Ryan Gosling, Roger Ebert call for new MPAA Guidelines
Next Sunday, the 68th Golden Globes will mark the start of the major film awards season leading up to the ultimate film event: the Academy Awards. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are nominees in the Globe’s best actor and actress categories for their performances in the film Blue Valentine, a bleak depiction of a couple falling in and then out of love. The film has received a fair amount of press over the past month or so because of a statement released by one of the film’s stars.
Gosling accused the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) of misogyny when it saddled Blue Valentine with a dreaded NC-17 rating thanks to a scene that depicts oral sex performed on Williams’ character. Such a rating inevitably limits audience, marketability, film revenue and exposure.
Gosling is quoted as asserting:
You have to question a cinematic culture, which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.
A reporter with Deadline said the MPAA tried to justify its rating with citing the “uncomfortable” nature of the scene in the film:
I'm told the rating was given for a scene in which the characters played by Gosling and Williams try to save their crumbling marriage by spending a night away in a hotel. They get drunk and their problems intensify when he wants to have sex and she doesn't, but will to get him off her back. That hurts his pride and the result is an upsetting scene that makes you squirm, but is an honest one that establishes clearly that this couple has nothing left and isn't going to make it because love has turned into contempt. There is barely any nudity in the scene, as I recall (though I haven't seen it since last January) and there is no violence. It was hardly a moment that would make you think, well here comes an NC-17.
Since Gosling’s public outcry (and the ensuing media coverage), Blue Valentine’s NC-17 rating was replaced with an R rating. But more important, Gosling’s claims of MPAA’s misogyny opens up an important discussion not just on revamping an antiquated ratings system but on the ways that women’s bodies and female sexual pleasure are continually marginalized in popular film.
Indeed Gosling articulates the great hypocrisy of the MPAA that has long been criticized by the likes of noted film critic Roger Ebert. Writing a piece for the Wall Street Journal on exactly this issue Mr. Ebert states, “The MPAA should have changed its standards long ago, taking into account the context and tone of a movie instead of holding fast to rigid checklists.” Years ago, actress Sally Struthers said something similar when she remarked, “If a man is pictured chopping off a woman's breast, it only gets a R rating, but if, God forbid, a man is pictured kissing a woman's breast, it gets an X rating. Why is violence more acceptable than tenderness?” (The MPAA did away with its “X” rating in 1990, when it replaced it with the NC-17 rating. Since then, NC-17 has been used almost exclusively to denote pornography.)
The vast dichotomy between the way violence and sex are portrayed in Hollywood film is perhaps a microcosm of American cultural mores overall. Another probable Oscar contender, The King’s Speech has also entered this conversation, albeit in a less pronounced role, for its R rating, rendered for a speech performed by Colin Firth’s character that contains a number of curse words. The film includes a comedic scene in which Firth’s character, a stuttering King George VI, is required to say the word “fuck” 42 times.
Policing language and sex has a long history in Hollywood and—more broadly—American culture (see the recent Huck Finn controversy) but violence not only skirts such scrutiny but is often gratuitous in its depictions.
It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider that men run Hollywood, and violence is often considered a masculine trait. America also has quite a violent history—in its infancy as a country, in its foreign policy, in its gun legislation, etc.—which would seep into its entertainment and media productions. Language and sex tend to be policed more heavily because they are not considered to be solely the domain of one gender.
But to uphold sexism and censorship, stringent hierarchies must be at play. Thus complex sexual relationships on screen are rated the same as meaningless, clumsy or even tortuous sex. Hopefully, the MPAA will take these critiques to heart, and implement changes to its grading system that reflect a modern and nuanced view of sex rather than sexism and inconsistency.
Courtney Young is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @cocacy.