Defining Deviancy Down

By treating audiences with kid gloves, the MPAA delivers a lethal blow to grown-up fare

Despite the assumptions of studios like Warner Bros., the American public is surely astute enough to distinguish between an NC-17-rated Saving Private Ryanand the gay porn flick Shaving Ryan's Privates. But NC-17, whose demonization hinges on a lovefest between cultural conservatism and profit maximization, is more valuable to Hollywood as a vehicle for eliminating the radical and erotic peripheries of mainstream cinema. Given an MPAA calculus in which one breast equals roughly 43 dead bodies in terms of its potentially traumatic effect on children, NC-17 is effectively a dump site for cinematic depictions of sexuality— a way of sexing-down all movies. (A telling valuation: 1990's Henry and June received an NC-17 while two years later Reservoir Dogsgot an R.)

In defense of the ratings system, Valenti insists that "the audience to whom this ratings system is directed— i.e., the parents of America— like it, and they use it. Movie critics don't use it— most of them don't have children, or at least the ones that have been giving me a bad time." But the virtual extinction of NC-17 has turned the system into de facto parents for all adults, cramming adult themes into R-rated movies that accompanied teenagers can see. The net effect is a second Production Code, whose terms are dictated less by morality than by economies of scale swathed in pseudo-morality. To service consolidated nationwide theater and video chains, Hollywood must produce consolidated movie fare— PG, PG-13, and laxly enforced R— that hooks multiple demographics. In this formula, there's no room for NC-17.

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