The Mysterious History Of The Motion Picture Rating System


Culturally, the U.S. came late to rating its movies, as most all other countries already had been rating their movies for decades.  In 1968 the old Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).  The MPAA is a non-profit business and trade association that administers the voluntary film rating system that Hollywood relies on to this day.Jack Valenti

Origins of the MPAA

William Harrison Hays, Sr. was the namesake of the “Hays Code” for censorship of American films.  He was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918 to 1921 and U.S. Postmaster General from 1921 to 1922.  A year after he left office, he become the choice of the Hollywood movie studios to become the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and served until he retired in 1945.

The goal of the MPPDA was to rehab the image of the movie industry in the wake of the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape and murder scandal and amid growing calls by certain religious groups for federal censorship of the movies. 

Placing Hays in this office to “clean up the pictures” was, widely regarded as a public relations ploy and much was made of his conservative credentials, including his roles as a Presbyterian deacon and past chairman of the Republican Party.  Due to the Hays Code every movie released, on or after 1 July 1934, would have adhere to the Hays Office Production Code of the MPPDAA, or face a punitive pecuniary fine.

From 1966 to 2004, Jack Valenti was MPAA president.  His legacy lives on.  Valenti is probably known to most people  as the short, white-haired man who presented an award on the Academy Awards telecast each year.  Valenti was a very interesting person indeed.  In 1952, he co-founded “Weekley & Valenti”, an advertising/political consulting agency.  Valenti’s agency was in charge of the press during the November 1963 visit of President John

F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson to Dallas, Texas.  Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Valenti was present in the famous photograph of Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in aboard Air Force One.  This of course is something that we need to believe is a coincidence.

Later, Valenti became the first “special assistant” to President Johnson.  He lived in the White House for the first two months of Johnson’s presidency.  In 1966, Valenti, at the insistence of Universal Studios and with Lyndon Johnson’s consent, resigned his White House commission and became the president of the Motion Picture Association of America.  In 1968 he created the MPAA film rating system very similar to the one that we know today.  Many believe that the intent of the various ratings has been subverted. For example, there is widespread access to R-rated movies even for those under 17, while the NC-17 rating spells commercial death for a film.  If your film gets a NC-17 rating most mainstream media will not carry advertising for it, and many theaters will simply not run it.  The NC-17 rating supplanted the earlier “X” rating but the change did noting to offset the perceived negative association with it.

The ratings system itself is attacked as de facto censorship by free-speech activists, and conversely as too lenient in its content standards by some conservative critics, religious leaders, lawyers, and parental review boards.  A Harvard study suggested that in 2003, more “inappropriate” content has been allowed in PG and PG-13 rated movies than in 1992.  Other critics argue that the MPAA tends to be considered more complacent with violent content than sexual, and that there is more bias against homosexual sexual content than heterosexual.

Since the MPAA members are the motion picture industry’s most powerful studios, representing some of the world’s largest media corporations, allegations of monopoly are often brought up by critics.  Some critics also point to the MPAA’s support for closed standards that hinder competition.  The most intriging aspect of the MPAA is the fact that the organization itself is shrouded in mystery.  MPAA board members are anonymous, deliberations are private, and standards are seemingly arbitrary.  The MPAA’s “appeals board” is made up a combination of movie executives and some representatives from certain religious groups.

Recently, the MPAA Rejected a ‘Taxi To The Dark Side’ movie poster because it depicts a hooded detainee.  One only needs to look at the poster for “Hostel” part one or part two in order to see the apparent contradiction in logic.

“This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is a documentary that delivers the message that that the MPAA is thoroughly corrupt.

Major studios it is disclosed receive more leeway than independent studios do; sexual content is treated far differently than violent content; MPAA raters are anonymous, with no accountability; and, most importantly, the MPAA operates under a code of strict internal secrecy, leaving no transparency in regard to its decision-making process and no accountability.

When the documentary film “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” was submitted to the MPAA for a rating the filmmakers had to edit it in order to receive an R rating.  By itself it would be slapped with an NC-17.  Ironically, when they tried to question the reasons behind the decision they were stonewalled by the MPAA’s lawyers, giving further proof to the claim that the MPAA is a organization accountable to no one.  Appeals of this decision were made, but the restrictions placed on them at the appeals meeting (with ten anonymous reviewers) were outrageous.  The cannot point out inconsistencies in ratings by comparing previously released films to their own, and they were not allowed to cite precedent by the MPAA.  After rightly protesting these limitations, they were told that “those are the rules”: they will not be changed.

To most of Hollywood’s filmmakers, the MPAA IS the Evil Empire.