Few things in American culture are quite as taboo as female sexual pleasure. Even mere depictions of women enjoying sex are considered pornographic and obscene. This cultural discomfort with women’s sexual enjoyment is upheld by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its system for rating movies.
The film rating system was established in 1968 to “help parents make informed viewing choices for their children.” Movie ratings, which range from G to NC-17, are determined by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), which is allegedly made up of an independent group of parents. The MPAA is facing increasing criticism for the disparate ratings they assign, particularly in regard to movies that depict women enjoying sex.
The MPAA overwhelmingly deems women’s sexuality as too explicit for large releases; meanwhile, depictions of male sexual pleasure are commonplace and are less likely to receive a restrictive rating, giving the films a commercial advantage. For example, director Jamie Babbit was forced to cut a female masturbation scene in “But I’m a Cheerleader” in order to get an R-rating instead of an NC-17 rating; the same year, “American Pie” was rated R for including the infamous apple pie scene. Many of the biggest theater chains and retail stores will not show or sell NC-17 rated movies as a matter of policy, and as a result, movies that include women’s sexuality are more likely to fail. “Afternoon Delight” director Jill Soloway was forced to cut scenes of women enjoying sex in order to earn the R-rating she had promised to distributors. That same year, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” was given an NC-17 rating for its lengthy depictions of lesbian sex.
Laughably, the MPAA appears to deem depictions of men performing oral sex on women as particularly heinous. In 2013, Evan Rachel Wood’s “Charlie Countryman” was only given an R-rating after parts from a scene in which Shia Labeouf’s character performs oral sex on Wood’s character were cut. Similarly, the MPAA rated Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” as NC-17 because the original cut depicted the main character, Brandon, wiping his mouth after performing oral sex on his girlfriend, Lana. The MPAA even stated that Lana’s orgasm was “too long.” In 2010, the MPAA gave “Blue Valentine” an NC-17 rating for an oral sex scene between the two leads, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.
As comical as the MPAA’s prudishness is, their rating system has real consequences. As Ryan Gosling explained in a 2010 interview, “You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.”
Gosling is speaking to what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls “the male gaze.” Hollywood has traditionally run on a for men, by men basis; most of the films we watch tend to be dominated by the male point of view while female characters are restricted to being objects of desire. In fact, more than one in four women on-screen get partially naked, while less than one in 10 men do the same. The MPAA only reinforces the male gaze through its rating system. As HuffPost contributor Amanda Scherker explains, “Movies that have tons of gratuitous female nudity can still receive an R-rating, such as ‘Wolf of Wall Street.’ Movies that explore female pleasure or orgasms, on the other hand, are likely to be hit with an NC-17 rating.” Furthermore, in the same way that female nudity through the male gaze is considered less explicit than female erotic pleasure, violence, including sexual violence like rape, is regularly deemed acceptable in R-rated movies.
While the MPAA is unlikely to change its policies in regard to female sexual pleasure any time soon, there are alternatives to the MPAA rating system. Firstly, parents can research movies and set their own standards in terms of what is appropriate for their children to watch, rather than merely following the MPAA’s guide. Beyond that, websites like Common Sense Media and Kids-In-Mind.com provide a much more detailed rating system for parents. By refuting the MPAA’s old-fashioned rating system, we can open the doors to films that portray a more diverse expression of human sexuality beyond just the straight, male gaze.
Kate Turrell is a senior double-majoring in sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.