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Puppets and Censorship

Being Elmo This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Being Elmo and This Film is Not Yet Rated

This Film is Not Yet Rated (hereafter: This Film) explores the shadowy world of the MPAA ratings board, a secretive organization that wields enormous power to shape the market future of the films under their consideration.  Being Elmo explores the shadowy world of Muppeteers, the vivacious personalities who wield enormous power to make us smile and giggle.  One of the films make you cheer for the power of entertainment, the other makes you lament at the sorry state of the industry.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films play on our emotions very well.  Being Elmo tells an inspiring story of an artist who followed his love and made it.  Kevin Clash, the man who voices perhaps the most popular Muppet this side of Kermit, grew up in working class Baltimore, where he taught himself to make and use puppets.  His ambition, modesty, and generosity is striking.  This Film, by contrast, follows the depressing story of the MPAA ratings board, a group whose ratings answer more to industry and conservative sexual values than to the mainstream tastes of America.  The film focuses on the power the board weilds and its secrecy, which gives it cover to operate under its own agenda instead of answering to the people it pretends to protect.
  • Hope plays a key role in both films.  This Film brims with people who propose alternate means by which we could rate films, means which would give parents real information about what was in the films and let them decide what their kids were ready for.  It makes a strong Free Speech argument aimed at the heart of the MPAA’s system.  Being Elmo provides an inspirational story about love of craft and love of life.  Elmo seems to mimic Kevin himself; the love he shares so freely inspires us all.
  • So at their core, both films are about the world we craft for our children.  Sesame Street was always about telling kids they could do what they want, and encouraging them to follow their dreams.  Henson’s PBS show is famously diverse in approach and communal in attitude, showing kids a world they would want to live in.  The MPAA claims to have the same goal — to help parents guide the world their children experience through cinema.  But where Sesame Street embodies the best of the human condition, the MPAA is surprisingly skewed in its vision of what is and isn’t harmful. (See my chart below)

Chart of things that seem to fall in different categories in the MPAA system.  (Note, according to This Film is Not Yet Rated, these rules are inconsistent)

PG-13 R NC-17
  • Bloodless murder (viz, James Bond movies)
  • Raunchy humor
  • Heterosexual sex with no nudity
  • Very mild swearing
  •  Violent murder, including gruesome acts of violence
  • Swearing
  • Drug Use
  • Acts of violence against women
  • Heterosexual sex in varying levels of intensity
  • Any sex involving more than two people
  • Almost any gay sex
  • Sex involving intense depictions of female pleasure
  • Sex involving “ususual” positions

This Film highlights the problematic acceptance of violence, which can get very extreme and still fall into the “R” category, whereas any sexual imagery deemed “deviant” or “unusual” by the board will quickly result in an NC-17.  In particular, the film points out two extremely disturbing trends: first, that scenes involving expressions of female pleasure, usually lingering on the woman’s face during lovemaking, often result in NC-17; second, that heterosexual scenes garner R ratings while nearly-identical homosexual scenes get NC-17.

Both films are worth watching.  This Film is Not Yet Rated isn’t really gripping, but brings to the fore an important intellectual question, and highlights a censorship issue that we all must consider as members of a free country with a supposedly free and open media.  Interestingly, as media channels continue to open up, the MPAA’s footprint recedes dramatically.    On the other hand, Being Elmo stands out as an amazing bit of storytelling, a compelling film that gives us a sense not just of Kevin Clash’s life, but of the puppeteer world and the world of the Muppets.  It’s fantastic.

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