Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
For as long as most movie fans can remember, there have been ratings. The MPAA has gone through numerous ups and downs ever since coming into being in 1930 (when it was the Hays Code). The decisions of this shadowy organization have come under fire within the last few years, after directors and the like complained about the logic that goes into their ratings decisions. The latest dispute involves the Weinstein Company and their now R-rated film Bully. I’m not here to discuss all the problems of the MPAA and their decision-making; more about their ratings on movies showing one element: rape. The MPAA elevates ratings due to smoking, excessive sex or excessive nudity, but rape seems to be an R-rated thing and nothing more. Why is rape not judged harsher than other things?
As an overzealous film fan I watch a ton of movies (it would border on obsession if it interfered with my daily living). I recently watched director Pedro Almodover’s The Skin I Live In which is a dark, twisting, Spanish melodrama about a doctor (Antonio Banderas) who keeps a woman locked up in his house. During a particular scene said woman is raped by another man and it’s a pretty intense and extended sequence of rape. Only a few months ago, director Rod Lurie brought a remake of Straw Dogs to the screen that also showed an extended sequence of rape, complete with the camera showing the scene across the screen. I’m not justifying or condemning these scenes as they are used in a context of furthering the plot, my question is why are these not rated harsher?
The two movies mentioned above go so far as to define in different ways the cases of rape. In The Skin I Live In the R-rating is for “violent content including sexual assault” while Straw Dogs mentions its rating is for “a sexual attack.” The critical and awards darling remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the only film to flat out mention it’s rated R for “rape.” Why lessen the very notion of the word in these ratings? They’re rated R already, so no one under 17 can see them, but what if you’re a victim of sexual assault and you look at these three ratings? What exactly is a “sexual attack?” I’ve seen Straw Dogs, both the original and the remake, and the remake’s rape is a very brutal scene despite the camera cutting to other things. Is that what lessens the impact, that the camera doesn’t consistently stay on the rape happening?
The Skin I Live In also doesn’t show the rape in close-up but from another person watching via closed circuit cameras in a long shot. You see that a rape is happening, but you’re not close to it. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the only film out of these three where the camera shows the attack unflinchingly. I can understand that having the camera up-close to the rape could make the audience uncomfortable, as they’re witnessing something so closely but why should movies lessen what a terrible crime rape is? The MPAA looks at the entire context of a movie before giving it a rating, but why go so far as to change the terms used to mention rape in the movie? Sure the ratings descriptions have become vague as the years go on (utilizing terms like “strong language,” “some violence” and “terror”) but what differentiates a “sexual attack,” from a “sexual assault,” to a “rape?” By lessening the very meaning of the word the MPAA allows the act to be marginalized and unimportant in the context of the film.
Maybe the difference has to do with the different genres of these movies. The Skin I Live In is a foreign language film. The fact that the US lessens these ratings may be a trend toward fear of sex but acceptance of rape. You can’t have too much consensual sex in a film or risk getting an NC-17 (Shame being the prime example), but you can beat and rape a woman while maintaining that R-rating. Straw Dogs is a fine example as that film was marketed as a horror movie. Horror movies have always had laxer views on violence and sex but even in the 70s rape was perceived as harsher in the case of the “video nasties” and exploitation films of that period. Ironically, the original Last House on the Left was unrated and banned in several places because of its rape and violence towards women. Whereas the 2009 remake (whose R-rating does contain the word “rape” in it), was given a lesser rating.
It’s even more heartbreaking to see that this is a double standard not talked about in regards to the MPAA. It’s not in the news like 2010’s issue over Black Swan and Blue Valentine’s oral sex discrepancies. Instead, the double standard and differing views of “rape” are ignored. Where is there a double standard in not only how harshly rape is rated, but in the very usage of the word when outlining why the movie is rated a certain way? In the numerous films that have been given an NC-17 according to Wikipedia only four include any term related to rape in their rating description (so I can’t be sure if terms like “graphic sexuality” include rape in them). Of those four three were major studio pictures, all re-edited their work to get an R-rating and said R-rating did contain said rape. So what was edited down to secure the R? Certainly not the rape as it’s still mentioned in their rating description. So to secure an R-rating for your film you can include a rape, just be sure to edit out some of the more awful violence and gore!
The MPAA continues to showcase themselves as an outdated organization, but for a board that screens movies to protect America’s youth, what message is being sent that an R-rated movie can contain rape against women? You can’t be too violent or too sexual (consensually) in your movies or risk an NC-17 but you can beat, kill and rape a female and still have your movie mass-marketed to those over 18 (and considering how easy it to get into an R-rated movie without one’s parents, we’re opening the doors to the youth that are supposedly being protected). It’s unknown what would have to change for this double standard to be acknowledged, but what does it say about our society that consensual sex in film is feared and rape isn’t?
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.