Graphic Sex vs. Graphic Violence on the Big Screen
Edward Jay Epstein’s essay, “Sex and the Cinema” makes the claim that one important necessity to a film’s success is the absence of sex, namely graphic sex. Epstein backs his claim well but royally fails to address a topic that plagued me for the entirety of his essay and left me wondering about the question of violence vs. sexual content and their vast differences in the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system. Why is violence less offensive than sex? And perhaps more importantly what does this say about us as consumers?
A film that earns a “G” rating for general audiences, means it’s appropriate for all ages, it will not have nudity, sex or course language but may contain mild violence according to the MPAA’s website (Bryson). The MPAA and their daughter company Classification & Rating Administration have come under fire in recent years over their loose attitude toward violence. Critics have accused them of being harsher on sexual content than violence, a phenomenon known as a “ratings creep”. MPAA representatives respond by pointing their fingers at consumers; saying that the public is demanding increasing levels of violence on film (Sneed). CARA decides what rating a film has earned by bringing together a panel of several parents to view and then vote on the appropriate rating for the film (CARA). So while the MPAA has guidelines for the viewing panel to follow, ultimately that panel decides the definition of “mild violence”.
Epstein did a great job showing the evolution of sexual content in films and how the presence and absence of it has had a make or break impact on a movie’s box office sales. He starts in the early days of Hollywood, when Cecil B. DeMille had bathing scenes as an essential part of all his films and how this translated his movies being consistently high grossing (Epstein). This is in stark contrast to the modern recipe for a winning movie, which is to keep your hands to yourself, that is unless you’re slapping someone with them.
While I am not advocating for children to be allowed in to see a movie depicting graphic sex or sexual content, I find it ironic that in a country where we see over sexualized images, the objectification of the human body (almost always the female body) on magazine covers, commercials, billboards and music videos constantly, yet we have regulations that transform a movie theater into a some sacred place where our children are not exposed to these images. The truth is, just as Epstein shows in his essay, that money talks, walks and makes all the rules including the rules that govern what is categorized as moral or obscene.
There is no problem with having a clearly defined system for rating movies based on content. But, there are two questions that this current self-regulating system presents. First, what sort of message are we sending with the rating system as it is now to our children and society as a whole about violence and sex? I am of the opinion that we are making a very clear statement that nudity and even sex between two consenting adults should be viewed as significantly more visually and emotionally offensive than the gross violation of another human being’s body by the intentional infliction of pain at the hands of another. Our media restricting guidelines and regulations act under the guise of protecting our children and showing them what is acceptable and what isn’t, when as we know, money is the real driving force behind them. Consequentially, the current rating system tells our children that they should have a stronger negative reaction to walking in on their mother nude in the tub than the sight of her being beaten by a man. This may seem like a pretty rich exaggeration, but I believe that is what it really boils down to.
My second question casts a wider eye on sex and violence as it is depicted in the media in general. Since its development, the PG13 rating has brought in more revenue than any other rating, making it a sweet spot for many film makers looking to make a big profit (Sneed). The movie theater is off limits when it comes to sexual content due to its need for revenue and the loss in sales that it would experience if sexual nudity was shown as often as graphic violence. Because apparently sex doesn’t sell movies even though it certainly sells everything else from cheese burgers to clothing. Modern American adults and children will see the sexual objectification of women as a means to sell products on a daily basis just by turning on the television or doing the perfectly innocent task of grocery shopping. But, these companies are only doing what works to get us buying. We, the consumers, tell them what we deem desirable with our wallets. And according to the magazine rack at the grocery store, the Victoria’s Secret commercial interlude to your violent movie on television and whatever is playing at your local theater, we are making the boundaries of our own moral maps crystal clear.
Bryson, Carey. “http://kidstvmovies.about.com/od/mpaa/f/MPAARatings.htm.” 2012. http://www.about.com. 13 4 2014.
CARA. http://www.filmratings.com/what.html. 2013. 13 4 2014.
Epstein, Edward Jay. “Sex and the Cinema.” Annette T. Rottenberg, Donna Haisty Winchell. The Structure of Argument. Boston, 2012. 43-46.
MPAA. http://www.mpaa.org/policy-focus-mpaa-blog/. 2014. 12 4 2014.
Sneed, Tierny. “http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/01/07/dont-expect-a-new-movie-ratings-system-in-2014?page=2.” 7 1 2014. http://www.usnews.com. 13 4 2014.