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The Ineffectiveness of the Film Ratings System

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John Small, a fourteen year old boy in Uptown St. Paul, proceeds into the Suburban World Cinema, anxious to see Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. He is equipped with a parental note, replete with the phone number where his parents can be reached to verify that they did indeed author the note should its authenticity be questioned. John pushes seven crumpled-up dollar bills and the folded note into the metal dugout under the box office window, only to be met with a tinny, disinterested voice booming through the round silver speaker mounted on the window: "No children under seventeen allowed! Sorry. This note isn't gonna cut it." The incident exemplifies a pressing issue in the ever-topical discussion of the oft-vilified film rating classification system in our country. Is the movie rating system, originally designed to assist parents in guiding the movie-going habits of their children, actually preempting parental choice? To at least some people, however, Jack Valenti, the man responsible for devising the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners, is leading the effort, as editorialist James Wall put it, "to protect children" (1227). Valenti wrote, "The voluntary Movie Rating System has one objective: to issue advance cautionary warnings to parents so they can make their own decisions about what movies their children should or should not see. No one -- appointed, anointed, or elected -- ought to insert themselves into individual parental decisions" (87). But the film classification system, designed to assist parents in making decisions about their offspring's film patronage, often thwarts that very purpose and, in the process, actually stifles the creativity and honesty of the film industry as well. Although Valenti and the Rating System's advocates claim that parents should have the final choice in what their children view, the system may, in practice, obstruct that purpose for parents who decide that their children should see some films. For films with the controversial NC-17 rating, the theatre is prevented from letting young John Small and his under-aged ilk from seeing a film despite his parents' permission. In fact, had John actually been accompanied by his parents, the theatre would have had every right -- some would even say responsibility -- to refuse his admission. The printing of the NC-17 rating often does not read -- as would be reasonable -- "Intended for Adults Only" but rather the more rigid "Not to be Attended by Children Under Seventeen.
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