The upcoming documentary film Bully has received a Restricted rating from the MPAA, resulting in some fuss and consternation, including an online petition to lower the rating. There’s a concern that the rating will limit the attendance of teens who should see the film. There’s nothing like a good old ratings controversy to get some publicity. The producers had to know that the amount of swearing in the film was risking an R rating, not to mention the more serious consequence of parents and other authorities (such as church groups) shunning the film – not because of the rating, but simply because of the language.

None of the Canadian Boards have rated Bully yet, so it remains to be seen how it will be classified here. As a general rule, Canadian Boards are a little less concerned about language elements than the MPAA. In addition Ontario allows for lower ratings that might normally apply for films “where social, historic and documentary significance warrants”. This clause was used to justify lower than usual age ratings for Passion of the Christ and Saving Private Ryan. This clause is problematic – if specific violence is harmful for persons below a certain age, how does it become less harmful because the film is of historic significance?

In the interests of consistency, I could suggest the MPAA stick by its rating, and the film will probably gain more by the publicity than it would by having a lower rating. However, unlike the Canadian Boards, the  MPAA and its ratings are not subject to public scrutiny and government oversight. Problems with secrecy and inconsistency in the MPAA were well covered in This Film is Not Yet Rated. So maybe a little pressure on the MPAA is justified.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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