Politically Correct: How Hollywood Leverages Public Consciousness and Creates Taboo

Laura O’Brian


On May 10, 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that it would begin considering cigarette smoking a factor in movie ratings. According to the then Chairman and CEO, Dan Glickman, the MPAA had based this decision on the fact that smoking had become “an increasingly unacceptable behavior in our society.”  He cited three primary concerns which would influence  the agency's future decisions: the pervasiveness of the smoking, whether or not smoking is glamorized in its presentation, and whether historical or other “mitigating context[s]” existed.  But the statement insisted that there would be no “automatic R-rating” policy. And, in order to assuage any incensed parents and citizens who might have felt betrayed by this lack of aggressive action, Glickman explained that the MPAA had received extensive feedback from parents indicating that parents should determine the content to which they exposed their children,“ not the industry and certainly not the government.”


The absurdity of this odd addendum conceals its essentially spurious content. Automatic R-ratings allow for adult accompaniment and would not have prevented parents from taking their children to see those films anyway. But, more saliently, the statement implied the Association's own compliance with the wishes expressed by the parental feedback, while leaving unaddressed the fact that the MPAA is owned and operated, according to their own website, by a cooperative ensemble consisting of six major media companies and the movie production studios over which they preside: Walt Disney, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios, and Warner Brothers, which collectively control around 90 percent of the movie industry. In other words, the MPAA is the film  industry.


 It is a self-appointed agency, privately owned and operated, and its vast influence over the content of movies, or the images and ideas to which those concerned parents' children are exposed, is accomplished with great stealth, in part through the completely anonymous ratings board over which it presides. The MPAA's rating system suffocates the exploration of new ideas by squashing artistic content, which fails to conform to their sense of decency and offends their political sensibilities. The loss of the  free exchange of ideas deemed unsuitable by the current ratings system is a travesty, and it should offend anyone who understands that freedom of expression is perhaps the cornerstone of all just societies.


Admittedly, efforts to discourage portrayals of smoking in movies have a significant foundation both in years of accumulated public health information on the dangers of smoking and in the recent studies aimed at researching the neurological correlates of nicotine addiction and smoking behaviors. However, the studies which influenced the rising public outcry for smoking considerations in movie ratings suffered from a variety of complex methodological and practical issues. They often consisted of cross-sectional surveying, following up on a cohort of subjects after a few years, and collecting exposure and behavior data based solely on the survey responses and recollections of the teenaged study subjects. It should not be ignored, however, that the conclusions of the multitude of studies investigating the subject were largely uniform in their establishment of a relationship between teenage smoking and viewing of smoking in movies. 

An extensive report released by the National Cancer Institute Monograph Series examined the complex relationship between media exposure and smoking habits, despite the many potential confounding variables which might influence different people's experiences with the media, such as varying degrees of susceptibility to public information between different population groups, amounts of indirect versus direct exposures, and individual differences in susceptibility to addiction. However, the NCI analysis examined numerous different research designs and studies and concluded that there was in fact strong evidence to suggest some effect of media depiction of smoking on youth. In addition, to underestimate the extent of tobacco companies' meddling in film production would be terribly naïve. The relationship between the film and the tobacco industries has been a historic and fruitful one, consisting of extensive deals for product placement beginning at least as early as the 1980s. These efforts included providing cigarettes to actors, ensuring that cigarette smoking were portrayed in a positive light and preventing brand names from being used in more negative situations.


But it is also 2011. If a child is somehow unaware of  the toxicity and danger of cigarettes then perhaps the child's parents should consider loosening the leash a bit; children who manage to leave their own homes at some point during a given day are practically guaranteed to encounter at least one photo of a blackened, cancerous, disembodied lung on a giant anti-smoking poster. These posters appear in schools, on streets, in supermarkets and stores, and many other locations within a given community.  And, what's more, there's a substantial enough chance that children who leave their homes will pass a man legally smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk, despite their parents' greatest efforts to prevent their children from enduring any cinematic exposure to such a sinister activity.


The same essential arguments made against smoking in movies can be made against almost any kind of activity that can be depicted in a film; alcohol is highly addictive, poses public health risks, and intrigues teenagers. Are all activities capable of causing harm therefore unsuitable subject matter for movies? Of course not, because if this were policy, no one would watch movies, which is the last thing the MPAA wants.


But these objections don't really illuminate the heart of the matter. The anti-smoking policy of the MPAA and its ratings board is just a further extension of its long-time policy of indirect censorship such that they affect, nurture, and even alter society's consciousness. People often engage with film in order to understand the definitions of normality and abnormality.


Under the MPAA, a voluntary film rating system was convened in 1968 in order to allow Hollywood the freedoms needed in order for their content to be reflective of the current society's changing political, social, and moral zeitgeist, and, therefore, to generate enough interest among moviegoers to make the films financially viable. Thus they were able to produce profitable movies which would appeal to the wider public and avoid direct federal censorship as it had existed under the Hays Code, which had prohibited films from producing content that might “lower the moral standard” of its viewers since the 1930's, express critical views of society and the law, depict complete nudity, sexually suggestive dancing, “white slavery,” or represent anything in opposition to the “sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home.”


With the formation of this voluntary, private-industry initiative, films could more appropriately and importantly comment on the challenging questions and developing themes of the evolving sociological changes in society. But the MPAA had and still has no interest in “crossing the line” to the extent that ethical and moral sensibilities might be challenged beyond the current definition of what is politically correct.


The evolution of the depiction of women in cinema illustrates the film industry's larger pattern of adaptabilty  and coherence with changing social mores in terms of their thematic, character-based, and plot content. With respect to the depiction of women specifically, the 1970s saw a burgeoning market for films with modernized depictions of females as single, working, yet still feminized, objects of sexual desire. This shift in female depiction resulted from actual sociological changes amongst the female population.  And the broader archetype of the single, working women in search of romantic prospects, which began with these types of films, has persisted; romantic comedies almost exclusively feature these types of female characters.


It is not that this practice is objectionable; instead, it illustrates the continuing efforts of Hollywood to operate cooperatively within the societal context. But arguably, it is only because of current contexts, and because of political correctness, that Hollywood possesses an interest in these types of depictions. Prior to the sociological changes which prompted these portrayals, the predominate social mores influenced depictions of gender in film. In Chinatown (1974), for example, Jack Nicholson's slapping around of a women in the famous “my sister, my daughter” scene was hardly noticed, though obviously the scene became memorable for other reasons. Today, if such an act were depicted, it would likely cause alienation and offense to audiences, and quite possibly wouldn't be remembered fondly or for nearly the same reasons.


Most of the evolving trends in film depictions of various issues result from the fact that the industry has always been primarily concerned with balancing two conflicting needs: on the one hand profit, directly correlated with the common demand for art and film to be essentially new, somewhat provocative, and essentially resonant with society, and, on the other hand, the desire to avoid alienating large sectors of a potential audience base and powerful institutional authorities by limiting negative portrayals of sensitive subject matter. This balancing act expresses the industry's overwhelming need for political correctness, and has been the primary reason for most actions towards eliminating potentially provocative or risque content throughout the history of the film. 


It is important to understand that there are different aspects to the film industry, and that filmmaking hasn't yet entirely devolved into a massive industry of feel-good, thought-control distribution. The monolithic production studios, with the oft ill-conceived movies they churn out like visual fodder for the masses, control the majority of major releases. But the aggregate of independent films and sometimes larger production efforts that actually represent the artistic visions and creative aspirations of their producers also find their way into the theaters amidst the piles of vacuous, repetitive Hollywood junk.


Its not as though the person responsible for incidents of cigarette smoking in any given movie is necessarily in his home, lathering himself in the stockpiles of cash that the tobacco executive left for him in a suitcase on his porch, cackling as he reminisces about the devious cigarette endorsement he just imparted upon the young, eager minds of America's kids.  If at least some films are actually made with a degree of artistic integrity, it is fair enough to assume that a cigarette can appear in a movie for a reason, as a deliberate detail, a facet of the creator's imagined character, as a means of providing color and shade for a scene. And, even if these images do indeed romanticize smoking, many are also some of the most memorable moments in the history of film.


Pulp Fiction (1994) famously depicts John Travolta's character rolling a cigarette in a diner, only to have Uma Thurman ask “Could you, um, roll me one of those, cowboy?” “You can have this one, cowgirl,” he responds. This exchange is more than  simple romanticizing of cigarette smoking, it’s a production choice that is part of an implicit exchange between the two characters in a situation requiring extreme delicacy and necessary reliance upon non-explicit, subtextual cues for communication (in this case, the fact that Vincent Vaga is an employee and hitman working for Mia Wallace's powerful, gangster husband, and the contextual dynamic of their outing is highly ambiguous). Other examples of cigarettes as communicative or suggestive devices and  representational tools abound. Prohibitive attitudes towards the use of smoking limits the artistic choices of filmmakers and would render films disingenuous with respect to their reflectiveness of actual life.


In reviewing recent movie releases and their respective ratings, one can discern distinct patterns of judgments which depict the ideological underpinnings of the organization. Graphic violence, crime,  and war imagery is ripe for mass consumption, but “aberrant” or “excessive” sexuality should be carefully prevented from entering into the public sphere in any noticeable way. This philosophy is reflected in our society; we are obsessed by violence and war, but consider discussion of sexuality largely taboo. Films are almost exclusively issued an NC-17 rating because of “unacceptable” or “excessive” sexual content, while intense and disturbing violence almost never warrants such a rating.  Because these ratings directly effect public exposure, it is not surprising that there seems to be an increasing indifference to violence and a persistent relegation of sexuality into the world of the taboo. 


The judgments of the ratings board often possess homophobic and otherwise prudish underpinnings. Filmmakers submitting work to the ratings board containing a relatively explicit heterosexual sex scene will routinely receive an R-rating, whereas a film containing the same degree of exposure or depicting the same such act which warranted an R rating in the heterosexual context will be issued an NC-17 when depicted in a homosexual context.



During the production of Team America: World Police (2004), the ratings board told director Trey Parker that in order to secure an R-rating for their movie, the infamous sex scene between the doll-characters could not include positions other than “missionary” and “girl-on-top.” Their response was to issue the proverbial “F-you” to the ratings board by making one the most extensive, over-the-top, sexually explicit scenes in film, albeit between dolls, containing a whole host of sexual activities that persist for several minute (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, 2006). And the objection this gesture expressed is far from groundless: Why does an anonymous group of so-called “concerned parents” decide the specific sex positions that are or are not acceptable for mass release?




The rating of a film directly affects its financial viability and accessibility. And an NC-17 rating can devastate a film’s prospective success upon release. Blockbuster and Hollywood Videos used to  unilaterally refuse to carry any movies possessing an NC-17 rating during their dominance of the movie rental industry. Almost all major movie theaters, which are owned by the media conglomerates in charge of the MPAA, refrain from showing these films as well, relegating NC-17 films to the  smaller, less accessible art-house cinemas and depriving them of necessary advertising.  Consequently, major movie studios will often force producers and directors to make extensive cuts to their films in order that they secure a rating of at least 'R,' such that their money isn't lost. The financial considerations of the movie moguls, in combination with the power of the MPAA ratings board's often subjective and prejudicial determinations, effectively pressures filmmakers addressing certain topics into self-censorship. And these topics effectively become taboo. In this respect,  the arbitrary opinions of the reclusive ratings group and the MPAA strongly affect the range of political correctness in society, despite the fact that they implement a partially adaptive approach to sociological pressures outside the realm of their control. 



When art and cinema are precluded from addressing certain topics, even by non-coercive, financial, power-related constraints, then a society should consider itself duly censored.  The ratings board and the MPAA are not harmless entities; above all they seek profit and avoid controversy. The ratings board operates with a complete lack of transparency, often refuses to provide reasons for their judgments to filmmakers, and, more importantly, there is absolutely no reason to accept the basic premise that the board's members represent the public interest that they purport to defend. The MPAA feels itself entitled to designate an arbitrary group of so-called “caring, ordinary parents,” with the unique privilege of deciding what's appropriate for whom and when. These anonymous citizens' personal neuroses and sexual hang-ups decide what content deserves to be distributed and available to everyone else and what should not be. Rather than open and expand discussion in a free society, they seek to limit it. Those topics and themes which inspire the content in all forms of art movies exist in such forms precisely because they are present in or possess some resonance with real life.


There is no reason parents shouldn't be informed about the basic nature of a movie's content; but the system by which this is currently accomplished does far more than that. Mature individuals shouldn't be deprived access to information, ideas, and content because it doesn't conform to the sensibilities of the individuals imagining themselves to be the arbiters of the national morality. And the massive companies who control the distribution and public exposure of films have historically served to ensure exactly that.

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