Update: “Bully” film earns PG-13 rating

On Monday I received an email from the “Re-rate Bully” campaign (An awesome young lady and former victim of bullying, Katy Butler) that a compromise had been reached and the film would be released as PG-13. The movie’s producers agreed to a minimal re-edit that removed three instances of the f-word from through out the film. One of the most important and heartbreaking scenes of bullying in the movie remains unchanged, even though it uses three counts again of the f-word. The MPAA usually will give a film an R rating for over two instances.

As a result of this compromise, millions of children across the country will be able to see Bully. I don’t think this means a wave of youngsters will be flooding theaters to see it on their own. Instead, and most importantly, adults and educators can now screen it with their students and talk about it in a deep and meaningful way. From Girl Scout troupes to humanities classes, we can now start a conversation over this difficult and important subject.

Happily, so far Bully has garnered good reviews and is taking in a solid profit.

The whole debacle over Bully has once again raised questions about the MPAAs relevance and. The organization has been criticized for, among other things, an “opaque and arbitrary ratings system”. The closely guarded secret of who makes up the MPAA’s board is alleged to prevent  the members from being pressured for certain ratings for movies. At the same time, this makes it very difficult to engage in a conversation with the people making the decisions. And despite this “protective” shroud of secrecy, the group has been accused of giving more leeway with mature content to blockbuster Hollywood-type  movies and being more punitive with independent and smaller films such as Bully.

Alex Libby is tormented for his appearance and difficulty making friends in Lee Hirsch's film "Bully"

After much thought, I agree that the MPAA shouldn’t have given Bully a PG-13 rating simply because we the public wanted them to. The MPAA has a set system of rating movies, and due to the language of this film, it clearly fell under those requirements for an R-ranking. What I do find disturbing, and why I signed the petition, is the “one size fits all” mentality of the ratings system–a computer could do that job with a simple algorithm of violence and instances of profanity. But we are humans, and our films are about the human experience. What I am protesting is the loss of opportunity for growth and learning that occurs when bureaucratic systems prevent us from having a conversation about the intricacies of content.

The MPAA exists to enable parents and viewers to make informed decisions about the films they choose to see. And this is a good thing! I can remember how disturbed I was as a child when I accidentally saw a movie that was way out of my age range for violence (it was a James Bond film). At the same time, we need a guidance system that is more nuanced and informative. Sometimes viewing things that make us uncomfortable in fact makes us stronger. Sometimes it simply traumatizes us. I know from my work with online mariage counseling that setting down rules and ultimatums without talking about your underlying reasoning and desires is recipe for disaster. Let’s take a page from marriage counseling and have a conversation instead.