Putting the Bull in "Bully"
In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) effectively nationalized the movie industry’s rating system to guide parents and the wider public about the content of films before purchasing tickets. A year doesn’t go by since then that the Beautiful People don’t throw their artistic temper tantrums when they receive a harsher rating than they want.
The latest example is a documentary named “Bully,” which investigates the lives of five bullied students during the 2009-2010 school year in five states – Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa, Texas, and Oklahoma. Two of the five committed suicide. The filmmaker is basing his whole publicity campaign on shock and outrage for receiving an “R” rating for six uses of the F-bomb, as well as other vulgar threats.
Lee Hirsch has been all over television and has aligned a parade of liberal celebrities (with Ellen DeGeneres as grand marshal) to demand this politically correct movie is far too important – too important! – to require a parent to accompany a child to the cineplex.
Hirsch has been leading a dishonest campaign suggesting that an “R” rating means children under 17 are barred from the theater, period. Hirsch complained on “CBS This Morning” that the MPAA is saying “that kids can’t see a movie that’s about them.” He sent one of the bullied kids that starred in the movie (Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa) to the MPAA with Weinstein, so he could ask the loaded (and inaccurate and dishonest) question: “You mean I can’t even see my own life?”
What’s so disingenuous about this is that Hirsch is insisting that it’s cruel for the MPAA to insist on edits of his bullied victims’ lives. Hirsch obviously edited months of their lives down to 98 minutes to prepare his film. And if during that editing process, Hirsch had extracted just a handful of words, there would be no controversy. But then, there’d be no publicity either.
Always beware an “artist” who says the way he’s assembled the facts is “honest,” and removing three F-bombs or whatever else the MPAA objects to is somehow “dishonest.” Hirsch told NPR “the issue is that it has to sort of be seen in a way that's honest. And if we whitewash these experiences again, we’re sort of back into that landscape of minimizing the experience of bullying, making it more palatable.” So the MPAA is somehow showing favoritism to bullying unless it relents?
Well, yes. On the film’s website, Hirsch even casts the MPAA as bullies: “Don’t let the MPAA bullies win,” they say in promoting signatures to a petition demanding the movie’s “R” rating be softened to PG-13. Hirsch’s poster girl for this petition is Katy Butler, a 17-year-old lesbian activist, who naturally thinks to limit this film is life-threatening. She laments “I can’t believe the MPAA is blocking millions of teenagers from seeing a movie that could change -- and, in some cases, save -- their lives.” You’ve got to love 17-year-old lesbian activists.
There’s the lie again – the MPAA isn’t “blocking” teenagers from seeing it by giving it an R-rating. They’re insisting parents come along. It’s about the last act of responsibility left in that industry. But liberal lawyer David Boies is threatening a lawsuit to protest the film “being censored by a rating system that has got simply no rational basis.”
The grand prize for incoherence in this controversy goes to the industry front group “Common Sense Media.” Its CEO, James Steyer, told the press that “The MPAA is proving to be the real bully in the ratings fight over this film. They continue to demonstrate that their ratings system is simply inadequate when it comes looking at a movie’s content through the lens of its larger thematic issues.”
But go to the group’s website, and the movie review insists “Bully's most challenging material isn't just the language, but the suicides. Seeing grieving parents and friends could potentially be upsetting to teens and preteens, so they should definitely watch with adults.”
The MPAA system today is loaded in favor of the filmmakers. If producers feel the MPAA is too harsh with their rating, they can lobby and protest, and often they have won. But if the viewing public finds a film’s rating to be too relaxed, they have no recourse. As the Parents Television Council puts it, “their frustration almost always comes after they have been assaulted with content they were not expecting.”
If “Bully” were truly the most socially important film of 2012, then the filmmaker should want to double the audience by insisting parents accompany their children. It makes no sense for him to argue the movie is so crucial that it must be seen by unaccompanied children.