Recently, the MPAA announced that they officially will be adding in the smoking factor to their movie ratings. Films that, in their opinion, glorify or even feature smoking will be subject to an R rating, to keep such depictions away from the wide eyes of youth.
This is basically what the MPAA does. The new smoke-out is just a minor example. Beyond the hypocrisy, the greed, and the technological ignorance, the fundamental result of the MPAA's work is influencing the content and distribution of American movies. And it goes to the heart of why the MPAA has no moral right to exist and operate as it does. Providing objective ratings to describe a film's content is one thing. Actively influencing a film's content according to a certain group's personal inclinations is entirely another.
Let's break this down, using the same smoking example. You don't like smoking. Fine. I don't either. But neither do I think that gives me the right to condescend to everyone who does and self-righteously tell them that they have no place in movies permitted to be seen by American audiences. There's a lot of people out there who also don't like homosexuality. Do we slap all films that dare to have gay character with a R rating, in order to protect all the innocent children who could possible see a gay person on screen and then decide that she too is gay? There's people who don't like witchcraft, or any of the trappings thereof - do we bump the new Harry Potter movie up to a R rating, so that none of our nation's youth starts running around with wands and worshiping Satan?
Censorship, in itself, is not a bad thing. Censorship of the self-imposed kind is what keeps you from watching Jerry Springer all day. Self-censorship is an expression of your own opinions and values, and it's not only valid, we should encourage it. Not to the point of narrow-mindedness, but to raise the quality level of the media we absorb. If anyone else, however, makes these decisions for you, and by doing so precludes you having access to certain media, then we have a problem. And the system the MPAA currently runs, in connection with the American big movie machines, does just that.
Now let's break it down from the perspective of the filmmaker. Say I make a film about the rural, working-class steel belt area in which I grew up. It could be a touching tale of family drama and coming-of-age heartbreak. It could be a faithful portrait of people and places I knew. It could have a character or two smoking. And for that last one alone, it could be slapped with an "R" rating and a huge amount of people will not see it. Could I just leave the smoking out? Sure. And then I will be making a film not only according to another's viewpoint, but under threat of financial and industrial consequences if I choose to disagree with that viewpoint. If that's the case, however slight, there is no point in me making that film. It defeats the purpose of an individual going to the bother of expressing herself, in film or any other medium at all.
There's something else to realize about the entire ratings system as created and enacted by the MPAA - it has absolutely nothing to do with the government. (Well, beyond the lobbyists used to sway politicians, of course.) It seems a common misconception that their rulings are somehow supported by law. They are not. They are an arbitrary set of guidelines that movie theaters follow for the sole reason that if they didn't, the movie studios would not give them movies to screen. It's an internal, self-promoting, corporate system that exists for profit and for profit alone. That's it.
So, what's the solution here? Is there any way to effectively rate film for content? I think so. I think an entirely independent non-profit agency, with a visible staff and detailed criteria would be a good start. I think a reasonable approach to digital media would be better. But, essentially, we would need only one key element - objectivity. We would need an agency that understood the sensitive issues displayed on film, and reported them fairly, without commentary and without preaching.
Will it happen, though? I think it could, if enough people realize what's going on and speak up about it. Think about it, talk about it. Let's see what we can do.