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Politically Correct Movie Ratings

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

The Motion Picture Association of America issued a revision to its movie ratings system in May. Now, every movie in which smoking occurs on the screen will be given an R rating if it is judged to be detrimental to kids. MPAA chairman Dan Glickman was quoted as saying it wasn't that big a deal, since more than 75 percent of the movies where even a glimpse of smoking occurs had received an R rating anyway for other reasons, and that smoking in movies is steadily declining too.

You'd think the antismoking folks would be ecstatic. But Stanton Glantz, a longtime antitobacco activist, said the new policy didn't go far enough. In a Los Angeles Times article, he was quoted as saying, "Rather than putting in a clean, easily understandable, easily enforceable rule, that if you want to put smoking in just like if you want to put nudity in you're going to get an R, they're going to 'take it into consideration,' whatever that means," Glantz said.

Glantz, who heads an organization called Smoke Free Movies, has been one of the driving forces behind this policy shift. He and representatives from several other organizations have presented research to the MPAA that purports to show that teenagers who see smoking in movies are many times more likely to try cigarettes than those who don't. Even though they scored, their bottom line is automatic R ratings for any film showing smoking.

Now, we want to make one thing clear. We're all for protecting kids from adult behaviors that could be harmful to them. But we want everyone to think carefully about whether actions like the MPAA's are akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The line between prudence and outright censorship is very fine, and the MPAA is dangerously close to bowing to outside pressures that are setting a precedent for censorship.

Strip away the subject of smoking and what do you have? An obsessed interest group with a determination to quash any publicity about the thing they perceive to be dangerous. Where does that stop? At one time, it seemed ludicrous to lump smoking together with fatty foods, or alcohol, or any choice with possible health consequences. But if you've been paying attention, those issues are on the table now too. So will the MPAA kowtow to the diet nuts, and give R ratings to any film that glorifies eating at a fast food joint? Will we go back to Prohibition-style attacks on anything that shows people actually enjoying a glass of wine, or a cocktail?

It would be one thing if the MPAA's film ratings could point to consistency, or a rational foundation for the system. But when a film that shows dozens of people getting gunned down gets the same rating as a film that shows one bare breast, you've got to wonder about the logic that dominates the ratings. Now, a film that has a lit cigarette or cigar will be subject to the same restrictions as one with an AK-47 pointed at the head of a cop or one with the naked piece of flesh. Go figure.

Kids are impressionable, no doubt about it. But the real-life lessons should start at home, not in a movie theater—no matter what the research says. It's time for everyone who cares about our basic freedom, especially our freedom of expression, to stand up and demand that these actions of small groups stop. Let us make our own decisions, for ourselves, and for our kids.

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