I judge movies not just by production quality, but moral quality as well. I ask myself, “Does this film or book make me want to be a better person?” In a recent post, I presented cartesian chart as a conceptual tool to help others who feel the same way that I do. My point was not to position myself as any way superior to others, or to condemn or judge those who feel differently. I simply wished to present my personal approach to entertainment, with a tacit invitation to others to consider its merits. I hope to strike the same tone in this post as well.
In response to my previous post, some people asked, “How do you measure moral quality? Isn’t that pretty subjective?” The answer is yes, there is a lot of subjectivity in evaluating moral quality. However, as I was exploring the history of the MPAA rating system, I discovered something quite remarkable: a standard for evaluating movies that expressed almost precisely my personal feelings on what makes a movie morally good. I won’t claim that this is by any means perfect, but I think it covers some of my most common complaints about contemporary movies and TV shows. Let me see if I can explain this clearly.
80 years ago, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was known as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). This was long before the 5 rating system was in place, or any rating system, for that matter. A number of Hollywood sex scandals and some explicit films sparked concerns by American citizens nationwide over the moral quality of their entertainment. Two men, Martin Quigley and Daniel Lord, wrote what was referred to as the “The Production Code.” It was designed as a strict guideline that all movies approved by the MPPDA had to follow. Keep in mind, this was not government censorship, as the MPPDA was a private organization.
I would like to share a number of quotes from The Production Code (hereafter referred to as “the Code”), which all movies stamped with the MPPDA logo had to follow. First, I’ll start with a few of its more philosophical statements:
The MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work. So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation. Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race.
The document specifically notes that motion pictures have a particularly profound affect on the moral sensibilities of a nation, since their reach expands not just to the literate who read, but to every class of society, most especially young children. Because movies represent such an immensely powerful tool for influencing the moral fabric of the nation, the MPPDA acknowledged that it has an especially heavy moral responsibility to provide strict standards by which it evaluated films. Note that at this time, the MPPDA didn’t just categorize films. It simply wouldn’t endorse films that failed to meet the criteria in the code. Here are quotes from the standards that the MPPDA required films to adhere to if they wanted to advertise the approval of the MPPDA:
No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
This is done:
1. When evil is made to appear attractive and alluring, and good is made to appear unattractive.
2. When the sympathy of the audience is thrown on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, sin. The same is true of a film that would thrown sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity or honesty.
Note: Sympathy with a person who sins is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of the murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime: we may not feel sympathy with the wrong which he has done. The presentation of evil is often essential for art or fiction or drama. This in itself is not wrong provided:
a. That evil is not presented alluringly. Even if later in the film the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that the audience’s emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later the condemnation is forgotten and only the apparent joy of sin is remembered.
b. That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.
Correct standards of life shall, as far as possible, be presented.
A wide knowledge of life and of living is made possible through the film. When right standards are consistently presented, the motion picture exercises the most powerful influences. It builds character, develops right ideals, inculcates correct principles, and all this in attractive story form. If motion pictures consistently hold up for admiration high types of characters and present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind.
Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. … The presentation of crimes against the law is often necessary for the carrying out of the plot. But the presentation must not throw sympathy with the crime as against the law nor with the criminal as against those who punish him. …
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden. …
Out of a regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home, the triangle, that is, the love of a third party for one already married, needs careful handling. The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution. …
In the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law, the following are important:
1. Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.
2. It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.
3. It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
4. It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
5. It general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.
In the 1950’s and the 1960’s, however, the MPPDA faced pressures to revise its rating system. This was because although the MPPDA was not a government organization and therefore had no regulatory powers, it exerted an incredible amount of influence and control in the movie industry. to my knowledge, these guidelines were voluntary, in that they were not enforced (in their entirety) by state or federal law. Certainly, many theaters were likely reluctant to show a film that hadn’t been approved by the MPPDA, and thus producers certainly had an incentive to comply with the code. Films that did not meet MPPDA standards were often never released to the public, due to bureaucratic policies of movie agencies and contractual obligations. As a libertarian, I bristle at bureaucratic restraints, government or private. However, I think the voluntary self-regulation of the movie industry was a good thing. Sadly, the Code was dropped in favor of our modern 5-tier system (G, PG, PG-13, R, and X).
Rather than attempting to increase the moral quality of the film industry, this new system simply attempted to relegate audiences to films deemed appropriate to their age-level. The implication of the system is that the portrayal of acts that are immoral are for mature audiences, and that the more one ages, the less inappropriate the material becomes. Content that may be perfectly appropriate for adults must be kept away from children, until they reach a certain age, at which it then becomes appropriate. While to some extent and in some cases, connecting the appropriateness of a film to age makes sense, I generally reject this model. If I would not want my 10 year old child to see a film, why would I be comfortable seeing it myself? If there is a moral innocence that would be shattered by witnessing events in a movie, why wouldn’t I want to retain that innocence? I generally believe that if I don’t want my future children to watch a movie, then I should reconsider watching it as well (and not just to set an example, but because it’s an indication of the moral content of the film). I imagine I’ll probably make exceptions to this (for example, Lord of the Rings), but I don’t think I’ll ever try to rationalize or justify them.
Willing suspension of disbelief is a crucial component of most fiction, and it’s fun. That’s what fantasy, science fiction, and many action movies are all about. However, a guiding principle of the Code is that movies should not ask us to suspend moral judgment. Films such as Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job do a fantastic job at getting the audience to root for protagonists even as they are pursuing obviously immoral goals. Movies will often ask the audience to suspend judgment regarding the pursuit of extra-marital sex (again, even PG movies have done this). I don’t mind movies that seriously ask me to re-evaluate my moral judgments, and invite me to see the world differently, particularly if the result is that I’m a gentler, kinder, more compassionate person. However, movies like Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job never actually invite me to reconsider my feelings about theft. They just ask me, for the duration of the movie, to pretend like it’s not bad, so that I can just have fun with the story. Although it may seem like fun and games, I believe that it has an aggregate affect on our collective perception of good and evil. Even though we put our moral glasses back on after the show is over, the habitual taking off of those glasses, and having tons of fun when they’re off, is somewhat dangerous. The current MPAA rating system does not address this. In contrast, the Code makes this one of its core guiding principles.
I agree with the writers of the Code, and believe that film and TV have a profound impact on our perceptions of good and evil. And this is what I mean when I refer to the moral quality of movies. Do these movies invite me to suspend moral judgment and to pretend that evil is good? Do they make sin look alluring and fun? Do they depict protagonists as pursuing immoral goals, or using immoral means to obtain their goals? The list continues, but I think the guiding principles of the Code are spot on. There were some passages that irritated my libertarian sensibilities (for example, the code says that movies should not depict the government or law-enforcement as corrupt), but the bulk of the code serves as a fantastic guide for evaluating the films we watch. I suggest you read the code in full—there is a great deal more than what I’ve quoted in this article, and it touches on just about everything that would affect the moral quality of a film.
The MPAA currently categorizes films based upon entirely arbitrary criteria. For example, my dad designed the dvd cover and created some promotional literature for the movie Saints and Soldiers, and he was given a screening version of the movie some 8 months before its official release. Naturally, we watched it as a family, and it was a fantastic movie. I’ll have to watch it again to be sure, but I don’t think anything in the film violates anything in the Code (except for mild profanity, no more than you might see in a PG movie). However, the MPAA subsequently gave the movie an R-rating, because one scene in the movie depicted (at a distance) a exit wound from a bullet. Of course, the director and the producers of the movie were desperate for a PG-13 rating, since the film would be heavily marketed to a Utah audience, so they changed several frames of the film (they showed the same scene from a different angle), and resubmitted the film for review. The movie was then rated PG-13. The difference between the two films was minute, and neither version violated the principles of the Code. In contrast, I’ve seen dozens upon dozens upon dozens of PG films that extensively violate The Production Code.
One of the reasons why I enjoyed Captain America so much was that not only did the film take place during WWII, the film’s style and content reflected the movies standards of the era (The Production Code). The movie’s main romance was portrayed in a refreshingly chaste and restrained manner, and there were surprisingly few crude remarks and innuendos (although I may have missed them). I therefore consider the moral quality of the movie to be worlds better than Ocean’s 11, which “throws the sympathy of the audience to the side of crime,” and makes sin “appear attractive and alluring.” Both received the exact same rating by the MPAA. It seems, then, that the actual moral quality of a film has little to do with its MPAA rating (although I will personally be very hard to convince that most R-rated movies don’t violate the Code in some significant way).
In short, the MPAA ratings are virtually useless in protecting me from morally questionable content (by the standards of the Code). For this reason, I’ve decided to essentially philosophically abandon the current MPAA rating system as a guide to which movies I will see, and do my best to adopt the values of the Code. In times past, many of my friends have announced that because the MPAA is unreliable, they are comfortable watching R-rated movies if they can drum up a compelling rationalization for it (which, we should all admit, isn’t that difficult when it’s something you want to watch). That is not what I am saying. The standards of the Code are much stricter than the current rating system, and its guiding principles cut to the core of what makes a movie morally problematic. In general, this standard will likely mean seeing fewer movies. I will not watch an R-rated movie unless I am able to confirm that it doesn’t violate the Code in any way, which is highly, highly unlikely (but, I admit, possible, with the original version of Saints and Soldiers as an example). I wish to emphasize that I don’t see this as lowering standards, but raising them.
Unfortunately, I do not know of any rating agency that uses the principles of the Code, and so it will be difficult in practice to apply this standard. For that reason, I won’t be able to practically abandon the current MPAA rating system. The current rating system will likely act as a signal that warns when a film’s content warrants closer scrutiny before seeing it. And, as I said, I won’t use this to rationalize seeing R-rated films. Parental aids such as Kids In Mind may be useful, but they are also limited in their ability to reflect the guiding values of the Code. They might approve films with low counts of sexual innuendos, swear words, and bullets, but miss the fact that the protagonist’s goal was itself immoral. Most rating systems focus on the minutia and miss global problems with the story.
In conclusion, the 13th Article of Faith invites us to seek things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” I believe that The Production Code would be a more reliable guide in achieving this than the current MPAA rating system. I admit that it will be difficult to find entertainment that meets every single criteria of the Code, and that I will be far, far from perfect in upholding the standard. However, when I evaluate a movie based upon its moral quality, this is the standard that I am using. Perhaps this will help clarify some of the evaluations I made in my previous post. My main hope is that this will help myself and some of our readers to better discern what films are worth investing time and money in, and which are not, and to not rely too heavily on the MPAA to make these decisions on our behalf.
This article is closely related to an article I posted a couple of months ago, entitled Spiritual Security Theater. In that article, I explored how when we set rules for ourselves, we can fool ourselves into thinking that whatever we do within the boundaries of those rules is perfectly fine. In precisely the same way, when we set a staunch “No R-rated Films” policy, we can inadvertently fool ourselves into being cavalier about the PG and PG-13 rated films we watch. And, since the moral quality of the film isn’t intrinsically connected to its MPAA rating, we may end up indulging in media that is morally problematic. I am not at all against a no R-rated movie policy, since I generally hold to it myself. The problem is in letting that be the end of our efforts to self-filter the media we invest in. The take-away lesson is not that PG-13 and R movies are sometimes fine, but that according to this higher standard, PG and perhaps even G movies may have problems that are just as severe. We need to be more selective, not less.