If you're surprised that the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration is specifically calling out male nakedness in films, you're not the only one. I couldn't think of a previous film that had differentiated between male and female nudity in its parental guidance, so I did a little digging. Thankfully, the MPAA website, www.filmratings.com, allows you to download its data for decades into the past. I'm not that ambitious, so I decided an acceptable sampling would be the previous five years of PG-13 and R ratings.
Since 2006, 786 movies have been flagged for "nudity."
Only three - all 2010 releases - have the warning of "male nudity": Jackass 3D, Eat Pray Love, and Grown Ups. Zero in five years carry a "female nudity" red flag.
With Grown Ups receiving its U.S. release on June 25 of this year (and Eat Pray Love showing up in August), that was pretty compelling evidence of a change in how the MPAA is issuing information for parents. So I decided to give the organization a call to ask why men were suddenly being singled out.
Spokesman Craig Hoffman was so surprised at the question, he had to get back to me. A few minutes later he did, telling me that, well, Jackass 3D does have a lot of male nudity.
But why is that different, I asked, from the 783 films of the past five years that needed no gender descriptor for their bare flesh?
Turns out, you can blame Sacha Baron Cohen. "Parents requested specifically after the movie Brüno that we provide such information," Hoffman says.
That mockumentary, about a swishy European fashion maven, got its hard R for "pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language." Apparently, that explicit warning wasn't enough to scare away parents from exposing their underage children to its naughty bits. No, moms and dads instead needed to know that naked, scary men would be scarring their kids forever.
There is clearly a double standard here, and it's not easily defined - and perhaps not what you think. Conventional wisdom has always been that explicitly naked men on film are the quickest way to the dreaded NC-17 rating. Yet there is plenty of evidence to refute that - try Boogie Nights and Borat.
Now think about it from the flip side. Shirtless men show up in G-rated films, but women's breasts are almost certainly a PG-13 offense, at a minimum. A naked male butt can be a PG joke, while that's less likely for a woman's posterior. It turns out that, perhaps, the MPAA is stricter on women than men.
So if male nudity (at least in the past) got a pass, why do so many of us think the opposite? It's a pat answer, but not untrue: sexism. Female nudity is everywhere in society - whether it's magazine ads or girly mags or slasher flicks. Think of how many times you've seen a naked woman in a film as compared to a man; that's because straight men are turned on by the sight, and women aren't turned off. Homophobic Hollywood doesn't think the same is true of the opposite, so naked men are a rarity.
And when they appear, their bared bodies are seen by some as, well, predatory. (Playboy? Good, clean fun. Playgirl? Dirty.) A naked man is clearly up to something no good.
Thus, the new comment to accompany film ratings. I'd like to blame the MPAA , but the organization is in a tricky place. Movie ratings were implemented in the late 1960s, following a period in which Hollywood routinely faced censorship on state and local levels; scenes were literally chopped out in some markets.
With the possibility of federal standards, the industry adopted a voluntary system, which has evolved into the labels you see today. How it works: A board of everyday parents reviews hundreds of films per year, assigning each with a G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 rating. Since 1990, the group also has added a description of why the rating was given (say, "violence" or "disturbing images").
Because the system is for parents and by parents, it's at the whim of parents - especially the vocal ones. When they start an uproar, that's when calls emerge for the government to step in with its own ratings. And so the MPAA is required to respond or put its independence at risk.
Some vocal parents now want scarlet letters for whenever naughty male nudity is caught on celluloid, and the MPAA has caved. I asked spokesman Hoffman just how such a change is implemented. Could, say, one very loud parent force the organization's hand?
"No it wouldn't be one person," he says. "It would have to be a fair number of complaints."
But this is sexist, right? Why the disparity between men and women, I ask.
"I don't know that we wouldn't describe female nudity either," Hoffman says. "Our goal is to give as much information as possible."
But, of course, the MPAA isn't doing that. Of those 786 naked films in the past five years, none has included a "female" descriptor.
Just how far is the MPAA willing to go? Surely any number of parents through the years have complained about queer content in motion pictures. But, as yet, you don't see a film rating that notes: "Rated R for male nudity, language and homosexuality."
Ratings are a reflection of broader society, and the standards have changed over the decades. In today's shout-and-don't listen environment, you can imagine a conservative movement that could bring about such a change. A screaming right-wing talking head, perhaps making it the crusade of his or her Fox News nightly show, could easily drum up thousands of angry parents to lobby the board for explicit LGBT content warnings.
Impossible, you say?
In just the past four months, the MPAA has added the very sexist "male nudity" flag to its arsenal.
And in the classification of slopes, that's a very slippery one, indeed.
This post originally appeared at SpangleMagazine.com. Republished with permission. Brian Patrick Thornton is the editor of SpangleMagazine.com, Northeast Ohio's arts and culture source for the LGBT community and those cool enough to hang with them.
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