Who Rates Our Movies?

Let’s pray that Unplanned overcomes its R rating to touch hearts and save lives

A scene from 'Unplanned,' which opens March 29
A scene from 'Unplanned,' which opens March 29 (photo: PureFlix)

I once walked out of a PG-13 movie (free tickets) thinking I must not have realized it was an R. It was not. And I’m not a church lady. Well, actually, I guess I am. So, the argument can be made that I’m not mainstream, but the gratuitous sex scene was not the type of comedy I was expecting.

Of late, there is buzz about the R movie rating for Unplanned, the true story about former Planned Parenthood worker Abby Johnson. Who says that slasher movies and one with a graphic sex scene can get PG-13 ratings, while Unplanned, with no sex, nudity, bad language or violence, gets an R?

The identities of who sits on the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating board is secret, but they are not a licensing board or government agency. The 50-year-old MPAA is a trade group of great influence; their ratings are law for theaters and many parents.


Avoiding Government

The MPAA was established in 1968 as a means of self-censorship to keep government away. Some movie content was trampling on good taste and morals and communities sometimes even outlawed certain movies. Hollywood did not want government interference lest artistic license and licentiousness be hampered, so they announced a plan to self-censor. With a rating system, people would not be caught unaware. And ratings are power; the lower the rating, the more people that will watch the movie.

Although the MPAA gets involved in lobbying on laws affecting the industry, a specific board was established to do the ratings: the Classification and Ratings Administration, (CARA). They have a chairperson, staff, raters, and voters with a seven-year term limit. Voters must be independent of the film industry and have children between the ages of 5 and 15 when they begin their terms. The secretiveness and accusations of unfairness has come under fire, most notably in This Film is Not Yet Rated, a 2006 American documentary critical of MPAA’s rating disparities.

The MPAA members are: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Netflix Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Universal City Studios LLC, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. They decide who will be on the board with the goal of helping to sell their movies.

To be clear, the MPAA exists not to serve us but to help promote the movie industry. It is a scheme to help films find acceptance by the widest audience. Pushing the envelope here and there as community standards fall (and get shoved) is not going to cause a flap these days. And taking a pro-life movie like Unplanned and stuffing it into an envelope where it doesn’t really belong, well, what can a bunch of pro-lifers do about that?


Response to Unplanned’s R Rating

In an open letter, a mix of 29 conservative leaders, actors, and Academy Award-winners, express hope that parents will ignore the R rating just as they did with The Passion of the Christ. They ask, who decides what is appropriate for our families to watch? "Is it a group of unelected parents from Beverly Hills who meet together, watch a film and vote, and ultimately decide for you what is appropriate for your family and what's not? Or is it you, your family, your pastor or priest, and other leaders you respect? Let's not project the values of the 90210 ZIP code upon the rest of America."

The letter explains that “three scenes were mentioned by the MPAA as having to be cut in order to receive a PG-13 rating: a scene in which a child is evacuated on a grainy screen from its mother’s womb, another in which a young girl has a traumatic visit to an abortion clinic, and a third in which a woman endures a home abortion which includes some bleeding in the shower.”

Showing the unborn as human is clearly disturbing to the MPAA, according to the letter’s signers, since a stubbed toe that bleeds, a traumatic dentist appointment, or an image on an X-ray machine would not have earned an R rating. Although many are disappointed at the rating, some, like Monica Miller, theology professor and director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society, have stated that getting an R simply reveals a truth — that abortions are and should be disturbing.

Abby Johnson pointed out the irony of an R rating means that teens in many states who can get abortions without parental consent, will not be able to watch this movie without a parent. But she is undeterred. Movie tickets with a letter from her have been sent to abortion facilities across the country in areas where Unplanned will show. Since the tickets are already paid for, she encourages recipients to use them and let her know what they think be it good or bad.

Whether sabotage or appropriateness is the reason for the R rating, if the raters are not pro-life, let’s pray the movie haunts them into conversion. And let’s also pray that Unplanned touches many hearts and ultimately saves many lives.