RATINGS, CENSORSHIP AND NEGATIVE CRITERIA

 

My own concern is primarily live theatre, but it may be useful to talk about film and television, because it is much easier to determine what "Jane and John Q. Public" think is and isn't appropriate there, and anyway most of what I say can be applied equally well to any entertainment medium.  Considering film and television is easier because film, historically, and television, more recently, have established systems of "rating" entertainments for age appropriateness.  I have some serious concerns about the way these ratings are administered, and these relate back to the live theatre, since in terms of this issue, film and television are not significantly different from live theatre.  I may as well say at once that I do not consider film or television ratings to be censorship.  I am opposed to censorship, as any committed American artist must be, but I know what I mean when I use that word, and it isn't ratings.  Free speech gives me the right to express myself through my art in any way I choose, but it does not give me the right to earn money selling my work to people who do not want to look at or listen to it.  The rating on a film or television show (or, indeed, the warning label on an audio recording) does not prevent me from making my art, or even from selling it.  It only insists--or tries to--that people be told the truth about the nature of my art before they pay money for it, or make the choice to view it.  I am appalled when a local government tries to close down a museum showing an exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs, but I would not waste a single breath of righteous indignation decrying the fact that an unhindered exhibition didn't make much money because most of the people in the community don't want to look at such pictures.  I am all for telling people what they are getting, and especially for telling parents what they are getting, when they make a decision about any form of art.  It is true that an "R" rating on a film intended to appeal to youngsters will significantly reduce that film's profits, and this fact means that the ratings board can effectively enact "sanctions" against a particular kind of art by thus restricting its earning potential.  But that is an argument for making sure the ratings are entirely objective, not for abandoning them.  No, I have no problem with the concept of ratings or warning labels.

 

I do have a problem with them in practice, however.  As presently administered, I don't think the rating system for films is very useful.  This is important to me because the way films are rated affects the way people think about questions of age appropriateness in all forms of entertainment.  Film ratings have three main problems, it seems to me.  First, basing the whole process on chronological age is misleading.  If all seventeen-year-olds were equally mature, and mature in all the same ways, it might make sense, but they're not, and neither are the attitudes regarding what is and isn't appropriate the same across the pool of parents of seventeen-year-olds.  (Or thirteen-year-olds.)  When I look at the rating of a film, and it tells me that parents of children under thirteen should be careful (PG13), that tells me almost nothing about the film.  I have no way of knowing why the ratings board thinks I should be concerned, and no way of deciding whether the particular twelve-year-old in my charge is mature enough to see the film.  In my case, if the rating is the result of "strong language" or even of "sexual situations" I would probably be comfortable letting a twelve-year-old see the film, as long she was accompanied by an adult, whereas if it was because of violence, I would have to decide how important the story was before making up my mind.  (I would let her see graphic violence in Schindler's List but not in Saw.)   Other parents might have different, or even opposite reactions.  (I know for certain that there are plenty of parents who let their children see a lot more graphic and gratuitous violence than I think is acceptable, yet who are far more afraid of sexuality than I am.)  But that's just the point.  In order for ratings to be useful they must be descriptive enough for individual parents to make informed decisions.  (I am assuming for the time being that parents should have the right to decide what is appropriate for their own children.)

 

The new television ratings and the expanded format of movie ratings are steps in the right direction, not because they have a wider range of ages (which is pretty silly, if you ask me) but because they include information about what factors have gone into the decisions.  You can look at the rating on a television program, or a film on television--even most cable programming--and see why it got a particular rating.  You can do the same for a cinematic film if you look closely or read a review.  Then you can make a more informed decision about whether to watch or let children watch.  But there is a third problem with the ratings systems of both film and television, and this problem carries into most people's attitudes about the "appropriateness" of live theatre.  The criteria are entirely negative.  In other words, a "G" rating does not imply the presence of "family friendly" or child appropriate material in any way--it only implies the absence of material that could be considered inappropriate.  A "G" rated film will (theoretically) contain no "strong language" (there's another whole chapter there), no nudity or "sexual situations," and no graphic violence.  But it may not be intended for children in any way, and may in fact be totally inappropriate in other ways.  A film adaptation of Checkov's The Cherry Orchard would presumably earn a "G" rating, despite the fact that it would probably bore to stupefaction anyone under about sixteen.

 

That's pretty stupid, and if you argue that it's just a byproduct of the way the ratings system works, and not significant of anything in the attitudes of the average person, I disagree.  This is exactly the kind of thinking that goes into many people's definition of "age appropriate."  At one school we put out a brochure every fall, listing our season and including, with synopses of the plays, the note, "best enjoyed by ages . . ."  In this way we essentially provide a "rating" for the play.  One of the teachers was directing a Noel Coward comedy, and his copy reached us reading "best enjoyed by all ages!"  That's so obviously silly that it can only be because rather than asking himself what age group would best enjoy the play, he performed an algorithm consisting of various species of the question, "does it contain anything objectionable?"  This was a very intelligent man, who saw instantly that it was silly when it was pointed out to him, but he's not alone in automatically applying ratings-style criteria when considering age appropriateness.  Everyone does it, because it's so easy.  We say, "I don't want my child seeing anything about sex," because it is so much easier than what we should say, which is, "I want the sexuality of characters in the dramatic forms my child sees to be presented in a manner that is appropriate, in my view, to his level of maturity."

 

I also think it is a mistake to consider only subject matter when deciding whether an entertainment is age appropriate.  Take the example of The Cherry Orchard again.  For fun, compare it to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  (Let's leave out the relative artistic merits of these two works for now.)  If I had to assign movie-style ratings to these two plays, I'd probably have to give The Cherry Orchard a "G" rating, since I can't think of anything that precludes it. Joseph, however, contains a handful of mildly dirty jokes, quite a bit of double entendre, and at least one "sexual situation."  I'd probably have to rate it "PG13."  Yet nobody I know would ever suggest that The Cherry Orchard is more appropriate for a young audience than Joseph.  The problem, of course, is that what makes Checkov difficult for children, and what makes at least this Webber/Rice work so much fun for them (remember we're ignoring questions of artistic merit for now), has nothing to do with content and everything to do with structure and style. When many people say a work is "age appropriate," they don't mean it is intended for, or likely to be interesting to, children of a particular age.  Rather they mean it doesn't contain any of a (relatively arbitrary) list of things they think are "inappropriate."  It is this kind of negative, algorithm-based approach to that leads to absurdities such as the fact that The Sound of Music--which bored me silly as a child, with its slow pace, songs that stopped the plot dead in the water, and emphasis on romantic love and WWII politics--is rated "G," while something like Nightmare on Elm Street--which is clearly intended, rightly or wrongly, for a young audience, and which practically no one over seventeen would willingly sit through--earns an "R."  I would love to see a ratings system that, if it insists on talking about chronological age, considers the style, complexity and structure of a piece of art when labeling it "appropriate" for a particular age.  And I'd like to see one whose criteria are positive as well as negative.  But most important, since I don't necessarily think I have a right to impose my views of what's appropriate on others, I'd like to see a system that describes, rather than simply "rates" art, so that parents and other responsible adults can make their own judgments.

 

NEXT:  WHAT SHOULD CHILDREN SEE?