A Discussion on Viewing R-rated Movies in LDS Culture, Part 1

I grew up in a family and culture (LDS) where R-rated films were a definite no-no, a taboo. I’m grateful I have parents who cared enough to be ultra-conservative with the types of movies I was allowed to watch. Through most of elementary school I wasn't even allowed to watch PG movies, unless I got express permission from my parents. I didn't always understand their reasoning and on occasion remember always being excited about sleep-overs, because I was a little freer in what I chose to watch (thankfully those who I spent the evening with were good enough to not watch inappropriate movies anyway). We were even the proud owners of a TV Guardian that muted out the profane or sexually related dialog and inserted subtitles with a euphemism in place (e.g., “sex” became “hugs”), though we knew what was being missed anyways.

I don’t think I missed out on anything by being so restricted, on the contrary, I think it helped me become extra careful and to develop a knack for knowing (finding out) what any film was rated and why it was rated that way. Sites like screenit.com were quite helpful, though tended to make movies sound worse than they actually were.

I wasn’t immune from being in situations (e.g., Boy Scout camp, school) in which questionable movies (some R-rated) were displayed, but learned relatively quickly that I really wasn’t interested in watching most of them (or any of the ones I saw) because there was a lot of badness represented that I didn’t want to experience more of. As I matured, I understood why my parents cautioned against even the lower-rated PG movies (e.g., Big would surely be PG-13 by today’s so called “standards”) and chose of myself to avoid certain movies, that weren’t even R-rated because I didn’t want to subject myself to their content (e.g., most Mike Myers films).

That being said, I’ve also learned that even R-rated movies have good, moral content to offer. I’ve watched a lot of scrubbed (some would say “adulterated”) R-rated movies, some of which have enough pervasive “evil” content, that even taking out the swearing, sex, and violence leaves a dark theme that permeates every aspect of the movie. Others have a lot of good to offer, though they seem to be few and far between. Take for example that 153 R-rated movies have been churned out so far in 2011 providing only 22.62% of the overall money grossed from films; while only 14 G-rated (6% share), 53 PG-rated (17.58% share), and 101 PG-13 (53.65% share) movies have been released. Obviously Hollywood enjoys making more R-rated movies, and they don’t care that the R-rated flicks make as much money as almost 3 PG-rated movies combined. (Statistics came from www.the-numbers.com.)

I don’t put a lot of stock (if any) into the MPAA ratings system, I’m sure many of you are aware that it is quite broken. Hollywood merely uses it to choose how it wishes to target its films. If Hollywood doesn’t want a bunch of teenagers ruining the experience of watching the film, they will throw enough profanity, sex, and/or violence in it to make it R-rated. If they don’t want the film to be labeled as a kids’ movie (which a lot of people now associate with both G- and PG-rated movies) they throw in an F-word and they get their magical PG-13 rating (one of the reasons I had a hard time enjoying an otherwise amazingly good, and easily PG-rated movie - Julie and Julia). While Hollywood is mostly to blame, they’re just playing by the rules that the inane MPAA has put together.

As far as using a specific number of profane words, without even considering the context in which they are used, or the value of the film to society, the MPAA has failed to properly rate movies. I’m no expert in British (maybe even European) culture, but what I’ve gleaned is that, to them, the F-word is not as offensive as it is to Americans. Two examples of movies that were amazing to watch, yet were only R-rated because of this profanity, were Once and The King’s Speech. Both movies I would heartily recommend to anyone, while still realizing that this language is unbecoming a person (and young kids should probably be steered away from such). In addition to this poor quality of the rating system, it is only US-based. Other countries have completely different systems and views on what movies merit certain ratings.

As I’ve been writing I’m realizing that the MPAA and Hollywood are probably not the root of the problem, it’s those who watch movies. We tell Hollywood that we are more willing to watch movies with edgy content, movies that glorify sex and violence, and titillate the senses by purchasing tickets and viewing such shows. While this may be the case some of the time, at least by the percentages above society is showing that we prefer non-R-rated to R-rated films four to one. Yet we still support the trashy movies that Hollywood gives us.

While working for one of the many companies that used to rent and sell edited movies I was shown a special that aired in 2005 on AMC called Bleep! Censoring Hollywood. It interviewed the biggest players in the editing business, along with a lot of big name Hollywood directors and discussed both sides of the argument. Here is a clip from the first 10 minutes of the 40 minute show; the rest of the show can be found on youtube.com.  (Beware that they do show some original R-rated scenes and follow up with the edited scene so you get an idea of how the editing worked with or "corrupted" the original source.  This particular clip shows a stabbing in the movie Troy.):

[***clip has been removed from YouTube***]

I think I’ve come to a pretty important realization as I’ve worked and associated closely with those who want the movies they watch to be sex-, violence-, and language-free. Some people simply want to enjoy a good movie and not be bothered with content that makes them uncomfortable. This is perfectly fine and normal; there’s nothing wrong with people who think this way. At the same time, it is not the only right perspective. Other people (i.e., movie geeks or cinephiles) want to experience the whole gamut of cinema, and that sometimes includes the grittier or edgier films. While gritty and edgy films shouldn’t be the only films watched (as that can have a negative effect), they help form an art critics perspective and allows the critic to more aptly judge what is good moral art and what isn’t (MPAA ratings aside; and gritty/edgy does not always equal trashy and/or perverse). I have a whole other post coming in the next week or so (Part 2) that will address the root of the taboo of R-rated movies in LDS culture. This post was merely an introduction into that discussion.


  1. A couple questions:
    (1) Do Brits have their own sex synonym that they find equally offensive as Americans do ours?
    (2) Do you advocate watching un-scrubbed R-rated movies?
    (3) What is your parenting philosophy on movies? Specifically, at what age do you think kids can make their own decisions about what movies to watch?

  2. 1 - I have no idea, I may even be wrong, and it may be an offensive word over there, it just doesn't seem like they use it as offensively as Americans do (particularly when they try to squeeze it in a PG-13 movie)

    2 - I don't advocate watching un-scrubbed R-rated movies. If you want to get a head start on what my follow up post will be on check out Uncle Orson's essay on "Is There an R-rated Movie Commandment?" - http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-r-rated-movie.html . A lot of people use this as an excuse to say R-rated movies should be watched, but it's mainly an argument to get us to stop making judgments against people based on a non-existent commandment.

    3 - My kids can make their own decisions on what they watch when they leave my house :) I hope to teach them to want to watch good, moral movies (the purpose of this blog). Some movies are for a more mature audience, but can be equally morally strengthening. I like the idea of getting permission to watch even PG-rated movies, so they learn how and why their parents judge the moral content of a movie. As long as it's morally neutral or better, it should be fine (a lot of comedies are morally neutral). PG-13 movies will always require good investigation on our part at first, but I'd like to train our kids to learn to investigate as well. R-rated movies appropriate for children will be few and far between, and something like clearplay would make a movie like The King's Speech a great and inspiring movie for them.

  3. I've had a lot of thoughts on this subject. You commented on my article at Millennial Star earlier today. I wanted to let you know that I've written something else on the subject, which is particularly pertinent to this article: http://jeffrey.ldsphilosopher.com/?p=523

    I'm curious for your input and thoughts on the matter. I beginning to suspect that a lot of movies that are PG, PG-13, or "morally neutral" films don't stand up to scrutiny when start asking the right questions.