Has the NC-17 Rating Become an Unworkable Anachronism?

On July 19, the MPA ratings board handed an NC-17 rating to “Passages,” Ira Sachs’s acclaimed drama about a very unusual love triangle (a man, a woman, and a megalomaniacal romantic sociopath). The film was set to be released just two weeks later; Sachs and his distributor, MUBI, were understandably upset. The scene that triggered the NC-17 rating, as is often the case in situations like this one, was an extended sex scene (the MPA does not like things that are long). As almost always happens, the filmmaker and the distributor immediately committed themselves to releasing the movie unrated. “There’s no untangling the film from what it is,” Sachs told the Los Angeles Times. “It is a film that is very open about the place of sexual experience in our lives. And to shift that now would be to create a very different movie.”

He’s totally right, of course. Yet in the days that followed, as I encountered numerous pieces in the media attacking the NC-17 rating that had been assigned to “Passages,” I got a very familiar feeling. Amid the righteous denunciations, assorted arguments were made for why the film had been treated unfairly. The most serious issue raised was whether “Passages” had been placed in a special category because it’s about queer sexuality. The movie’s big sex scene takes place between two men. Was that deemed by the MPA to be more edgy and fraught than a comparable scene that didn’t feature gay characters?

If so, that’s clearly a despicable double standard, an outrage that needs to be denounced. But here’s the thing: It’s impossible to know. You can assert that the decision of the ratings board, in this case, was homophobic; and maybe it was. But in the case of serious films that receive NC-17 ratings that don’t have a queer subject matter, from “Bad Lieutenant” to “Blonde,” the same kinds of objections tend to get raised about the entrenched puritan mentality of the ratings board. And whenever I encounter those arguments (the film in question is a serious work of art! the sexuality onscreen is integral to what the movie is! the scene or scenes in question are extreme only in the eyes of the ratings board!), I always feel like I’m seeing a point-of-view that’s implicitly supporting the very system it says it’s decrying.

For if you make the case that the extended sex scene in “Passages” didn’t warrant an NC-17 rating, that the movie was treated unjustly because it did not, in fact, step over any line, then you’re implicitly acknowledging that there is a line. And who gets to draw the line? The MPA judgments have often been capricious and arbitrary. But I would argue that it’s not any individual judgment that’s out-of-touch so much as the NC-17 rating itself. In the real world, it’s no longer accomplishing anything of value, if it ever was. It has become a de facto way of punishing a film in the marketplace.  

In 2006, Kirby Dick’s documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” presented a searing chronicle of the inconsistencies and abuses of the ratings board, and what an anachronism the NC-17 rating was even 17 years ago. What has changed, since then, is that we now live in a world where the idea of keeping people (like teenagers) from viewing certain material has become essentially unworkable. Online, they can find a way to see more or less anything they want to see.

Does that automatically render the NC-17 rating irrelevant? No. But in what has become a film-industry ritual of two decades’ standing, even when an independent movie comes along that has explicit sex in it (I don’t just mean the depiction of sex; I mean that the onscreen actors are literally engaging in it), it will almost always go out unrated. That’s what happened to films from Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” (2004) to Ninja Thyberg’s hardcore — and extremely incisive and hard-hitting — “Pleasure” (2021), which NEON released in two versions: a drastically cut R-rated version and an unrated version. The films were released without the NC-17, which from the moment it was created, in 1990, gave any movie it was assigned to the same overtone of scandal that the old X rating did. NC-17 was supposed to be a more “neutral” rating, but it was still, in essence, a scarlet letter.

Those who make art films that contain hardcore sex know that they’re limiting their audience. But what about everything else? I agree that “Passages” didn’t “deserve” to get an NC-17 rating, but what film that got an NC-17 rating did deserve it? “Henry & June”? “The Dreamers”? “Crash”? “Bad Education”? “Mysterious Skin”? “Shame”? “A Dirty Shame”? “Blue Is the Warmest Color”? “Lust, Caution”? “Y Tu Mamá También”? Why this film and not that one? When dealing with sexuality, what dialogue is too extreme? How long is too long?

Arriving at the end of the ’80s, NC-17, like the problematic X rating it was supposed to “solve,” had a finger-wagging, just-say-no aura about it. It still does. And if you want to talk about the imperfect attitudes of the ratings-board members, an argument that goes back to the days of the X rating — and that holds true even more today — is that they maintain a double standard for sexuality and violence that makes no real human sense. Even the most disturbing and explicit horror films, or the most gruesome action films, are never slapped with an NC-17. Sexuality is the one and only taboo. In a movie landscape where good independent films are increasingly frail blossoms, it does no favors to a movie like “Passages” to take an intimate erotic scene that lasts 20 seconds longer than the MPA ratings board felt comfortable with and brand it with a scarlet letter. But as long as NC-17 exists, that’s going to happen. It may be time to do a serious rethink of how this rating works, or even consider making it go the way of the Hays Code.

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