The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) recently announced a significant change to the way it assigns ratings to films portraying scenes of sexual violence. Moving forward, films with depictions of rape or sexual violence will no longer by assigned a rating of less than 15s. In Britain, films rated 15s are only suitable for individuals 15 years of age or older. The BBFC said the change was a result of a shifting public opinion over the last five years. Craig Lapper, the head of compliance for the BBFC said “[t]he feedback we have had from the public during the current consultations is that they don’t think there is any place for depictions of sexual violence at 12a at all” (films classified as 12a contain material not generally suitable for children under the age of 12).
The shifting public opinion noted by the BBFC is embodied no better than by the #metoo movement. Recently, several high-profile perpetrators of sexual assault have been brought to some sort of justice, if not through the legal system, through public opinion (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly, and Louis C.K. to name a few). #Metoo has provided a platform for women to talk about sexism and sexual assault. Each time a prominent figure is held accountable, it gives sexual assault victims some reassurance that their story will be listened to. Those stories are helping pave the way for a change in how society views and reacts to sexual assault.
The BBFC’s decision to change how it approaches rape and sexual assault in movies is simply a reflection of changes in British culture. Have those same changes taken hold in American culture? Is it time for a reassessment of the ratings system in the American movie industry?
Movies released in the United States are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a voluntary, self-regulated industry system for rating the content of motion pictures. America does not have a direct equivalent to the BBFC’s “15s” rating. The closest counterpart would be the PG-13 rating, which means “Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.”
Are fictionalized, sensationalized and stereotypical depictions of rape and sexual assault too mature for a “pre-teenager”? Does a pre-teen possess the perspective, critical thinking, and empathy to understand how to digest a brutal, violent or glorified sexual assault? The short answer is no. In many cases, not even teenagers have the mental machinery to properly interpret rape, and in some cases neither do adults.
Adolescents are impressionable, and without the proper context or explanation, development could be derailed by seeing the kind of horrific rapes that are sometimes featured in movies. #Metoo has revealed that sexual assault is much more prevalent than what was once assumed. As all facets of society try to determine the best way to respond to these shifting cultural assumptions, should the MPAA consider specifically identifying rape and sexual assault in its rating system?
Should parents know if a movie contains scenes showing rape and/or sexual assault before allowing their children to watch it? Is identifying movies with sexual assault enough? Or, should the MPAA update its guidelines and not allow any PG-13 movies to contain scenes of rape or sexual assault?
Let us know what you think in the comments.