Meet Your Culture’s Morality Police (No, Really)
By Andrew McDiarmid
July 9, 2013
Andrew is a media relations specialist at the Discovery Institute. He writes film reviews, interviews, profiles, historical and informative pieces for a variety of publications. He also also writes and produces a podcast called Simply Scottish, available on iTunes and at simplyscottish.com.
“A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.” So declared the Hays Code, a production code adopted in 1930 by the film studios in Hollywood. A new body, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), was established to rehabilitate an industry that had become corrupt and morally questionable.
Preferring self-regulation to the threat of government censorship, studios voluntarily abided by the rules of the code, which detailed the moral obligations of film art and included guidelines on which subjects should be avoided in films and which should be handled respectfully. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Easier said than done, of course.
For a body set up to police moral standards in Hollywood, it was always going to be an uphill battle. The code was effective until the 1950s. By then, the new technology of television began to threaten the film industry’s hold. Studios began pushing the limits of the code to offer audiences something they couldn’t get from their TV sets. Foreign films and independent movies that did not abide by the Hays Code became more widely available in American theaters. By the end of the decade, brazen producers in search of success began challenging and even disregarding the MPAA. In 1959, Billy Wilder’s risqué comedy Some Like It Hot was released without a certificate of approval. It was a box office smash. Other films followed suit. By the late 1960s, the MPAA had switched from enforcing a code of standards to merely classifying films by their content. Its power was gone.
By the late 1960s, the MPAA had switched from enforcing a code of standards to merely classifying films by their content. Its power was gone.
But is this enough for Christians to make informed choices about movies? And who makes these ratings decisions anyway? This year, the MPAA is working hard to get its message out and dispel the reputation for secrecy and mystery that has surrounded the industry group for years. A new campaign designed to increase awareness of the ratings system includes improved ratings boxes and trailer tags, a spruced-up website (www.filmratings.com), and even a Twitter feed (@FilmRatings). And Joan Graves, chairman of the ratings board (now known as the Classification and Rating Administration, or CARA), appears in a video at mpaa.org explaining the ratings process in her own words.
In the video, Graves makes a comment that highlights one of the main problems of the ratings system for Christian families. “The system is built to evolve, since it’s administered by a board of parents who are reacting to the current parental outlooks; it’s bound to change over the years ... ” For those trying to abide by God’s standards as set out in His Word, standards that change over time are not dependable. “Ratings creep” is a phrase used to describe this gradual change of standards.
In a recent article on FoxNews.com, Parents Television Council president Tim Winter comments on a 2004 study from the Harvard School of Public Health showing evidence that today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex and profanity than movies of the same rating a decade ago. “In other words, the content in a film rated PG today is comparable to what you might have seen in a PG-13 movie a decade ago, and today’s PG-13 is more like yesterday’s R. And the line keeps moving.” Winter argues that in order for a ratings system to work, “that system must be accurate, consistent, transparent and ultimately accountable to the public. The current MPAA system fails this standard. The only ability to challenge an MPAA age rating is afforded to a film's producer—and they seem able to negotiate a lower age rating almost 100 percent of the time." In order to avoid a slippery slope of ever-changing values and standards, we need more than a secular system like the MPAA can give us.
For those trying to abide by God’s standards as set out in His Word, standards that change over time are not dependable.
In an age of technology that makes movies more visceral and realistic than ever before, we must be careful to maintain high standards. The Apostle Peter reminds believers that we are set apart: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The next time you’ve got two hours to spare and want to catch a flick, Philippians 4:8 may be a good place to start: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”