'Bully' Problems: The MPAA Gives A Scarlet 'R' To A Thoughtful Documentary
The Weinstein Company has lost an appeal to the MPAA, which has smacked an R rating on the painful documentary Bully (which I saw at Silverdocs last year when it was called The Bully Project), from filmmaker Lee Hirsch.
The rating is for language — meaning that the reason the ratings organization is taking the position that the movie isn't appropriate for kids to see without their parents is not that it depicts violence and trauma and the aftermath of the suicides of children, but because an environment full of teenagers, when realistically portrayed, includes swearing.
The MPAA sent out a polite statement that says, in part:
Bullying is a serious issue and is a subject that parents should discuss with their children. The MPAA agrees with the Weinstein Company that Bully can serve as a vehicle for such important discussions.
The MPAA also has the responsibility, however, to acknowledge and represent the strong feedback from parents throughout the country who want to be informed about content in movies, including language.
The rating and rating descriptor of 'some language,' indicate to parents that this movie contains certain language. With that, some parents may choose to take their kids to this movie and others may not, but it is their choice and not ours to make for them. The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it. Once advised, many parents may take their kids to see an R-rated film. School districts, similarly, handle the determination of showing movies on a case-by-case basis and have their own guidelines for parental approval.
The first thing to understand about this statement is that it's simply not the case that a rating "simply conveys to parents" information. At theaters that choose to participate in the ratings system and in enforcing it, the rating stops kids at the door if they come without an adult. It's patently disingenuous, if not outright dishonest, to refuse even to come to terms with the fact that ratings functionally limit access for kids as old as 15 and 16, many of whom are old enough that they have jobs and substantial responsibilities they take care of every day, arguing that they only convey information to parents. It's just not true.
In fact, the rating has the ability to affect access for kids whose parents never have any idea the movie even exists, so obviously, it doesn't have only the effect of conveying information to parents. It can, in fact, effectively supplant the parents by deciding that if the parents for whatever reason don't know that their kids have decided to head out to a theater to see a movie about bullying, the kids aren't admitted. Nobody, in that scenario, has gotten any information about anything. Nobody. All you have is a kid who's seeking out a documentary about bullying — a documentary that tries to take them seriously, that tries in part to show them that it understands how hard it is to be them, who can't get to it.
Look: The entire purpose of Bully is to tell you what it's really like. It's trying to tell you what it feels like to be these families in these situations. That's all it's for. It doesn't exist to prescribe solutions. It is a documentary in the purest sense, in the sense that it is a document. It's a truthful portrayal of what is at stake when we talk about bullying and figuring out what to do about kids who are suffering in school. It will break your heart; it will break your kid's heart, and that may be something you don't want. But the last reason on the planet anyone should be concerned about a kid's experience with this film is the language. It's flabbergastingly obtuse to believe the most important thing for parents to know about the content of Bully is that people say "f---" in it.
As baffling as past ratings controversies have shown the ratings system to be — giving Once an R rating, giving Blue Valentine an NC-17 until an appeal successfully reduced it to an R — some of those controversies have had a whiff of controversy for attention, of preplanned jousting that's just as much about the studio getting ink for the film as about the MPAA pursuing its constantly restated mission of informing parents.
But even if we look at this documentary as a product and Harvey Weinstein as a salesman through and through, this is a movie being sold as moving, not titillating. It doesn't benefit this particular film to be rated R, the way it might have benefited Blue Valentine to be talked about as so steamy that it was initially rated NC-17. Perhaps the benefit is the controversy itself — perhaps it's the chance to have me stand here and tell you how good it is and how undeserving it is of having this barrier put up around it. And if that's what the MPAA's decision has wrought, then there we are. If it's a system that's being manipulated by people who have learned how to tweak its utterly illogical rules to make it look silly, then perhaps it needs to change them — or perhaps this is how it becomes evident that this system is so broken that it needs to be replaced with something else entirely.
The difference between this and other ratings controversies is that this has a more obvious opportunity to do actual damage. There are intelligent, hurting kids out there who (1) will want to see this film, alone or perhaps with a treasured and trusted friend, and (2) will not want to tell their parents that they want to go see it. Some of them will be kids in pain, kids looking for help. There is a reasonable argument to be made that ideally, those kids will have an adult to talk to who can help provide some support, because it's a pretty wrenching set of stories, including the story of Ty Field-Smalley, who killed himself when he was 11. If there's a reason we should be given pause over kids seeing this film alone with no one to talk to, it's because they will be confronted with emotionally devastating stories of parents left to figure out why no one intervened before their kids died.
But the rating isn't about that. The rating is about swear words. If the swear words get bleeped, they'll change it. The MPAA is saying, whether they would put it in these terms or not, that it is more important that a parent or guardian be present to contextualize too many uses of the F-word — and be informed that their kid will be exposed to that — than it is that a parent or guardian be present to contextualize an 11-year-old committing suicide, and that the parent know that the kid is going to watch as the parents of a dead teenager tour the bedroom where he died.
There's a grotesque irony in declaring that what is portrayed in Bully should be softened, or bleeped — should be hidden, really, because it's too much for kids to see. Of course it's too much for kids to see. It's also too much for kids to live through, walk through, ride the bus with, and go to school with. That's why they made the movie. The entire point of this film is that kids do not live with the protection we often believe they do — many of them live in a terrifying, isolating war zone, and if you hide what it's like, if you lie about what they're experiencing, you destroy what is there to be learned. It seems grievously beside the point to worry that the film is too much for kids. The problem is that even at school where there is meant to be protection, the world is too much for them; some of their parents will tell you that's why they took their own lives. Any parent who is truly offended by the language their kids experience in seeing Bully would be wise to consider that they're likely hearing it at school anyway — that's how it got in the film.
This rating doesn't merely give parents information. It presents a 15-year-old with the prospect of meeting an usher at the door who says, "I'm sorry you came here looking for the movie about the hard-charging teenage lesbian who overcame being intentionally hit with someone's car and has survived to tell the tale with her friends and with her parents who love her. That one is rated R. Would you consider Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance?"