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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Should “Bully” Be Rated ‘R’?

Most Americans recognize the following movie ratings: G, PG, PG-13, and R. A film’s rating is based on the following factors: language, drugs, and sexual content.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, these ratings are designed to provide parents the information they need to determine whether a movie’s content might be appropriate for their children. However, some people have questioned the need for film ratings and some have criticized how a movie with lots of violence but little or no strong language and sexual content can get a PG-13 rating, but a movie with little violence but lots of “strong language” can get a R rating. Sometimes, film ratings seem so… subjective.

Such seems to be the case in the ‘R’ rated documentary, “Bully,” which will be released next week on March 30.

This teen-bullying documentary follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis during the 2009-2010 school year. See the captioned trailer below:

What was it that gave the MPAA the impetus to give this documentary an ‘R’ rating? It was the “strong” language. Apparently the f-bomb is dropped one too many times. But the f-bomb is nothing new. Like it or not, it’s part of our vocabulary — and kids know it very, very well.

The battle between the MPAA who gave “Bully” an ‘R’ rating and those who believe that youngsters need to see it is well documented in various newspaper articles and blogs, including the LA Times, The Huffington Post, and Hollywood News. Bloggers, like BlogHer and The Mary Sue, have chimed in, criticizing the MPAA. Highlighting the subjectivity of MPAA film ratings, The Mary Sue pointed out that the upcoming blockbuster, The Hunger Games, which is apparently about kids killing kids, received a PG-13 rating.

Given the importance of the message in “Bully,” a large number of celebrities have publicly disagreed with the MPAA’s rating of “Bullying,” including Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, and Ellen Degeneres:

Common Sense Media, which reviews films, books, and video games, disagrees with the MPAA’s ‘R’ rating for “Bully.” In its review of “Bully,” Common Sense Media writes:

[N]one of the swearing is gratuitous. Like it or not, it’s a realistic portrayal of what every middle schooler and older hears every day. This gives the film veracity and credibility with kids . . . Ultimately, Bully encourages kids to stand up to bullies, not stand by, and reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference when it comes to this essential issue.

Recently, Katy Butler, a teenager, created an online petition on Change.org, requesting that the MPAA change the rating for “Bully” from R to PG-13. According to the petition, Katy Butler says that she is a former victim of peer bullying in school and believes that it is very important for youngsters to see this film. Hence, the rating should be reduced from R to PG-13. The Washington Post has more on this story.

It does seem strange that a documentary about bullied teenagers would be given an ‘R’ rating despite a few f-bombs. After all, kids already know the f-word, but more importantly, youngsters need to know about the impact that bullying can have on the lives of children. And for kids, there is no better medium to learn about the impact of bullying than film.

While researching this story, I wondered if it was necessary for a film to be rated in order to be show in the theater. According to Wikipedia, it is not necessary:

[T]he Motion Picture Association of America’s film-rating scheme “applies only to films submitted for rating. The MPAA rating system is a voluntary scheme not enforced by law; and films can be exhibited without a rating, though many theaters refuse to exhibit non-rated [...] films.”

But here’s the problem that filmmakers face: if they do not submit the film for a rating, the film may not be shown in as many theaters as the filmmakers would like. Obviously, to get as wide an audience as possible, the filmmakers will want to obtain a MPAA rating. In the case of “Bully,” which offers insight into the lives of five bullied students and teaches the audience the impact that bullying can have on the lives of children, it is important to the filmmakers that youngsters across the country have the opportunity to see this film and learn from it.

Last month, the MPAA blogged about their ‘R’ rating for “Bully”:

Bullying is a serious issue and is a subject that parents should discuss with their children.  The MPAA agrees with the Weinstein Company that Bully can serve as a vehicle for such important discussions.  Unfortunately, there is a misconception about the R rating of this film limiting the audience to adults.  This is not true.  In fact, many other R-rated movies on important topics, such as Schindler’s List, have been screened in schools and viewed by children accompanied by their parents.

The voluntary ratings system enables parents to make an informed decision about what content they allow their children to see in movies.  The R rating and description of “some language” for Bully does not mean that children cannot see the film.  As with any movie, parents will decide if they want their children to see Bully.  School districts, similarly, handle the determination of showing movies on a case-by-case basis and have their own guidelines for parental approval.

Poster for the film "Bully"
As of this writing, Katy Butler’s petition has collected 400,000 signatures, including the signatures of 27 members of Congress, to try to get the MPAA to change its rating of “Bully” from ‘R’ to PG-13.

Some netizens have suggested that Katy Butler, Ellen Degeneres, and those who signed the petition are the bullies — since the film rating is voluntary and there is really nothing to prevent children from seeing the film if accompanied by their parents or adult guardians.

What’s your position?

Will you sign Katy Butler’s petition? If not, why not?

For more information about the “Bully” documentary, see the official website.

March 27, 2012 update: The film distributor has elected to distribute “Bully” without a rating. See here and there. As discussed in this post, the filmmakers and producers were not required to obtain a MPAA rating in order to release this film. Now, it will now be up to the movie theaters to decide whether they will screen this film. As discussed in the Los Angeles Times, some theaters have a policy of not screening unrated films.

April 6, 2012 update: The film distributor has cut out three f-bombs from the film and will be releasing a new cut to theaters. As a result, the MPAA has rated it PG-13. The distributor calls it a “victory.” I don’t see it as a “victory” at all. The MPAA stuck to its guns; and the distributor made the necessary cuts to the film in order to get the film rating down from R to PG-13.

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