The Pleasure Police


There’s a scene in Jamie Babbit’s indie debut feature, But I’m a Cheerleader, where two teenage girls are having sex in, of all places, a bed. It’s night, but a single light, reflected off a mirror, allows fleeting glimpses of the movement of a shoulder, a hand, a thigh. The darkness limits perception and calls your imagination into play. Tender and sweet, the scene is erotic without being prurient. But maybe that’s a matter of what you bring to it.

Babbit hadn’t intended for the scene to be quite so dark, but the two young actors, Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, refused to do nudity. “It’s hard to do a love scene when the actors are fully clothed. I’d ask, ‘Can’t we just show this part or that part?’ and they’d go, ‘No, it’s too fa-a-at.’ I was so frustrated I even suggested using some of my body parts,” says Babbit, who’s as funny and irrepressible as her movie.

Compared to some of the gross-out sex in the R-rated American Pie, the scene is PG-13 innocent. But Babbit had been warned by people with experience making gay movies to expect an R because the MPAA is very concerned about lesbian sex, especially when it involves minors. A satire done up in candy-box colors, Cheerleader is set in an Exodus-like camp where teens are sent to recover from being gay.

Babbit may have been prepared for an R but not for an NC-17, which is what the MPAA slapped on Cheerleader. “The board wanted me to do four things. First, I had to resubmit a lighter print of the sex scene so that they could examine it better. The implication was that I had darkened the scene to put something over on them.’I also had to take out a two-second shot of Clea’s hand sweeping across Natasha’s body near her belly button, but on top of her clothes. It’s insane. And I had to eliminate the pan up Natasha’s body in the scene where she’s masturbating. I could only use the close-up of her face.”

What Babbit regrets most is losing one of the funniest lines in the movie. “When Natasha is expelled from the camp, she asks why, and one of the girls answers, ‘Because you ate Graham out.’ [Graham is the character played by DuVall.] They made me change the line to ‘Because you had a sleep-over with Graham’— which isn’t funny at all. But there’s also a scene where someone accuses one of the boys at the camp of sneaking out to a bar called the Cocksucker and he quips, ‘My cocksucking days are over.’ They didn’t object to that line.”

Lynn Harris, executive vice president of production at New Line, where Babbit is in development with her first studio feature, says that “the decisions the MPAA makes are an odd reflection of our culture. The MPAA hits on sexuality more than on violence. Jamie’s film should be PG-13. It’s a romantic film, not a graphic film.” Harris has direct experience with the MPAA— she was involved in the extensive negotiations to change Boogie Nights‘s NC-17 to an R. Babbit, however, didn’t have a studio to back her up.

Harris avoids generalizing about whether the board has different standards for the depiction of male and female sexuality. Instead, she describes a set of illustrations put out by the MPAA to explain what their various ratings signify. They’re occasionally shown in theaters as part of the movie trivia quiz that precedes the coming-attraction trailers. The illustration for the G rating shows a mom, a dad, a son, and a daughter all looking at the screen. In the illustration for the PG rating, one of the parents has a hand over the daughter’s eyes but not over the son’s. Harris says it makes her angry that it’s only the girl who receives “parental guidance.”

Director Colette Burson says she got her MPAA representative to admit that the board has a double standard for the depiction of sexuality. Burson’s Coming Soon is a slapstick indie comedy about a New York private school senior who loses her virginity but doesn’t realize she hasn’t had an orgasm until she finds herself pressed against the spigot of a Jacuzzi.

Coming Soon is similar to Cheerleader in several respects, the most obvious being that both films are about female desire as embodied in 17-year-old girls whose language is as blatant as the proverbial truck driver but who never seem to take their clothes off when they have sex. Though one is about gay teens and the other heterosexuals, the films are both frank and direct without being titillating or exploitative. Tamara Jenkins, the director of last summer’s modest hit Slums of Beverly Hills, describes the behavior of her heroine (played by Lyonne, who also turns up as the sexually experienced wiseass in American Pie) as “sex without seduction.” She says it’s an aspect of teenage female behavior that makes Hollywood men very nervous. The MPAA gave Slums an R with no questions asked, perhaps because a studio executive was on Jenkins’s case throughout production about cutting back on what he termed “the female grossness.”

Burson got her NC-17 changed to an R by making most of the 17 cuts the MPAA “recommended.” But she also demanded explanations. She says her MPAA contact told her that the board had a problem with teenage girls having orgasms or talking about them. When Burson countered that they didn’t seem bothered by teenage boys’ orgasms, she says she was told the MPAA’s job is to make viewing recommendations to parents, and that since most American parents have a different standard for their sons than for their daughters, the MPAA must maintain that double standard as well.

The chilling effect of that double standard is a prime reason that there are no American female directors whose films are as vivid or as complicated as Scorsese’s or Kubrick’s— to bring up the director whose final film is causing the biggest MPAA flap in the nine years since the NC-17 was initiated. Last week members of the L.A. Film Critics Association fired off a letter condemning Warner Bros. for its “decision to digitally alter Eyes Wide Shut in order to secure an R rating.” The letter also condemned “the apparent double standard the MPAA continues to maintain when it comes to sexual and violent movie content.”

But the experience Babbit and Burson had with the MPAA is far more dire. Because of its antiquated notions of gender and sexuality, the MPAA is preventing a major area of female experience from being represented on the screen. MPAA chairman Jack Valenti may claim that the MPAA doesn’t censor films, but, in practical and economic terms, that’s exactly what it does. What else can Valenti say, given that the members of the MPAA rating board seem unqualified to conduct an intelligent conversation with a filmmaker, let alone grapple with the legal and moral issues involved in censorship? That the studios continue to allow the MPAA so much power suggests that they share its values. It’s okay for the geeky girl in American Pie to announce that she once stuck her flute up her pussy, as long as she says it to give a thrill to her date. But when teenage girls have a gabfest about orgasms and try to figure out whether the sex they’re having is satisfying or not, they need to be reined in.

As for the future of Coming Soon and But I’m a Cheerleader: Burson showed her film at the L.A. Indie Fest, the Nantucket Film Festival, and at Gen Art in New York. Distributors passed on Coming Soon when it was NC-17. She’s making the rounds again now that it has an R. Babbit is in postproduction with Cheerleader, which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival in September. After that, I suspect, she’ll have no trouble finding a distributor at all.

The Girl Can’t Have It

YES: A scene in which a boy, having heard that third base is “like warm apple pie,” finds an apple pie his mother has left him for dinner, tentatively sticks two fingers through the crust, wiggles them around, and winds up with the entire pie plastered across his crotch. His father suggests telling the mother that the son ate it all. (American Pie)

YES: A foreign exchange student strips down to her panties, crawls into bed with porno magazines, sticks her hand inside her panties, and masturbates. The joke in the scene is that she’s unaware that many boys (including one preteen) are watching her over the Internet. (American Pie)

NO: A girl standing in a baby-doll nightgown with one hand outside her panties, and the other clutching a vibrator-type object against the bodice of her dress. The shot is a fast pan up her body to her delighted face. Only the close-up of her face remains in the R version. (But I’m a Cheerleader)

NO: A conversation in which a boy tries to convince a girl that she achieved orgasm when she didn’t. (Coming Soon) —A.T.