AVI, also known as my dad, has posted a quick post about the MPAA's decision to consider glamorized smoking as a category when rating a movie. The U.S Senate is also trying to get into the game by giving the FCC power to control film content and possibly improve the morality of the medium. That first bit of news is funny but relatively unimportant, but that second bit is awfully serious.
Content of movies has not always belonged solely to the studios (more on that later), but it does now, the MPAA does not and cannot change the content of any movie being released in the United States. They rate these movies purely as a method of keeping parents informed on the violence, sexuality, or profanity appearing in every movie released to theaters. Keep in mind that the MPAA does this only for movies, which is a medium available only in venues in which the consumer has complete control: movie theaters, video rentals, and DVD purchases. It is well-nigh impossible to see a movie with an R-rating accidentally, since these are the only ways to view films: for a movie to be broadcast on television, it has be re-cut to meet all FCC regulations.
Jack Valenti, who died a few days ago, created the MPAA system in order to keep the FCC and the government out of movies at a time when that seemed impossible. For years, the government had forced movies to avoid all of the stickier issues of life - no one was allowed to have any really tough problem in their home or anything like that; ideally, no one would ever have any problem tougher than whether Mickey would be able to get that tugboat moored or not. But then television took over as the major entertainment medium of the country, and since no one had figured out how to really enforce decency standards on broadcasts yet, they were crossing a lot of boundaries that the government wasn't allowing movie studios to cross. The studios were already upset to have lost so much of their market share, and figuring that maybe if they were able to show some of the reality about what was going on in our country - this was, by now, the late 60's - they started clamoring to be able to dig into meatier issues in their movies: marital trauma, social rebellion, domestic violence, sexual indiscretion, and the like - issues the government had expressly forbidden them to reference in any way. I'm not talking about showing nudity or having extensive profanity, I'm talking about referencing these issues at all.
Valenti created the MPAA system as a safeguard to keep the government out of the studios' hair. They would evaluate and rate movies according to a checklist morality system, and that way, parents would be to see what each film was rated and decide if they wanted to allow their children to see the film or not. After the R-rating was created, theaters started enforcing that, too, keeping underage kids out of these theaters (as best they could) and not selling them tickets. I have real issues with the MPAA on certain points, but the system has, by and large, been a huge success.
If the MPAA feels that they want to include smoking as one of those categories, there's no real problem with that. It's just more information for the consumer. So if 101 Dalmations or Peter Pan is now an R-rated film, who really cares? Parents can still buy the films and show it to their kids. Their kids'll probably love it.
Every other day we come across facts and figures that show that children today absorb an alarming amount of violent or sexual images over the course of their young lives, and I won't argue that it makes a real effect on the psyche of the youth of our nation. But motion pictures aren't the same thing as broadcast television, this isn't something where these images are broadcast over airwaves, able to be picked up by any receiver; these films are played in the theaters, or available for purchase at local stores. The government can slap on warning labels or force stores to require picture ID, they can station armed guards outside of theaters and announce mandatory 5-year minimum sentences for all 16-year-old ticket agents who sell R-rated tickets to minors. That's all within their boundaries. But they cannot, cannot, absolutely cannot force studios to change the content of their movies. It's a violation of the First Amendment, which - hey! - the U.S. Government wrote.
I don't know why we seem fully willing to forget our principles on items that Americans feel morally superior to, and movies have always been in that category. Since movies sometimes have violence or sexuality, it's our responsibility to force the movie makers to make films that don't have these things. We could force them to make movies about how violence and sexuality is bad, but they already make a lot of movies like that. We don't go to them because they're full of violence and sexuality.
It's possible we could make studios only make clean, acceptable movies by only going to see clean, acceptable movies. Nothing speaks louder than the almighty dollar. But we don't go to those movies because those movies are... well... boring.
In fact, the only thing we can get the public to agree on is that they aren't going to go see movies about 9/11. We have standards, you know.