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"Bully": The controversy over its "R" rating

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Reel Mama: "Bully": The controversy over its "R" rating

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Bully": The controversy over its "R" rating

You may not be aware of the firestorm of controversy surrounding the “R” rating given by the MPAA ratings board to the documentary film “Bully.” The film is produced by Harvey Weinstein, a legendary mogul in the film industry renowned for his knack for picking up Oscars (most recently this year for The Artist).  Weinstein has clout, needless to say, but not quite enough to to convince the ratings board that the film should get a PG13 rating as the director Lee Hirsch had hoped, since they had planned for the documentary to be screened in middle schools and high schools across the country.  
The problem is language, more specifically, the f-bomb, anti-gay slurs, and other pejorative curse words being dropped repeatedly by the bullies as they terrorize the bullied.  My heart really does go out to all the children who are victims of bullying.  I’ve been there, and I know it hurts.  I can say that times have changed since I was bullied in grade school--the language bullies use now is considerably courser. 
Weinstein and Hirsch would like the MPAA to make an exception for the film so that teens can have access to an extremely relevant film that covers the critically important issue of bullying. I think the issue for the MPAA really comes down to parental involvement.  Giving a film with this level of profanity a PG13 rating would not be an exception but would set a new precedent in the film industry and turn the ratings system on its head.  
As a parent, I don’t want f-bombs to make it into a PG13 film.  It’s tricky enough for parents to navigate the ratings system, when even PG films often contain edgy or eyebrow-raising content, and make effective choices about which films to allow their children to see.  That’s part of why I started this blog and offer parents my personal rating for age appropriateness to help guide their choices.  
Parents shouldn’t be cut out of the equation, and in this case I feel that the MPAA did the right thing.  Parents rely on the ratings system, and if a film receives an R rating, it’s a strong indication that they need to be involved in the decision to allow their child to see the film or not.  Children under 17 are not banned from seeing the film, but they must be accompanied by an adult.  I see this as a great opportunity for parents and other caregivers who do accompany their teens to a screening of this film to start an important conversation about bullying.  The film also covers in depth the very serious issue of teen suicide, so again, having a parent or caregiver present to discuss the issue, and provide comfort and reassurance, is beneficial, especially for younger teens.
My understanding is that some screenings have already been scheduled at various schools across the country.  Perhaps for the uncensored film to be screened more generally, parents could sign a permission slip or attend the screening along with the students, after they receive a heads-up about the kind of language the film contains.
There may be some forums where the filmmaker has no choice about presenting a cleaner version, and this may be necessary if the film is to reach as many teens as possible.  Hirsch is understandably concerned that editing the film will water down its impact, but I don’t think a few bleeps are going to take away from the film’s power.  I think everybody will get the idea, and ultimately it’s more important for the film to reach as wide an audience as possible.  A PBS screening, for instance, would make that happen, but in its current form such a broadcast would likely be impossible.
Hats off to the filmmaker for shining a spotlight on this important issue.  I haven’t seen the film yet, and, though it promises to be quite difficult to watch, I will review it here on this blog as soon as it’s available and provide as much information as possible so that parents can make the decision about whether to allow their kids to see the film.  I’ll also be publishing several other pieces about bullying this spring.  
There was a time when the word “jerk” was deemed too vulgar for mainstream film.  Now parents don’t bat an eyelash if a character uses that word as an insult in a G-rated film.  Times change.  There was a time in the 1980s, before the PG13 rating, when films received a PG rating in spite of strong language.  Maybe 20 years out, the f-bomb won’t make moms flip their beanies if it’s in a film that’s screened in schools.  We’re not there yet.  In the 1960s, I’m sure the general movie going population would have been shocked to learn that To Kill a Mockingbird would be routinely screened in schools 25 or 30 years later.  
Parents and non-parents alike, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please feel free to leave a comment below.  If you’ve had the opportunity to see the film at a festival, please let me know what you think.


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