pressure by the studios and film makers. The truth is that film makers at the major studios are practically the only people who are allowed to pressure the raters, and he made this film for United Artists.) He says that what she said to him was, "I was struck, as I was watching that scene, at how uncomfortable I was imagining my 17 year old daughter listening to that conversation." He asked her, "My god, she's 17. Do you really think that your 17 year old daughter doesn't masturbate?" But I'll bet good money that, as a white upper middle class Christian, she thinks exactly that.

The Film Rating Board is also, of course, like most Americans, deeply afraid of Teh Gay, especially Teh Buttsecks, for fear that it might be contagious. The assumption, especially among those "properly" brought up, is that nobody would ever think to do "those things" unless they saw somebody else doing them.

John Waters makes the point closest to my personal point of view in this film, when he says that if the point of the MPAA film rating system is to keep kids from seeing what sex looks like, it's too late to be having that argument. He makes the point, which if I ever get the damned thing done will be one of my central points in my book about the history of "Forbidden Lore," that in the Internet age there isn't a kid in America who hasn't seen harder core pornography than even the things that John Waters likes to watch in private. So what are we left with? Well, if you're a member of the social class that has a monopoly position inside the MPAA, you're left with "aspirational" art theory. They may not be able to control what the proletariat produce for themselves and share among themselves, but they can make sure that the capitalist system only endorses art that shows things that are "better" than that, in hopes that the "better" members of the proletariat will recognize the value of, aspire to, and work to elevate themselves into the upper middle class's spiritual, intellectual, anti-biological world in which men have sex only for antiseptic release of pressure and in which women only have joyless sex a couple of times in their life to produce heirs, just like the glamorous people in the movies do. And that, my friends, is the real point of the MPAA's Film Rating Board.