On Friday, March 30, the movie “Bully” will begin its theatrical run. The movie’s topic is a timely and extremely important one: kids’ bullying each other, especially at school.
At times, such bullying has led to suicides—including even the suicides of kids who were only 10, 11, or 12 years old. Meanwhile, other kids who suffer bullying may not go so far as to commit, or even think of, suicide, but may still find every single school day miserable and frightening.
Yet, as things now stand, kids who are bullying victims—and many other kids who need to be better educated about bullying—won’t be allowed to see the foremost film addressing this vital topic, due to its R rating. Instead, the members of the film’s most important audience of all will be stopped at the door if they try to see it alone or with a same-age friend.
In this column, I’ll argue that the R rating for “Bully” was the wrong call, and I’ll discuss two other films that I believe unfairly experienced ratings controversies for similar reasons. In addition, I’ll note some aspects of the MPAA panel’s composition that unfairly cut against a film like “Bully.”
A Documentary That Simply Reports Reality Should Not Be Punished With an R or NC-17 Rating for Reporting the Full Truth
One of the reasons that “Bully” received an R rating could hardly be more ironic: In the film, a bully reportedly uses the so-called “f-word” over and over in describing what he’ll do to his victim. The expletive is thus a key part of the bullying, an illustration of the core subject of the film. Yet under MPAA standards, it seems that there is no way to take that context into consideration. Thus, for ratings purposes, the use of the f-word in “Bully” will apparently be treated the same as if it had occurred in, say, a gross-out comedy that no one could claim had any societal value or import at all.
That’s because the analysis that the MPAA applied to yield the R rating for “Bully” appears to have been completely robotic. Two instances of so-called “hard
language” (such as the “f-word”) will trigger an R rating under MPAA standards, the Los Angeles Times reports, no matter what the context may be.
In “Bully,” there are reportedly seven uses of the “f-word,” so the filmmakers were doomed from a ratings perspective. Yet apparently, most or all of these instances came from the mouths of bullies, and were actually part of the bullying that is the very subject of the film.
Thus, “Bully” director Lee Hirsch was absolutely right to stick to his guns on this point, commenting to The First Amendment Center, “To cut around [an expletive] or bleep it out, it really absolutely does lessen the impact, and take away from what the honest moment was, and what a terrifying moment it can be [to be bullied]. I feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, as the person entrusted to tell [these kids’] stories, to not water them down.”
In contrast, the recent Los Angeles Times editorial on the subject—linked above—should not have asked rhetorically, “Would the heart of the film really be destroyed by the editing of a couple words before resubmitting it on appeal [to the MPAA]?” Hirsch’s eloquent explanation shows exactly why the correct answer to this question is “Yes.”
In this column, I’ll argue that, at the very minimum, the MPAA should make an exemption in its rating system for documentaries, when—as in “Bully”—the offending words are part of the core subject matter of the film. (I would also like to see an exception for the necessary use of such words in fiction films as well. But right now, the example of “Bully” makes the need for an exception for documentaries and their cousins, based-on-a-true-story films, especially clear.)
Documentaries That Make Meta-Level Commentaries on Their Subjects Should Not Be Rated Based on Their Underlying Subject Matter
In 2006, filmmaker Kirby Dick released a documentary called “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” that revealed information about the secretive MPAA ratings panel. And, like “Bully,” “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” was essentially punished simply for doing its subject matter justice.
More specifically, “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” illustrated what kind of subject matter triggered an NC-17 rating by doing the logical thing: actually, briefly showing viewers such material. As a result, the movie itself received an NC-17 rating—for “graphic sexual content.” In other words, Dick’s thoughtful documentary was rated as if it were hardcore pornography throughout. (Ultimately, the film was released unrated.)
At the very minimum, when a documentary presents a meta-level discussion of a subject—as “Bully” and “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” clearly do—it should be allowed to do so without being punished with a harsh rating that stems solely from accurately depicting the underlying material that it examines and critiques.
Consider also “Boys Don’t Cry”—which is not a documentary, but is based on the life of a real person, Brandon Teena. There, the protagonist impersonates a boy, and that impersonation leads to her rape and murder—homophobic crimes that violently enforced gender stereotypes. Here, too, material based on a true story initially triggered an NC-17 rating (which was later lowered to an R) based on the filmmakers’ simple choice to depict an event as it actually occurred.
Like “Bully,” each of these movies was punished by the MPAA ratings system, simply for telling the truth about its subject. The MPAA should stop punishing films that simply candidly and honestly depict the truth about the subjects they address.
The MPAA Panel Apparently Does Not Reflect the Views of Current Parents—or, Possibly, of GLBT Persons—And Yet Such Views Are Vital When Assessing a Film Like “Bully”
The identities of MPAA panel members are supposed to be kept secret, purportedly so that their ratings are truly independent, and free of outside influence. However, as of 2005, when “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” was shot, Kirby Dick found out—using the services of private investigators—then-MPAA panel members’ names (which are now listed publicly on Wikipedia) and ages.
The members of the panel are supposed to reflect the views of the “average parent,” but Dick’s P.I.s found that in fact, many panel members no longer had children under the age of 18. And that was in 2005. If we assume that the very same panel members have continued serving, then their children are now older still.
Also worrying, in an era when GLBT kids disproportionately suffer from bullying, Dick’s findings suggest that—again, as of 2005—the MPAA panel’s members (many of whom Dick’s P.I.s photographed with their opposite-sex spouses) are likely to all be straight. Perhaps relatedly, Dick also found that depictions of gay sex were more likely to trigger NC-17 ratings, whereas comparable scenes of straight sex drew R’s instead.
The MPAA also has an appellate panel, which, as of 2005, disturbingly included a United Methodist minister and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (The other twelve members included a number of theater-chain executives and film buyers.)
The composition of the appellate panel is bizarre. An appeal is presumably offered in case the initial ratings decision was unfair, based on the content of the film. And offering a filmmaker whose film gets a particular rating an appeal to a different panel is one of the few merits of this system. But if the point is for the appellate panel to make the kind of decision that ordinary parents of under-18 kids would make, if they had time to view the film, then surely ordinary parents of under-18 kids should dominate the appellate panel.
Instead, we have two religious figures on the panel—and yet, several major American religions are left out. And we have theater-chain executives and film-buyers, who understandably will have their bottom lines—not parents’ views—primarily in mind.
The MPAA Rating System, Always Objectionable, Is Even More So in the Internet Age
Finally, even if the MPAA panels were composed entirely of parents of children under eighteen, they still would fall very short of truly reflecting the views of such parents—because the number of parents who have the chance to voice their views on the panel—only ten!—could hardly be thought to represent a reflective sample of parents’ views.
Now, in the Internet Age, especially, having such an unrepresentative movie-ratings system is unforgivable. It is feasible now to actually poll a large group of parents—straight and gay—about their thoughts on a given film and what its rating ought to be. And the MPAA should do so, rather than rely on a tiny sample of people who cannot possibly be representative of America as a whole.
In sum, it seems that “Bully” has been subjected to the worst of a bad rating system. If its R rating does stick—and it certainly should not—let’s hope that at least some systemic reform will result from the outcry that is triggered by such a clear miscarriage of justice.
JULIE HILDEN practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. She is the author of a memoir, The Bad Daughter and a novel Three. She can be reached through her website.
This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.