Outsourcing Morality to the MPAA

by: Mormon Heretic

April 14, 2014

The LDS Church has asked church members to avoid R rated movies for quite some time. (For a little more background, here is my post that discussed the documentary Cleanflix.) As I reviewed that post recently, some ironic things struck me.

Hollywood often gets cited as having questionable morals, producing filth, and contributing to the moral decay to society. I don’t think that criticism is unfair. Of course, they also put together some wonderful stories. The Ten Commandments comes to mind, but even movies that aren’t overly religious are pretty good: Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Lincoln, and Apollo 13 are some pretty good, moral movies. There are some people that are very strict in avoiding R-rated movies. They didn’t see The Passion of the Christ back in 2004 strictly because it was rated R. I was looking for a quote from a prominent LDS person that indicated that this was one of the few cases where the movie rating system failed, but I didn’t find it. I did find something similar from this Times and Seasons article.

R-ratingYears ago, I also remember my elder’s quorum president in a singles ward bearing testimony in church about Saving Private Ryan. He said he knew he shouldn’t have seen the movie because it was rated R, but the story was a fantastic tale of the heroism of our WW2 soldiers, their patriotism, and the higher cause of overcoming evil. I never saw Schindler’s List in the movie theater because it was rated R. But when it was broadcast on television, unedited without commercials, I decided to watch it. It was a profoundly moving film, despite the violence and non-sexual nudity in the film. I was particularly appalled that the Nazis forced Jewish male and female prisoners to strip naked, walk around the yard, and then German officers gunned down the naked Jewish prisoners randomly. Truly the Nazis were incredibly evil. Could that seen have been edited out? Sure, but the depravity of the Nazis wouldn’t have been so “naked” for the world to see. As disturbing as the scene was, it was also powerful. Yes, it should have been rated R, but was an amazingly good film nonetheless.

I saw a comment on Facebook that said this:

taking your teenage son to see murders on stage is ok, but not if two men kiss. I understand that there wasn’t a content warning for this one and that’s why she says she’s upset. Still, it’s rather jarring that in society we more readily take in all kinds of violence, yet some can’t handle a kiss between to people of the same sex. It just shows you that we have a relatively high tolerance for violence in our media diets, but NOT for any relationships that don’t fit heterosexual norms. Gender is a powerful issue.

As I thought about this more, some of these films I mentioned about were rated R primarily for violence: Saving Private Ryan, The Passion of the Christ, etc. But there are other rated R movies that aren’t violent, aren’t sexual, but get the R-rating for simply using the F-bomb. Recently I watched Argo, as well as Slumdog Millionaire. Neither had gratuitous violence, and the only thing I remember were two f-bombs in Argo, and 1 in Slumdog. (Maybe there was another, but I must have missed it–I don’t recall any sexual nudity, though there were some children’s bare butts shown.) Frost/Nixon was another cerebral, non-violent, non-sexual movie with only a couple of f-bombs from Pres Nixon to make it forbidden for LDS members. I am too young to remember the interview, but it was pretty astonishing to hear Pres. Nixon say that the president is above the law.

Some LDS members loved to use Cleanflix to see forbidden R-rated movies. In my old post, I noted the irony: “some movies, such as Pretty Woman were about a prostitute, and while nudity could be edited, the subject material was still about prostitution.” This has led some church leaders to even say that PG-13 movies are bad, and I’m sure some are. Back in the day, I used Cleanflix to watch Blackhawk Down. Yes, they took out the f-bombs, but the violence was still pretty horrific, and the edited movie probably still should have earned an R rating. The movie was moving, but at the end, I just shook my head and said, “Why did we go to Somalia in the first place? What a nightmare that was!” It did feel our soldiers needlessly died.

Of course Europe’s ratings are quite different than the U.S., so what are they to do without the guidance of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to vet these movies for them? I know that everyone has their own personal tastes. Some object to language, others violence, others sexuality/nudity. Some of us have a high tolerance for each of these.  I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project–that movie gave me the creeps for about a week after I saw it.  It was rated R only because of language–there was no gratuitous violence, although death was strongly implied.  There was no blood or nudity at all, but the f-bomb was rampant in the movie.  I can’t say it was a morally uplifting movie, but the creepiness factor was pretty impressive.  The Ring was another creepy movie with a PG-13 rating, and I don’t remember any f-bombs.  I’d rate them similarly on a creepy scale (if you’re into creepy movies), but I can absolutely understand why anyone would choose not to see either film.  The Alien films have also been a favorite of mine.

Here are some questions.

(1) Would it be better for the Church to teach correct principles, and let the saints govern themselves, rather that outsource morality to the MPAA?

(2) Do you agree that movies with 2 f-bombs deserve an R rating?

(3) Do you think Americans in particular, are under-concerned about violence?

(4) Do you think Americans in particular, are over-concerned about nudity and sex?

(5) Are there R-rated movies that you think were either misclassified, or held a positive moral and spiritual message?


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17 Responses to Outsourcing Morality to the MPAA

  1. Hedgehog on April 14, 2014 at 3:31 AM

    I tend to ignore ratings and look at the reviews. I especially like this site (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/), because they give a breakdown on all the various aspects – language, nudity, violence, marketing etc., and explain how those things are used in the film. Based on these reviews there are rated 15 (in this country) films I would see as being uplifting moral tales, and some PG films (including animation) I would opt not to see because I do not like the kind of humour that makes fun of other people, and I don’t like lots of innuendo, which somehow get’s a pass a) because it’s an animation and b) only the adults are expected to get the joke.

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  2. ji on April 14, 2014 at 4:29 AM

    (1) Would it be better for the Church to teach correct principles, and let the saints govern themselves, rather that outsource morality to the MPAA?

    I think the Church already teaches correct principles and lets its members govern themselves. I haven’t heard or read anything specifically about R-rated moved from “the Church” in many, many years.

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  3. Kullervo on April 14, 2014 at 8:15 AM

    By defining the law of chastity in terms of sexual relations between legally married couples, does the Church not also outsource sexual morality to state and federal governments?

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  4. Ziff on April 14, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    Like ji, I haven’t heard anything specifically about R-ratings from the general level in a long time. It’s just unfortunate that old teachings are never explicitly withdrawn, so President Benson’s comment about avoiding R-rated movies from the late 80s will probably live forever. For sure I’ve heard lots of individual people at the local level talk about not watching R-rated movies. Or even PG-13, like you mentioned, MH.

    I think the ratings aren’t a bad starting point for considering what I want to see, but I definitely agree with you that they’re not a good ending point. I’m with Hedgehog in wanting to know more information about what a movie is rated R/PG-13/PG for. And of course, like you said about the Cleanflix issue, some movies just portray moral-free characters and actions, regardless of their rating, and others portray deeply moral characters, regardless of the presence or absence of f-words.

    My favorite movie ever–“Ordinary People”–is rated R for a couple of f-words. But it has one of the most wonderful characters, and one of the most beautiful parent-child relationships, that I’ve ever seen.

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  5. Mormon Heretic on April 14, 2014 at 9:32 AM

    Ziff and JI, I did a quick search on LDS.org and came across this link: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=2135

    On Sept 17, 2013, Lynn G. Robbins was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this devotional address was given on 17 September 2013. He said,

    We will have this end area at my extreme right represent G-rated movies. At the other extreme to my left is what Hollywood calls “adult entertainment.” In between the two extremes the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gives movies ratings of PG and PG-13. We will have this pulpit represent R rated, then NC-17, and adults only. In between the two extremes, where do we draw the line over which it would be dangerous to cross?


    In 1986 President Ezra Taft Benson warned members of the danger of anything “R rated” or beyond. 37 The members thought he had drawn a line. I know that because I have heard many members of the Church say, “Oh, we can watch that movie. It’s only a PG-13. The prophet gave us permission.” They don’t say that last part, but that is what they are thinking, because they thought he posted a speed limit, so to speak.

    But what would a movie given an R rating in 1986 be rated today? Would you agree that Hollywood has relaxed its standards? It is referred to as “ratings creep.” Hollywood has gradually allowed more vulgarity, profanity, nudity, violence, sex, etc., over the decades while maintaining the same ratings…..

    The cunning result of this creeping trend is that the 1986 R-rated movie has deceptively become a PG-13 or PG movie in 2013. The shifting or creeping of the line could be compared to the mists in Lehi’s dream that “blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.” 39 As members justify the viewing of such movies based upon a deceptive rating, they become more and more desensitized to inappropriate material that a prophet identified as dangerous back in 1986. Those so deceived are pacified and lulled into Satan’s territory; hence this warning in For the Strength of Youth: “Take care that your use of media does not dull your sensitivity to the Spirit.”

    So I guess that Elder Robbins is technically teaching correct principles without giving a specific line. But if I’m in attendance, I think that the R-rating line of Pres Benson is now a PG-13 line. sure, there is some leeway, but I”m not hearing Robbins back away from Benson. In fact, I’m hearing Robbins be saying “avoid PG-13 movies.” Of course that implicitly still says R-rated movies should be off limits.

    Now I get what you’re saying, because he isn’t explicitly saying that. But he is implicitly endorsing Benson here, so I think the message hasn’t really changed. In fact, now it encompasses PG-13, not just R. You may also say that this wasn’t said at GC, it was said at BYU. Well, living not far from BYU, I can tell you that the culture doesn’t make a distinction between a BYU speech or a GC speech from a Seventy. I don’t think the church is backing away from Benson at all.

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  6. Alo on April 14, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    My husband and I completely ignore ratings, and instead go to IMDB and read the parental advisory page. It counts the swear words, (even religious exclamations) and breaks down every sex related scene with facts, like, ‘a women is shown with low cut shirt revealing cleavage’ or ‘graphic sex scene blah blah’ (among other things, drugs, violence) instead of someone else deciding what’s moral to me or not, I can find out what is actually included in a movie, and decide for myself.

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  7. Naismith on April 14, 2014 at 10:52 AM

    The FOR THE STRENGTH OF YOUTH pamphlet does not mention a specific rating system because it is used all over the church and thus all over the world. The MPAA’s influence, such as it is, only extends to the USAmerican borders.

    In mentioning those WWII movies, another to add to the list is SAINTS & SOLDIERS. The LDS producers and actors were shocked when they were slapped with an R-rating. But the real problem is that they were a small Indie shop, and thus disadvantaged when being evaluated by a body that is funded by the Big Studios.

    I showed the movie ONCE to the young women in my home at the time, Although when I moved the soundtrack to a playlist, I dropped the f-laden vacuum cleaner song.

    I use http://www.kids-in-mind.com/ for viewing guidance, and feel that they have always given me the information I need to make a sound decision.

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  8. Brad on April 14, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Most people are shocked to learn Apollo 13 is only rated PG despite the prolific non-F-bomb swearing, Kevin Bacon ‘s implied shower sex, and Kathleen Quinlan’s nip slip. I think ratings are more subjective than we realize. Seriously, why was The Matrix rated R? Violence? Language? The content could be compared to other movies with lesser ratings.
    And yet we don’t even blink when we read Book of Mormon stories and tell our 4-year olds that Nephi cut some guy’s head off and stole his stuff, the bad guys threw women and children in the fire, and Lamanites fed the Nephite women the flesh of their dead husbands.

    Earrings and movies are just another way to keep us separate from “The World”.

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  9. Ziff on April 14, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    MH, that’s a really interesting quote. I was thinking that the ending of the ratings-specific messages from the General leadership might be taken different ways by different people. Some of us see it as being more up to us to decide; others take it to mean that even PG-13 movies are out of line. I think it’s interesting to see that the latter position is actually made explicit here!

    I definitely agree with you that it seems wrong for our movie-watching decisions to be outsourced to the MPAA, or to any other ratings agency for that matter.

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  10. Douglas on April 14, 2014 at 5:45 PM

    Have been ‘counseled’ or ‘commanded’ to not view R-rated movies? If the former, then we’re employing “Taught/Teach Correct Principles, We Govern Oursevles” (henceforth to be acronymed as TCPWGO). If the latter, then I’d wonder why it wouldn’t be on a list of questions that a bishop might ask in a TR recommend interview. In that case, yes, moral guidance is in some sense being “outsourced” to the MPAA, and yes, the tendency over the years to “ratings” creep, which produces many a CREEPY work (pun intended), calls into question their reliability.

    At least with more detailed ratings describing what one may see in a production (nudity, sexual situations, violence, graphic depictions, “Adult” situations, etc.) we supposedly have a better means to judge whether it ought to offend our sensibilities or not. But I would pose a question…for what REASON do you wish to see the movie? Obviously entertainment, but what is it that you would find “entertaining”? I’d say that it should be self-evident for LDS folks what they’d be comfortable with and what they shouldn’t give both time and precious discretionary income. I still hearken to my fave scripture (D&C 58:26)…sheesh, if adults have to be “commanded” on what they ought to plunk down ten-fifty a head (along with eight bucks for a greasy tub of popcorn), then I’d seriously wonder if we’re truly “Gawds in embryo”. If we need that much micromanagement and supervision, I’d say that the etneral mitosis has barely started.

    Keep in mind that my mother, God rest her soul, wouldn’t let me see “Patton” in 1970 b/c she felt that the profanity wouldn’t be a good influence on her then ten-y.o. boy. Have things changed THAT much in only 44 years?

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  11. Douglas on April 14, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    #8 – Darn ye. “Apollo 13” is on my XFinity free flick list, and I’m sure it ain’t the TV version. It’ll take some self-control to not replay it, freeze-framing at ‘crucial’ moments. BTW, I’ve checked out the supposed “bad things” in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and, folks, if THAT would get your jollies, then you need a shrink. “Jessica Rabbit” is a CARTOON! Get over it, you geeks with nothing better to post on the Internet!

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  12. Nate on April 14, 2014 at 6:20 PM

    We have 50% or more of our men watching porn from time to time, and yet we are still fussing about rated R movies, and encouraging them to “walk out” of PG13 movies that “aren’t appropriate.”

    There is a huge cognative dissonance here. Here in England, there is free porn on television after 11pm, and rated R movies don’t even come close to being at that level. Rated R and PG13 movies present a bare minimum of sexual innoculation to a sex saturated society. The highly religious are at risk for sexual addiction because it is so strongly associated with shame and guilt, which is compounded by the misguided insistance that Rated R and PG13 rated movies are terrible for their artistic sex scenes, far less arounsing than the SI Swimsuit issue, which would be rated PG, because all the parts are covered.

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  13. Kristine A on April 14, 2014 at 11:24 PM

    If there is a question regarding content rating, I try to judge individually and decide if the film has a message/theme that would help me be a better person. Thus, ‘The King’s Speech’ and “12 years a Slave’ passed the test.

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  14. New Iconoclast on April 15, 2014 at 1:40 PM

    Where I might draw the line, or govern myself, is not quite as important in my household as where my spouse thinks President Benson has drawn it. ;)

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  15. Jeff Spector on April 15, 2014 at 2:21 PM

    Hollywood never had anyone’s interest other than their own. They were dragged kicking and screaming to the ratings. And they have worked as hard as they could ever since to circumvent them.

    We need to use our own judgement. period. I think God gave us a brain for that purpose.

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  16. SarahJane on April 15, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    I shared Kings speech with my 11 and 14 yr old daughters. It was delightful and uplifting. And my parents wouldn’t see it. The bible would be nc17 for goodness sake. Old Testament, anyways.

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  17. Jon on April 22, 2014 at 8:58 PM

    I had a bishop ask me if I watched R movies during a TR interview. This bonus question was not a surprise to me but the follow-up command was–“You must remove any R rated movies from your apartment in order for me to sign this recommend.” Rexburg really is a terribly interesting place.

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