The news media has been abuzz recently about the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s decision to adopt an R rating for the film documentary"Bully,"and understandably so. School bullying has reached epidemic proportions, and with the rise in social media, bullying insidiously follows children from the schoolyard into their homes, their dorm rooms and their computers.
A long list of Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, members of Congress and just plain folks denounced the MPAA for assigning the R rating to “Bully,” and they called for a lowerPG-13rating instead. As valid as their concerns may be, we all must be mindful not to throw the ratings “baby” out with the bullying “bathwater.” The public should be aware of this important film, but the film was accurately rated based on the MPAA guidelines.
Unfortunately, some of the supporters of “Bully” suggested that an R rating somehow condoned bullying behavior. That is intellectually dishonest and factually bankrupt. The MPAA rating system casts no value judgment on the relative merits of the film. To do otherwise takes objective criteria and twists it into a subjective mess that would serve no one well.
Ideally, the MPAA rating would be completely reliable, utterly consistent, clearly transparent and totally impervious to lobbying. I say “ideally” because of the numerous instances in which studios and filmmakers successfully push the MPAA to lower a film’s rating.
Why? In a word: money. Films rated PG generally make more money at the box office than PG-13 films, and PG-13 films generally outperform R-rated films.
Some opponents of the R rating for “Bully” have stated that children would be prohibited from seeing it because of an R rating, but that is false. An NC-17 rating might ensure that no child would be admitted to see a film, but children are able to attend an R-rated film if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. This puts the decision precisely where it belongs: with the parent.
Opponents of the R rating insist that this particular film is “too important” to be rated R. But neither entertainers nor members of Congress should decide what content is “too important” to be rated in a manner consistent with the film’s content.
“Schindler’s List"was an Academy Award-winning film that laid bare the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a film that, in my opinion, everyone should see. It was rated R. And based on the objective criteria of the film’s content, R was the appropriate rating.
“Saving Private Ryan"showed with brutal honesty the human cost of war. It was rated R. And based on objective criteria and the film’s content, R was the appropriate rating.
“Bully” is also a powerful film, and I hope it helps to open eyes and save lives. But the reality is that the film contains material that is wholly consistent with an R rating, and only an R rating. No matter how passionately we feel about the content of these films, we should not allow our own subjective views about the worthiness of the message to sway what should be a purely objective measure of adult-themed content in the film.
In my own life, I’ve been the victim of bullying. As a child I was physically attacked at school; in college I lost a friend to suicide as a result of the pressures he faced when he “came out.” So add my name to the list of those who feel the message of “Bully” is of vital importance. But let’s embrace the MPAA’s R rating for a film that contains R-rated material. And let’s not equate an accurate rating with the notion that doing so condones reprehensible bullying behavior. To suggest otherwise is dishonest, unfair and, dare I say — bullying?
Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan organization advocating responsible entertainment. A longer version of this essay appears at https://www.parentstv.org.