A Movie Rating as an Act of Censorship

School-Bully-Firing-Football-At-His-VictimsThe LGBT community has a history of being treated unfairly by the organization that places ratings on films.

One controversial case goes back to 1999 when the Motion Picture Association of America slapped But I’m a Cheerleader with an NC-17 rating because a lesbian character in the film was shown masturbating—even though she was fully clothed. The rating meant that many theaters would have refused to show the movie. So the director re-edited it.

Another case that same year involved Boys Don’t Cry. This time, the MPAA decided on an NC-17 rating because the censors thought a woman in the film was depicted as enjoying an orgasm too much. If filmmaker Kimberley Peirce hadn’t trimmed the film, her studio wouldn’t even have released it. So Peirce reduced the amount of time her character was shown being pleasured.

Now comes Bully.

The new documentary examines bullying—a phenomenon that’s part of the daily lives of many LGBT youths—by depicting the experiences of three kids who were bullied over the course of a school year. Also prominent in the movie are two sets of parents whose sons killed themselves after being bullied. Bully is the first big-screen work to focus on the impact of bullying.

The MPAA rated the film R, which meant no one under the age of 17 would have been allowed to see it unless he or she was accompanied by a parent. Most 13- through 16-year-olds would rather stick a fork in their eye than watch such a film with their parents.


And so, by placing this restrictive rating on the film, MPAA was preventing Bully from being seen by the middle and high school students who could most benefit from seeing it.

In the words of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, “Films like Bully are critical in illustrating to students the painful consequences of bullying on their classmates and our communities.”

Weingarten is one of the people who appealed to the MPAA to change the film’s rating to PG-13. That rating would allow anyone 13 years of age or older to see it.

News reports say that the censors placed the restrictive rating on Bully because student bullies in the documentary utter the word “fuck” half a dozen times.

One clear option was for the director, Lee Hirsch, to go the way that the filmmakers who made But I’m a Cheerleader and Boys Don’t Cry went. That is, Hirsch could have edited his film so “fuck” wasn’t heard. But Hirsch refused to do that, saying that such editing would cause bullying to be portrayed as less harsh than it really is.

“To cut around the word 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,” Hirsch said. “I feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, as the person entrusted to tell these kids’ stories, to not water them down.”

There’s at least one precedent for changing a movie’s rating because it serves a greater good. The 2005 documentary Gunner Palace, which contains 34 F-bombs, was originally rated R. That rating was dropped toPoster for Bully PG-13 on appeal because the movie was seeking to provide an authentic depiction of the experiences of American soldiers fighting in the Iraq War.

Joan Graves, head of the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration, described that decision as “an anomaly” made in “a different time and by a different appeals board.” Although Graves has acknowledged that Bully is a “good” film, she refused to budge on the decision to rate the film R.

“The danger of our switching our criteria for what we perceive to be good films,” Graves said, “is that, one day, you and I are not going to agree on what’s good and what’s bad.”

Katy Butler, a 17-year-old Michigan girl, has received lots of media attention for her efforts to persuade the MPAA to change Bully’s rating. She collected more than 475,000 signatures on an online petition advocating the change.

Butler knows what it’s like to be bullied. After she came out as a lesbian while she was in middle school, other students called her names and pushed her into lockers and against walls. “They ended up slamming my hand into my locker and breaking my finger,” Butler has said.

One of Butler’s most high-profile public appearances was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres signed Butler’s petition and urged her fans to do the same. A bipartisan group of 26 members of Congress supported the petition, too.

By early last week, it became clear that the MPAA’s ratings board—an anonymous group of Los Angeles-area parents—wouldn’t change the rating, despite what became a nationwide movement to do so. And so, on March 26, the company that’s distributing the film, the Weinstein Co., decided to release Bully unrated.

This means that many theaters across the country will choose not to show the film—even though they would have if it carried a PG-13 rating. (Unrated films are generally assumed to be adult-oriented flicks.)

This also means that few schools will show Bully—even though, again, many middle and high schools would have if it carried a PG-13 rating. Many school districts have standing policies not to show films if they’re
rated R or are unrated.

It’s estimated that more than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year and that 3 million students will stay home from school this month to avoid being bullied.


Many observers believe that Bully has the potential to reduce those numbers. Because of the MPAA, the scope of that reduction is going to be less than it could have been. And that—not a few F-bombs—is the truly objectionable part of the Bully case study.Rodger Streitmatter

The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on March 30 and will open in other cities April 13.


By Rodger Streitmatter

© 2012 LGBT-Today

No portion of this article may be reprinted, in part or in its entirety, without express written permission of the author.

Featured - Featured Articles

Site Login