The vast gap between how the US and Europe think about teens and sex

Image: Courtesy of A24
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Eighth Grade is a highly-acclaimed coming-of-age movie about a 13-year-old American girl enduring the trials and tribulations of modern adolescence. But while teenagers in the US might well relate to the movie’s heroine, they won’t be able to see the movie in theaters—unless they’re at least 17 or accompanied by a parent or guardian. That’s because the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the film an R rating for “language and some sexual material.”

There aren’t many other ratings to compare that against. The movie has only been shown overseas in two countries–the United Kingdom and Canada. But in Canada, Eighth Grade was given a 14A rating, meaning that everyone older than 14 can see it without an adult. Meanwhile, the movie played at the London Sundance film festival, but hasn’t yet been released for commercial viewing in the UK. The British equivalent of the MPAA, the British Board of Film Classification, hasn’t yet rated Eighth Grade, but it’s a good bet that, when it does, the movie will be rated more leniently.

The discrepancy in Eighth Grade’s Canada and US ratings is symbolic of the difference between the US and the rest of the world, according to the movie’s director Bo Burnham. “There seems to be a strange double-standard between sexuality and violence,” he tells Quartz. “It’s a little weird how much violence you can have in a PG-13 movie.” That’s because, as Charles Bramesco argues in a recent piece for Vox, movie ratings reflect what a culture deems acceptable content for children. And the US and Europe are on very different pages about what they view as child-appropriate.

What is the MPAA?

In the US, the MPAA is the body that reviews and rates most movies and trailers according to a classification grid, ranging from General Audiences (G) to Parental Guidance Suggested (PG), Parents Strongly Cautioned (PG-13), Restricted (R), and No One 17 And Under Admitted (NC-17). In the first half of the 20th century, movie ratings were really a form of censorship, when the fear that movies were a corrupting influence on young children spurred the creation of the “Hays code,” under which filmmakers were obligated to minimize or avoid depictions of everything from “lustful kissing” and interracial relationships to divorce and toilets. The Hays code gained traction when the Legion of Decency, an organization created by the Catholic Church, signed onto it and began assigning ratings to films based on whether they were “morally objectionable” or not.

After World War II, the Hays code started to fade. In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that movies were protected by the First Amendment. That decision ushered in the movie rating system we know today: in 1968, Jack Valenti, a special assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson, became president of the MPAA, and instituted a voluntary movie rating system based not on moral censorship, but rather on information for parents about what their kids could expect to see onscreen.

Today, the Classification & Ratings Administration, part of the MPAA, issues movie ratings, based on the vote of an independent rating board made up Los-Angles based parents who “have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents.” In effect, the board acts as a kind of moral and ethical arbiter, making judgments limiting the audience for a given movie based on a set of criteria that includes nudity, alcohol or drug use, coarse language, and violence.

A spokesperson for the MPAA said that the goal of the ratings is not to limit the audience for a given movie, but to provide parents with information that will help them decide whether a film is appropriate for their kids. “It is not the MPAA’s role to prevent children from seeing certain films—those decisions are up to parents,” Chris Ortman, vice president of corporate communications at the MPAA, said in a statement. “Nor does the MPAA dictate to filmmakers what content they can or cannot include in their films.” Ortman also noted that the ratings aren’t static: “we constantly re-evaluate the ratings through surveys and focus groups to mirror concerns of contemporary American parents.” That said, the concerns of contemporary parents in the US appear to be very different from their counterparts across the Atlantic.

American vs. European views of sex and violence

The MPAA is generally considered to be more lenient towards violence in evaluating ratings for children, but tougher on sex and non-sexual nudity (frontal male nudity in particular). As Bramesco writes for Vox, citing the 2006 investigative documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, “Sex scenes are picked through with a fine-toothed comb, any detail—a wiping of the chin, a moan too emphatically acted, any maneuver beyond the most vanilla standards—sufficient to bump a film up to the R zone and limit its reach.” It’s hard to predict what “vanilla” will mean for the MPAA; the rules are so opaque that directors like Bo Burnham often have to guess what it is about their movie that earned them an R rating.

The MPAA’s reluctance to let children see sex on screen is strange, given that sexual experimentation is a normal and important part of the adolescent experience. That’s part of the rationale behind Eighth Grade director Burnham’s decision not to edit the film down to a PG-13 rating by cutting out certain swear words or a vaguely sexually suggestive scene where Kayla Googles how to give a blow job, and subsequently gets grossed out. “The movie’s not exposing them to anything they’re not already aware of,” Burnham tells Quartz. But movies, at the very least, portray the trials of growing up in a more responsible way than what kids have access to on the internet, he said.

“In general, the US does tend to rate sexuality more harshly than violence, and that is pretty much flipped everywhere else in the world,” Betsy Bozdech, the executive editor of ratings and reviews for Common Sense Media, a non-profit that rates and reviews movies to help parents make decisions about the content their kids watch, tells Quartz. For her part, Bozdech says that Common Sense Media gave Eighth Grade a 14+ rating, and that both parents and kids on their site gave the movie a 12+ rating. “I hope that parents will take their kids to see it,” she said.

For many European movie ratings agencies, including the British Board of Film Classification, scenes that depict sex are deemed more acceptable for adolescents. European attitudes hold that sexual exploration is a normal part of growing up, and that kids should be allowed to see it on screen. That’s part of a broader difference between how Americans and Europeans view sex. For example, a 2013 Pew poll found that 30% of US adults still think that sex between unmarried adults is morally unacceptable, but in Europe, only 6-13% of respondents thought it was unacceptable.

What’s behind the MPAA’s movie ratings?

There are some questionable dynamics at stake in the MPAA’s movie ratings. For example, the Classification & Ratings Administration has been accused of being biased against depictions of women’s sexuality and queer sex, much more so than against heterosexual or male sexual pleasure. That bias becomes evident when comparing American and European ratings of movies depicting queer sex: For example, the critically-acclaimed 2013 movie Blue is the Warmest Color had lengthy scenes of lesbian sex between a teenager and her older lover. The film was rated NC-17 in the US, but in France, where the movie was filmed, it was rated acceptable for kids above the age of 12—the equivalent of the American PG-13–by the French National Center for Cinema and Animated Image (CNC). When a Catholic group tried to sue the Ministry of Culture for its rating, saying the movie should not be allowed for children below 16, the country’s highest administrative jurisdiction, the Conseil d’état, ruled in favor of the “12” rating, saying that “Although true that the sex scenes in question, although simulated, present a character of undeniable realism, they are both free of all violence, and filmed without degrading intent.”

Depictions of sexual violence, as in the gay thriller Stranger by the Lake, have garnered more severe ratings from the French agency in the past. But as long as the sex is consensual and violence-free, the French agency typically deems such scenes appropriate for middle-schoolers.

Meanwhile, the MPAA may be prudish about sex itself, but some say it isn’t as concerned with the question of how Hollywood perpetuates harmful ideas about women’s sexuality, according to Peggy Orenstein, a journalist and author of the book Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. ”The MPAA rating system in no way addresses the sexualization, objectification or marginalization of women in Hollywood,” she said, meaning “to just focus on the depiction of sexual acts and violence is in many ways to miss the forest for the trees.” Orenstein adds, “we have a ridiculously and unquestioned high tolerance for exposure to violence at the youngest ages in media.”

The US rating system’s attitudes toward sex ultimately does little to protect teenagers—particularly when the ratings make it difficult for unaccompanied adolescents to see their own experiences reflected in characters their age, exploring their sexuality in complicated and meaningful ways, onscreen. As Burnham says of the MPAA’s reaction to Eighth Grade, “By not allowing us to portray difficult or strange situations for kids … it’s contributing to the problem.”

This post has been updated to include comments from the MPAA.