Smoke screen: Movie rating board in a huff about the puff

Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that on-screen smoking will now be among the factors considered in its rating system.

Historically, sex and violence have long been the key factors in handing out G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings. The ratings board also took underage smoking into account when assigning
the more restrictive ratings. But in a statement, MPAA chairman/CEO Dan Glickman said:

“Now, all smoking will be a consideration in the rating process. Three questions will have particular weight for our rating board when considering smoking in a film: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? And, is there an historic or other mitigating context? Additionally, when a film’s rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, that rating will now include phrases such as ‘glamorized smoking’ or ‘pervasive smoking.’ ”

As a lifelong non-smoker, I’m happy to see the depiction of smoking being taken seriously. It’s a terrible and deadly habit that has been foisted on the public through unscrupulous marketing based on corporate greed. It also has an illustrious history on the silver screen, from Bette Davis to Lauren Bacall, James Dean and every Quentin Tarantino movie ever made. In theory, I have no problem with smoking getting smoked out in the movies.

But — and there is always a but — I’m going to take issue with some of the reasoning. As Glickman continued in the statement:

“Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society. There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine’s highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit.”

Hmm, an “unacceptable behavior in our society” where parents don’t want their children to “take up the habit”? Is that why films with overt gay and lesbian content have historically been given harsher ratings than those with similar, though straight, content? Anyone who has seen the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated — or paid attention to the ratings on the countless bad lesbian movies she has suffered through — will know that gay content gets flagged as “unacceptable” at an unacceptably higher rate than comparable straight content. So, to the rating board, social norms trump doing the right thing? By that logic, would smoking not be taken into rating consideration if it were still more socially acceptable, even though we also knew it was unhealthy?

Ratings are important to filmmakers and studios for several reasons, two of the biggest being 1) They greatly affect the number of people who can see your film and 2) They greatly affect the amount of money a film can make in future box office, rentals and sales. The difference between a PG-13 and R rating, or R and NC-17 can make or break a film.

So what do you think? Will this help stop children from lighting up and get adults to stamp out? Or is this change just blowing smoke, so to speak?

More you may like