A film rating can make or break a movie. So it’s no wonder that the Motion Picture Association of America, which determines whether a film is given a G, a PG, a PG-13, an R or an NC-17, occasionally has its decisions contested.
The MPAA is a controversial body, frequently criticised for a lack of transparency and investigated in the 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
Questions have been raised about the association’s potential prejudice towards sexual rather than violent content, and the extent to which sexism, homophobia and racism might inform a film’s rating.
From 1968 to 2018, only 0.6 per cent of films had their ratings overturned.
According to Wilson and Hathaway, the MPAA insisted that “10 of the best jokes of the film”, including a “dinosaur clitoris” gag, needed to be tweaked or cut before the movie was classed as a PG-13.
So Wilson, who has a law degree, decided to go to arbitration herself, address the jury personally, and make her case that The Hustle was teen appropriate.
Speaking about her arguments on The Graham Norton Show, she recounted: “So basically I said that it was sexist to give our movie an R rating, when the original that starred two men was given PG-13.”
Wilson said that she did an analysis between male and female comedies, comparing the language in The Hustle to that used in Adam McKay’s Anchorman. She explained, “The Hustle has five references to female anatomy, but the PG movie Anchorman has nine references to male anatomy … plus 20 references to female body parts”. She added that the film includes the phrase, “rub Vaseline all over your heinie”.
Other filmmakers have also contested their ratings, with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the most notable cases.
1. Mean Girls (2004)
Like The Hustle, the high school comedy Mean Girls managed to get its rating down from an R to a PG-13. Director Mark Waters said in an interview with Cosmopolitan, “The first script I read was very R-rated, it had sexual commentary as well as a lot of profanity; a lot of f-bombs and salacious talk.”
He continued: “We stripped all that stuff out before we started shooting. We were making a movie set in a high school which would be primarily marketed to girls aged 12 to 25. A girl in high school should be able to go and see a movie about girls in high school.”
Although they made some concessions to get the necessary rating, the makers of Mean Girls were committed to keeping one of the film’s most iconic moments intact.
“My favourite line is the one we fought hardest to keep because the ratings board really wanted us to cut it,” Waters explained. “We were very adamant that we shouldn’t have to and Tina [Fey] wrote a very eloquent letter to the MPAA accusing them of sexism, saying, ‘This is a line where a girl is talking about her body in a purely anatomical way and there’s nothing profane about it.’ They eventually backed down and let us have it which was, when in the assembly, Bethany Byrd says: ‘I can’t help it if I have a heavy flow and a wide set vagina.’ We dug in and kept that against a big onslaught of people trying to make us change it.”
2. The Cooler (2003)
This movie was given an NC-17, the MPAA’s highest rating, which prohibits anyone aged 17 or under from watching the film in cinemas. Several theatres don’t even screen movies with this certificate, meaning a limited run for the film.
The Cooler’s director Wayne Kramer explained what prompted the ratings body to decide his film was inappropriate for under-18s.
“They said it was because there was a glimpse of Maria [Bello]’s pubic hair in the second scene,” he said in an interview for This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
Bello, who was also in the interview, continued, “Just a couple of months before I had gone to see a horror film that was rated R. It was a ‘funny’ horror film, and in the first 10 minutes, a woman gets her fake breast cut out, and there’s blood everywhere. And that’s what made me so furious, to make me want to go in and fight for my pubic hair.”
She added, “I’m a mother, why should that movie get an R, and why, for seeing my pubic hair, do we get an NC-17, when it was this beautiful moment between two people that had a lot to do with love?”
The offending scene was cut, and the edited version of the movie received an R rating.
3. 3 Generations (2015)
As well attracting accusations of sexism, the MPAA has come under fire for its treatment of LGBTQ stories. 3 Generations, which stars Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon, tells the story of a transgender teenager called Ray. It was originally given an R rating.
The now disgraced Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced 3 Generations, was once infamous for going head-to-head with the ratings board. He even tried to sue the MPAA, and, although his lawsuit was thrown out, the NC-17 rating was introduced a matter of months later.
The Weinstein Company was eventually successful in securing a PG-13 rating for 3 Generations.
4. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Another film focusing on a trans character, Boys Don’t Cry is based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered by two male acquaintances in 1993. It was originally given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA.
Director Kimberly Peirce spoke about her frustration that the association wanted the consensual sex scene between Brandon (played by Hilary Swank) and Lana (played by Chloë Sevigny) to removed, while being satisfied with the brutality and violence of the murder scene.
According to Screenrant, Peirce suggested that the MPAA disliked seeing sexual pleasure onscreen without a male being involved. The edited version of Boys Don’t Cry was given an R rating.
5. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)
This French romance is based on a lesbian love story. Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award, it was given an NC-17 rating in the US. By contrast, the French Ministry of Culture decided it was appropriate for viewers aged 12 and over.
The high rating from the MPAA was not appealed by the film’s co-writer, co-producer and directer Abdellatif Kechiche, nor was the movie cut in an effort to secure an R.
The Sundance Selects/IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring explained: “The film is first and foremost a film about love, coming of age and passion. We refuse to compromise Kechiche’s vision by trimming the film for an R rating, and we have every confidence that Blue is The Warmest Color will play in theaters around the country regardless.”
He added: “We have intimate knowledge of how the MPAA works, and it is unquestionable that changes must be made. That the board finds violence acceptable for young viewers while condemning sex is egregious.”
6. But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Jamie Babbett’s romantic comedy about a high school cheerleader whose parents send her to a conversion therapy camp in an attempt to “cure” her homosexuality, was given an NC-17 by the MPAA.
In an interview for This Film is Not Yet Rated, Babbett recounted her frustration when the ratings board told her that, in order to get an R, she had to cut the scene where one of the female characters is masturbating, despite the girl being fully clothed at the time.
Babbett pointed out that American Pie was given an R, even though the trailer featured a male masturbation scene. But I’m a Cheerleader was forced to make cuts to achieve the same rating.
7. Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
The UK also has its fair share of rating controversies. Diary of a Teenage Girl, a comedy-drama about a 15 year old who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, was given an 18 certificate in Britain and an R rating in the US.
The film’s star Bel Powley spoke to Vice about her disappointment that teenage girls would be prevented from seeing the film. “When we were shooting we were discussing it and I was like, ‘oh don’t worry, England are so liberal, it’ll definitely get a 15,’” she explained.
Discussing the surprisingly high rating, she added: “I feel like it goes to show everything we were trying to say with the movie. Society is scared of teenage girls’ sexuality.”
Powley implied that film rating is a feminist issue, and, like director Jamie Babbett, she cited American Pie, which was given a 15 certificate in the UK. “Everyone happily makes movies about boys losing their virginity, and boys wanting to go and get laid with loads of girls before they get married, or boys having sex with an Apple Pie,” she argued, “and everyone’s like ‘Haha that’s hilarious!’”
8. Bully (2011)
Filmmakers sometimes feel that the ratings system stops their movie from getting to its intended audience. Bully, a documentary film following the lives of five teenagers and the harassment they endured, was controversially given an R rating, scuppering director Lee Hirsch’s hope that it would be shown in schools.
A petition was created, imploring the CEO of the MPAA to reduce the rating to a PG-13. Ellen Degeneres voiced her support for the cause, and eventually The Weinstein Company (who acquired the film after it’s premiere), came to an agreement with the ratings body: toning down the profanity in exchange for a PG-13.
9. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Before the introduction of the NC-17, the highest MPAA rating was an X. Melvin Van Peebles’s independently produced action thriller was given this certificate, prompting the film to adopt the tagline “Rated X by an all-white jury”.
In a letter to the MPAA, Van Peebles wrote, “I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see. Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”
He continued, “When an artist refuses to submit work to your jury (all White) your rules require him to self apply an “X” rating to his film. Such a rating necessarily limits the number of persons who will see the film and stigmatises the film.” The film’s rating was reduced to R in 1974.
10. The King’s Speech (2010)
Not every ratings controversy has a political dimension. One iconic scene in The King’s Speech, where Colin Firth – playing the orally impaired Prince Albert – shouts the f-word over and over again, lead to the film being slapped with an R rating in the US.
Director Tom Hooper insisted that the royal turning the air blue during speech therapy was a pivotal moment. According to Deadline, the scene was allowed to remain in the film, but the certificate was reduced to a PG-13 after three of the f-bombs were muted.
What do you think of these films' ratings? Are there any others that you can think of that were given crazy ratings? Tell us in the comments section below.