Since the MPA (Motion Picture Association, formerly MPAA, the extra A being for American, dropped in 2019 to be more international) was founded in 1968, the organization has worked to provide a clear guide to people looking to go to the movies. The ratings, G, PG, PG-13 (introduced in 1984), and R are commonplace at any urban, suburban, or rural movie house. However, the highest rating, NC-17 (until 1990 it was X), is incredibly rare. Most films that achieve this rating upon first viewing go back to the editing suite to shave, trim, and cut until they get to the R rating that will allow them to be in major theater chains.
The handful of films that were originally stamped NC-17 wouldn’t surprise anyone. The list contains Casino, Pulp Fiction, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to name a few. The list is also indicative of the MPA’s bias toward certain filmmakers and ideas. MPA certainly has their red pens poised for films that choose to tell a story outside of the heteronormative box. It’s telling that the only film directed by Mel Gibson to get the initial stamp of NC-17 is Braveheart, his first. His subsequent films The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge, all just as violent, were passed with an R. I’d love to meet the rater who nodded with approval when a soldier in Hacksaw Ridge picks up the still writing torso of his fallen comrade to use as a shield, but balked at Chloë Sevigny’s character enjoying cunnilingus in Boys Don’t Cry (as related by filmmaker Kimberly Peirce in the film This Film is Not Yet Rated). The indies that have to recut are losing money, time, and momentum. The studios have the extra cash to protect their bottom line and will likely profit off the notoriety later. If they do accept the stamp of “disapproval” it will because they know they can make money from it.
In the infancy of the MPA, the ratings body bestowed an X rating (the precursor to the NC-17) on Midnight Cowboy. The film kept the rating and instead of boycotts, hysteria, or pandemonium, people lined up to see it (this saga is well told in Glenn Frankel’s terrific book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy). The audience wanted to taste the forbidden fruit. The MPA later expanded its guidelines and re-rated Midnight Cowboy as R, but the moment had changed how people viewed movies for adults and the staggeringly broad age range that makes up adults. It wasn’t until the middle of the ’70s that they realized the truly amazing power of the tween and teen demographic, but that’s a story for another article. The cultural shift of the time eventually settled into the audience’s comfort with the R rating.
While there have been several films since Midnight Cowboy to wear the NC-17, it’s incredibly rare that these films achieved any sort of financial success. It was with the advent of home video that people began to recognize these films. In the 2000s it even became en vogue to advertise unrated versions of the film that had more salacious scenes than the R rated version would allow. Though rental services like Blockbuster, would force an edited, R rated version in order to carry it on their shelves, there were other stores and of course just purchasing the film outright. Some NC-17 films have taken on a cult following since their release to keep them generating a small amount of income as the years go on. In every major city, there’s likely a showing of Showgirls at least once a year to a raucous crowd. David Cronenberg’s Crash, The Evil Dead, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls all kept their rating and continue to live on in the cultural milieu. They get a certain notoriety and a certain buzz, which is why when it was announced that Netflix has a film on its slate for fall release which accepted an NC-17 rating, it was big news.
Netflix is one of the only streaming services that is purely a streaming service that occasionally exhibits in a theater. They don’t have a successful cell phone business or a chain of grocery stores, they’re just creating and exhibiting episodic and feature entertainment. So, why don’t they do this more often? Why don’t they delve more deeply into more mature filmmaking? Premium cable networks and other streamers have been pushing the boundaries of taste and ideas toward simulated sex in episodic television for decades. The creators of Game of Thrones even coined the term sexposition, which is when they wanted viewers to pay attention to the complicated political dealings they’d have characters having sex, or at least in a state of undress, while explaining it. There isn’t so stark (pun absolutely intended) a difference between Game of Thrones and an NC-17 film.
An NC-17 is most often given for brutal violence and explicit sexuality. Though, that kind of sexuality and brutal violence means that the film will be in a niche subgenre and appeal to specific filmgoers rather than a wider audience. In other words, an NC-17 film is likely to be a downer. It’s the rare NC-17 that has a happy, loving couple engaging in sex or people commiting violence for the “right” reason. The rating is associated with seediness, not only in the fact that there is a strict restriction on the age at which one can see it, but also because they are telling stories that go against the grain and explore the darker sides of the psyche. One notable exception, and one commercially successful film with the rating, is Blue is the Warmest Color. The film is a love story, and while it has its ups and downs, the two women at the center do have a relationship based on normative behavior. While I haven’t yet seen Blonde, the film Netflix will be releasing later this year, the story is a familiar enough one to know that it’s not going to be an uplifting portrait of a young starlet.
If successful, though, Netflix should seize this opportunity. It should seek out films like Blonde, films not afraid to explore sexuality and the human body. It should be an opportunity to move away from the downers, too. It should be an opportunity to elevate the sex comedy. Bring the sex comedy away from being exploitative of women and into the burgeoning world of enthusiastic consent, ethical non-monogamy, and polyamory. Romantic comedies, romantic dramas, erotic thrillers, the potential for expansion and growth (again, pun absolutely intended) is endless. These films don’t have to shame, or even Shame a beautiful downer of an NC-17, they can be the unshameful guilty pleasures. They can be something to turn on (yep, still intended) when the kids go to bed and for people to whisper about at the water cooler. And, for goodness sake, they can be a way for a woman to have a believable orgasm in a heterosexual love scene on screen!
The other issue with most NC-17 films is that they are overwhelmingly within the male gaze and, likely, with a male audience in mind. Many of the stories are exploitative and destructive to the women on screen. I am excited about Blonde, the filmmakers and actors are terrific, but it is still a woman’s story told by men. To go back to Blue is the Warmest Color, it is a film about two women falling in love, engaging in sex, but it is very obviously made by a man and, if we’re honest, made for men to watch. If Netflix does make this shift, if it does embrace, or at least does not shy away from, the NC-17, they need to broaden their minds of whose ideas they accept, whose stories they want to support.
The NC-17 rating is tailor made for home viewing. No one will look at you when you buy the ticket, no one will see you walk into that theater, no one else has to know. It would be nice to live in a society that doesn’t get so squeamish or at least associate such deep shame to someone else’s entertainment choice. With a streamer embracing mature content, as most already have with their episodic offerings, we can feel at ease with sitting down on the couch and settling in. We can have our hearts race and our mouths get dry while also enjoying a well told and well shot story. These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.