The Double Standards Game

Last week featured the premiere of the much-anticipated book-turned-movie The Hunger Games: rated PG-13 for intensely violent portrayals of teens killing other teens.

Last week was also the less premiere of the much less widespread film Bully, a documentary spotlighting the effects of bullying on kids and their families: rated R. For language.

Directed by Lee Hirsch, Bully follows the stories of five families across America who are struggling to deal with bullying in schools. Due to its unscripted nature as a documentary, there is obviously some less than polite language—specifically, “fuck” comes up six times.

Because of this apparently horrifyingly obscene language, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) decided that the film’s intended audience (adolescents under age 17) shouldn’t be able to see it without an adult present. But hey, if you’re over 13 why don’t you just go on over to The Hunger Games and watch kids your age kill each other!

The MPAA’s double standard did not go unnoticed by the public, and 17-year-old Michigan high school student Katy Butler launched on online petition in February to lower the rating from R to PG-13. Butler, who has experienced repeated bullying since coming out as a lesbian in middle school, was featured on CNN, Fox News, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which greatly increased attention to the issue and support for her petition. After delivering the petition—which contained over 200,000 signatures—to the MPAA, she received this response:

“Katy Butler’s efforts in bringing the issue of bullying to the forefront of a national discussion in the context of this new film are commendable and we welcome the feedback about this movie’s rating. The MPAA shares Katy’s goals of shining a light on the problem of bullying and we hope that her efforts will fuel more discussion among educators, parents, and children.

 The voluntary ratings system enables parents to make an informed decision about what content they allow their children to see in movies. The R rating and description of ‘some language’ for Bully does not mean that children cannot see the film. As with any movie, parents will decide if they want their children to see Bully. School districts, similarly, handle the determination of showing movies on a case-by-case basis and have their own guidelines for parental approval.

 The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it. Once advised, many parents may take their kids to see an R-rated film.”

Basically, this gave The Weinstein Co.—the film’s distributer—three options:

1. Release Bully with the R rating (also meaning it couldn’t be shown in schools) and alienate millions of potential viewers.

2. Edit around or bleep out the profanity to get the rating down to PG-13.

3. Release the movie without the MPAA rating, and run the risk of theatres treating the film as though it was NC-17.

With the first choice already rejected, director Hirsch said no to the second option as well: “To cut around [the profanity] or bleep it out, it really absolutely does lessen the impact and takes away from what the honest moment was, and what a terrifying feeling it can be [to be bullied].”

This leaves the final option, which is what The Weinstein Co. ended up doing. Without an MPAA rating, most large theatre companies handle films the same way they do movies rated NC-17, meaning that no one under 18 would be able to see it, even accompanied by an adult. However, this decision does vary between individual theatre companies, who will each set their own policies. Cinemark has already announced that it will not be showing the movie, while AMC has decided that anyone under 17 can see the movie, provided they have a guardian or a signed permission slip with them.

I think we’ve all seen enough of the heartbreaking news stories to know that America’s bullying epidemic has reached a horrifying level. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to this problem and have a serious discussion about what is happening in our schools.