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This Blog Post Is Not Yet Rated

April 25, 2011

Doug French’s article today critiquing Atlas Shrugged: Part I focuses on the absence of Rand’s second favorite social activity (after excommunicating dissidents):

[T]he movie looks like it was done on the fly and sanitized for the 21st century. For instance, Ayn Rand was a passionate smoker. “Smoking is a symbol of the fire in the mind.” And her characters constantly smoked. The dollar-sign cigarettes are an important plot device. In the book, Hugh Akston offers Dagny a cigarette that she accepts and smokes — a cigarette so good she saves the butt, which has a dollar sign on it.

None of the principle characters in Atlas Shrugged: Part I smokes, except Hugh Akston (Michael O’Keefe), who looks like he’s nervously lighting up for the first time. There is only a momentary shot of the dollar sign on the cigarette butt, so only Atlas fans with their antennae fully deployed will pick this up.

I can think of a simple reason why the film’s producers omitted smoking: To avoid the dreaded “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, the de facto monopoly that pre-screens films in order to warn parents about what content may not be appropriate for their children. Since 2007 the MPAA has considered smoking a factor in its rating decisions:

This action is an extension of our current practice of factoring under-age smoking into the rating of films. Now, all smoking will be a consideration in the rating process. Three questions will have particular weight for our rating board when considering smoking in a film: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? And, is there an historic or other mitigating context? Additionally, when a film’s rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, that rating will now include phrases such as ‘glamorized smoking’ or ‘pervasive smoking.’

If Atlas the movie featured anywhere near the level of smoking that Atlas the book did, there’s no doubt the film would have been rated “R” instead of “PG-13.” (Heck, it might’ve flirted with an NC-17.) Given the filmmakers no doubt wanted to tell Rand’s story to as wide an audience as possible, it would have been commercially self-defeating to invite an “R” rating, which would restrict the ability of teenagers (theoretically) to see the film. Even Rand could appreciate the dilemma.

Of course, the entire rating system is an affront to Rand’s Objectivism and even mainstream Austro-libertarianism. Although the MPAA maintains its system is purely private and voluntary, that is just a convenient fiction. The MPAA — the six largest Hollywood studios — is arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington. Anyone who tries to buck the rating system, or Heaven forbid adopt a competing system, would face opposition not just from the MPAA but its government allies.

Agencies like the Federal Trade Commission are particularly fond of “rating systems,” which create a backdoor form of censorship that skirts thorny First Amendment issues. Just last week the FTC issued a report on its latest round of “undercover” visits to retailers to see if they were complying with the “voluntary” ratings systems — including the MPAA’s — with the ominous threat that widespread “failure” of the ratings to keep objectionable content away from teenagers might justify direct government intervention.

Nor surprisingly, the MPAA ratings aren’t terribly useful to actual consumers. Like any government-run system, the ratings are arbitrary and lack transparency. The MPAA won’t identify the members of its ratings board, nor will it publish definitive criteria for how to avoid a particular rating. Over the years, critics have noted the MPAA tends to focus on peripheral issues — like how many times an expletive is used — without assessing the film’s overall appropriateness for a given audience. Just recently, the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech failed in its attempt to change its “R” rating to “PG-13.” The difference was a single scene where the protagonist — a man trying to overcome a stammer — unleashes a string of expletives as part of his therapy. For this reason alone, the MPAA declared the film off-limits to teenagers.

The MPAA and its trademarked — it always comes back to IP! — ratings system should be an anachronism in a modern age of decentralized information and communication. A sophisticated parent doesn’t need a secret ratings board to tell her what types of films are appropriate for her children. She sure as hell doesn’t need the FTC playing detective to ensure the MPAA’s “voluntary” codes are strictly adhered to — because Heaven forbid someone sell a “R” rated movie like The King’s Speech to a 16-year-old who wants to purchase it.

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