The blogosphere recently erupted into outrage when the MPAA—the trade association that hands down movie ratings from G to NC-17—gave the documentary Bully a rating of R.
As the AV Club put it, “After several weeks of the MPAA essentially sitting on Bully, slapping the documentary with its own hands, and saying, ‘Stop censoring yourself, stop censoring yourself,’ The Weinstein Company has opted to give up on its quest for a PG-13.”
Pajiba, meanwhile, was very distraught, worrying about the impact keeping the kid from the movie might have and quoting the director of the picture as saying “It is heartbreaking that the MPAA, in adhering to a strict limit on certain words, would end up keeping this film from those who need to see it most.”
Of course, no one was “kept” from seeing the movie. Kids could still see it with a guardian. Some chains even allowed kids into the film with a note signed by their parents. But the MPAA is a much-disliked entity and seen as a regressive force, an evil aspect of American puritanism that keeps artists from reaching self-expression. So raking that organization over the coals is fair game.
This is not censorship, as the AV Club joked—it’s not even particularly close.
David Cronenberg described censorship a couple of decades ago while doing press for Videodrome. He loved the MPAA, especially in comparison to his home nation’s manner of censorship:
When I came down here to talk to the MPAA about ratings, it was still a relief compared with what happens in Ontario, which is where they take your picture. They take every print. And they cut it. And they hand it back to you and they say this is your new movie. They keep the pieces that they’ve taken out—and you go to jail for two years if they’re projected, if you put the pieces back. And that’s real censorship.
And this is from a filmmaker who routinely receives NC-17 ratings for his pictures!
Though Canadian provinces still maintain similar powers, things are better these days. For real, live censorship you have to go to someplace like China.
In China the government can outlaw—literally outlaw—13 minutes of a film it doesn’t like. This is censorship.
Where are the Internet hordes bellowing about this outrage?
The AV Club has at least mentioned the controversy, joking “It is, indeed, the most glaring example of Hollywood films kowtowing to Chinese censorship since the last one.” Government oppression: hilarious! Pajiba hasn’t even bothered to do that much.
Why the silent acquiescence to such venal behavior by our movie studios—to say nothing of the behavior of the Chinese? Why do our pop culture blogs say nothing as the Obama Administration helps set up crooked deals between major studios and the Chinese government? Why do our pop culture blogs say nothing as the Chinese government funds that nation’s biggest businessman’spurchase of AMC, one of our nation’s largest theater chains?
Few of our pop culture mavens seem to think that it’s a particularly big deal that movie studios are clawing each other’s eyes out—and cutting anything the Chinese deem unacceptable—to get one of the limited licenses to show their films in China. None of our nation’s prominent cultural bloggers seem particularly upset that a nation committed to censoring cultural products it proclaims unfit for consumption is forming the world’s largest chain of theaters.
Instead of getting worked up about The Weinstein Company taking a minor economic hit because one of their documentaries is rated R instead of PG-13, wouldn’t it make more sense to get worked up about a growing superpower committed to telling our film studios what they can and cannot show?
In an increasingly globalized world with an extremely complicated web of business alliances, perhaps cultural forces like Roger Ebert should be more worried about the pressure exerted by authoritarian states than the guidance offered by a trade organization with no legal power.