Over Thanksgiving weekend, True Blood actress Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter after watching her latest film, Charlie Countryman (which we recommend as a date movie!). She was furious. According to her string of tweets, a steamy moment between Wood and costar Shia LaBeouf had been snipped from the finished film since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. According to her inside info, the scene, which depicted LaBeouf’s wayward American traveler performing oral sex on Wood’s Russian cello prodigy, was excised after the Motion Picture Association of America, the almighty ratings board of Hollywood, deemed it too sexual for an R rating.
That’s messed up.
Wood sums up her problem with the decision by pointing a damning finger at the MPAA:
“After seeing the new cut of Charlie Countryman I would like to share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a woman’s sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make “love” was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people “uncomfortable” but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered. This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex, especially when (gasp) the man isn’t getting off as well! Its hard for me to believe that had the roles been reversed it still would have been cut OR had the female character been raped it would have been cut. Its time for people to GROW UP. Accept that woman are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring woman. Accept that woman don’t have to just be fucked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves. Its time we put our foot down.”
Sexual expression has always been a concern for America’s ratings board, who have time and time again shown themselves to be censors rather than surveyors of the evolving social landscape and its relationship with art. A quick look at the history of sex on film reveals the U.S. to be a country limping behind the world, who have embraced sexuality as part of the human experience and “rated” it for age appropriateness on the same terms as violence and foul language. Here’s some timeline context: The 1933 Czech drama Ecstasy is often cited as the first film to portray honest to goodness sexual relations, with shots of a woman reacting to her orgasm. In contrast, Hollywood circa 1940 saw a three-second limit for on-screen kissing thanks to the Hays Code, a religion-fueled predecessor to the MPAA that censored everything from sex and violence to unpopular political stances. 70 years later, movies are still forced to wear conservative shackles as they wander to your local multiplex.
How the MPAA decides on a movie rating is entirely subjective. There are mythical rules — two f-bombs will automatically earn you an “R,” although that’s been broken too many times to count — but for the most part, ratings are settled upon by a faceless committee who describe themselves as “a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use, then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie.” Because that’s who should be weighing in on films exploring blossoming sexuality.
Under the watchful eyes of the MPAA, Charlie Countryman‘s sensual scene of a man pleasuring a woman did not fit the “R” rating bill. According to the organization, an “R” movie is a motion picture that “may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements.” Including the scene theoretically would have earned the filmmakers of Charlie Countryman an NC-17, a rating the MPAA says can be earned by “violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” The only real difference between the two is that parents can bring their under-17 children to an R rated movie, while NC-17 is strictly for adults.
No one who makes a movie, in Hollywood or independently, wants to earn an NC-17. Though the MPAA makes it clear that the label is not a delineation of pornographic material, the rating is a dark mark on any film willing to bite the bullet to avoid censorship. Many theaters refuse to play NC-17 films, and the ones that do make significantly less money from these films. Films you recognize have boldly accepted the NC-17 fate: The Dreamers, Bad Education, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, and the movie that made Michael Fassbender’s penis a household name, Shame. None of these movies grossed over $6 million in the U.S.
All of the aforementioned films earned their NC-17 rating because of sexual material, revealing the MPAA’s gross misunderstanding of “perversity” and the conversations of today’s youth. There’s a “think of the children” undertone to this kind of censorship; if we allow children to experience sexual content at a young age, they’ll become sexual people. As if they aren’t already. It’s hard to say if the MPAA is even shaming sexually active people, as Wood puts it. That might be the case if Charlie Countryman arrived with an NC-17 and quickly disappeared from the mainstream. But the pressure for filmmakers to deliver R-rated movies means that sexual content will never see the light of day. Freedom of expression — how artists explore a topic like sexuality so those who view it, young people especially, understand it, question it, and love it — is being narrowed.
There are a scarce few taking a stand against the MPAA’s silent condemnation of sex. For the new film Blue Is the Warmest Color, a teen coming-of-age story now infamous for a lengthy and provocative lesbian sex scene, the IFC Center in New York City waved off the film’s NC-17 rating. They declared that because the movie is about teenagers discovering sexuality, that teenage audiences interested in the movie should be able to see it. “This is not a movie for young children, but it is our judgment that it is appropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers, who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds,” the theater said in a statement. A response from the Parent Television Council, an equally staunch organization, stepped up to defend the MPAA’s original ruling. In an open letter to IFC, they wrote, “On behalf of the 1.3 million members of the Parents Television Council, whose mission it is to protect children from sex, violence and profanity in entertainment, I am deeply distressed to learn of your decision not to abide by the MPAA guidelines for the motion picture rating NC-17.”
A new study released in November revealed that, in just 20 years, gun violence in PG-13 ﬁlms has increased from the level portrayed in ﬁlms rated G/PG to the point where it actually exceeds that in R ﬁlms. Sylvester Stallone can still pick up an uzi and blow away 100 baddies in an explosion of blood and guts, yet Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood can’t entangle themselves with one another as a profession of love. Something is clearly wrong. Wood’s final call to action must not be left hanging in the air: It’s time we put our foot down.
How? Through acknowledgement. Through demands. Through spending money on the films taking a chance. Next year, LaBeouf will once again test the MPAA’s limits in Lars von Trier’s sex epic Nymphomaniac. If you’re not sick of the actor’s butt by the time Nymphomaniac is released, it might be worth a watch, just to prove “explicit” films are viable options for theaters. Be angry at this. If it seems like a trivial argument that allows famous people to simulate sex on screen, know that it’s more than that. It’s sex as a social norm — we do it behind closed doors, we talk about it day to day, but if it’s going to be acceptable to the masses, groups like the MPAA can’t decide what’s right or wrong. They’ll always lean towards the latter.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on Vulture, Grantland, and The Hollywood Reporter. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room.