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March 10, 2004
Dump the MPAA Ratings Systems, Please

In a statement that has gathered way too much attention already, an anti-smoking activist has challenged Hollywood to consider tobacco use when assigning MPAA ratings:

If Nicolas Cage lights a cigarette in a movie, Hollywood's ratings board should respond as if he used a profanity, according to authors of a new study that criticizes glamorous images of smoking in movies rated for children under 17.

Nearly 80 percent of movies rated PG-13 feature some form of tobacco use, while 50 percent of G and PG rated films depict smoking, said Stanton Glantz, co-author of the study, which examined 775 U.S. movies over the past five years.

"No one is saying there should never be any smoking in the movies," Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Tuesday at a press conference at Hollywood High School. "What we're simply asking for is that smoking be treated by Hollywood as seriously as it treats offensive language."

Um, yeah. This demonstrates the silliness of the MPAA system: eventually, everyone's pet peeve will have its impact on the system. Think tobacco is evil? Rate the film R. Don't like alcohol? Give me an R! Eat too many fatty foods? That's an R, too, regardless of context. For instance, here's the list of offending films cited by Dr. Glantz:

Glantz singled out The Walt Disney Co. for smoking in the PG-rated "Holes" and G-rated "102 Dalmatians," Time Warner for its PG "Secondhand Lions" and "What a Girl Wants" and Sony Pictures Entertainment for its PG "Master of Disguise."

The character that smoked in 101 Dalmations and 102 Dalmations was Cruella DeVille -- the villain! In fact, the use of tobacco through the cigarette holder identifies her as a rich, evil person, something that Dr. Glantz should be happy to see in a children's film. I haven't seen any of the other films, but insisting that giving them R ratings (which would require parents to attend the movie with the child) almost qualifies as satire. When does it stop?

It should stop with the elimination of the current MPAA rating system. If ratings are necessary at all, they should only address parental supervision and nothing else. Set objective thresholds for requiring the exclusion of underage viewers unaccompanied by an adult. The thresholds for supervision could be as simple as realistic bodily harm, full-frontal nudity or realistic sexual encounters, and excessive use of profanity. It's still a judgment call, but at least we won't be fooling around with silly letter grades that mean exactly nothing.

Once a picture is released with or without a requirement for supervision, publish the various possible objections as is done on pay channels such as HBO, Showtime, and the like. That way, parents can make their own decisions on what they wish their children to see, filmmakers won't have to dance around with the MPAA board to get a PG-13 rating when no one really knows what the requirements are for it, and national scolds like Dr. Glantz can publish the lists of films that offend their particular sensibilities to their hearts' content.

Given the facts, parents can reach their own conclusions, but the amorphous and arbitrary nature of the current system helps no one, and single-issue nannies like Dr. Glantz will only make problems worse.

(link via Oh, That Liberal Media, which also skewers this piece from another angle)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 10, 2004 12:40 PM

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