Movie Review: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Before watching Kirby Dick's eye-opening documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I never gave much thought to who was behind the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). I didn't know their ratings were given out by a select panel of viewers who are shrouded in secrecy, or that Catholic and Episcopalian priests are a standard component of the review process. What I did know (from personal experience) was that MPAA ratings are subjective and relatively meaningless.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated takes a brave look at the MPAA's shadow organization, its questionable rating system and its Kafka-esque appeals process. There are several layers to this fascinating film and it does exactly what a good documentary should: it makes you want to spread the word about what you have learned.

MPAA Ratings

The MPAA rating system is billed as an appropriate guideline for parents. It supposedly lets parents know which movies are "safe" for their children to see and whether the movies require parental supervision. I can't speak for other parents, but, beyond the G-rating, I personally haven't found the MPAA ratings to be very helpful.

Sex, Violence and Censorship

One thing that always bothered me about MPAA ratings is that they seem to go fairly easy on violence, while cracking down on anything sexual or controversial. This Film Is Not Rated does an excellent job of bringing this disparity to light, particularly when it comes to the difference between straight and gay sex. Nearly the exact same scenes receive a much harsher rating just by substituting a same-sex couple.

When talking about violence in movies, Kirby raises an important point. The MPAA allows young kids to see horrific violence as long as it is not too realistic (no bloodshed, etc.), but slaps a higher rating on a film which shows the realistic effects of shooting, stabbing or otherwise maiming someone. Isn't this a way of glorifying violence and giving our youth a false (and dangerous) impression of its consequences?

What's Wrong with NC-17

In a message defending the MPAA rating system, MPAA Ratings Chief Joan Graves has said that she thinks there should be nothing wrong with the NC-17 rating. She says that there should be movies designed only for adults, but parents should have a right to know that these movies are not appropriate for children.

There are two problems with this position. One: That isn't how the system works. The reality is that a movie rated NC-17 will not gain wide distribution, an advertising budget or any of the support needed to be successful. Two: Who is the MPAA to decide what movies are appropriate for children?

The Secret Panel

According to the MPAA, ratings are made by an independent panel of parents. Yet this panel of raters is shrouded in mystery. Their names are not released and they are not supposed to reveal their identities or anything about the rating process. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby hires a private investigator to find out more about the raters and discovers that they aren't the average parents that the MPAA claims.

Kirby also submits his own film (this documentary) for a rating, then goes through the appeals process to attempt to challenge their decision. This is where the process really becomes surreal. It also introduces the information that the MPAA mandates the inclusion of both a Catholic and an Episcopalian priest (no other denominations) on the appeals panel.

While one might assume the clerics are there because they are considered (by some) to be more moral than the average man, that isn't the reason given by the priest Kirby tracks down. Instead, the priests are there to provide transparency... because they represent their flocks... so if they are there, it isn't really secret... because... um... Yeah, I have no idea why they're there. Anyway...

The Bottom Line

I walked away from this documentary with a better understanding of the MPAA rating system and why the ratings have always seemed so flawed. It also gave me a sense of the frustration felt by filmmakers who are severely limited by the narrow-minded decisions of this arbitrary group and by a system which appears to use the MPAA to its own advantage.

As a parent, I've never found the MPAA rating system to be very useful. When I want information about the content of a movie (game, TV show, book, etc.) I check out the reviews on They tend to be on the conservative side, but they give specific reasons for their ratings, which lets parents decide for themselves.

For example, instead of saying "strong language," they tell you exactly which words might be considered offensive and how often they are used. Instead of saying "teen sexuality," they describe the sexual content seen or discussed. They also allow parents and kids to add their own reviews, so you can get many points of view.

With a more transparent system like Common Sense Media, plus the vast numbers of reviews available online, do we really need the MPAA rating system at all?


  1. Thanks for the pointer towards It seems like a much saner system for rating media.

    I think the most helpful thing for me as a Person Without Children (PWOC?) who also finds the current rating schemes at best questionable and at worse suspiciously close to censorship, is how their ratings are based on child development stages and are fully explained how those development stages factor into their recommended ages.

    As a parent of children, have you found that the development stages they describe are generally applicable and helpful? Or are individual children too unique for it to be applicable?

  2. There's definitely a big difference from one kid to another (even when they are the same age), but if I'm going to use a rating/review system I'd rather it be based on child development research than the judgement of "average parents."

    I like that Common Sense Media looks at the various types of development (physical, emotional, social, etc.) which happen around a certain age. For the most part, their descriptions seem pretty much in line with what I've seen in my own kids at various ages. And their reviews are detailed enough to let me know what to expect and make my own call--so they've generally been helpful.

    But all of that is only important in helping me make parenting decisions. I don't think any rating system should be tied to the distribution of movies. No matter what they say, I see the current MPAA rating system as a censorship board.