If you know about the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association responsible for giving movies their letter ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17), you know it has its quirks when determining what is and isn’t family friendly.
Said quirks are particularly palpable in lines that are drawn for movies that push the envelope slightly but not too much, in hopes of grabbing the coveted PG-13 rating—that is to say, movies without substantial nudity, sexual depictions, or gore. Violence to the point of death is generally fine in PG-13 as long as it’s bloodless. Queer themes, no matter how gently handled, if pervasive enough, seem to conjure R ratings. And it when it comes to language, anyone who follows this stuff knows that a PG-13 movie can get away with a single f-bomb (maybe two, as in the case of Soapdish or The Martian) before it gets slapped with an R rating. Some movies, like Iron Man 2, have gone as far as bleeping “fuck” in dialogue to qualify as PG-13 (which allows for a younger, thus wider audience).
A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on the special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.
Certainly, the latter scenario is rare—it’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that more than one “fuck” gives a film an automatic R rating. (And to clarify something from the rules above, a permissible PG-13 “fuck” must not refer to actual sex, as in Soapdish’s two examples: “Gloria fucking Swanson” and “This is fucking great.”)
Knowing this (because I’m sort of obsessed with the MPAA and its almost cartoonishly oppressive rules for art access), I thought to myself, “Oh, I guess this movie’s rated R then,” when I saw the trans dramedy 3 Generations, in which Elle Fanning plays a trans boy who’s beginning his transition. It’s not because the movie was extreme or offensive in anyway, but because there are multiple instances of characters saying the word “fuck.”
Accordingly, the MPAA has given 3 Generations an R rating for “language, including sexual references.” (In addition to the instances of “fuck” in the movie, there’s some talk about sex and penises. Regarding Ray’s classmate crush, another character comments, “She only likes guys with big dicks.”)
It seemed pretty simple. Except it isn’t.
Since early April, a controversy has been boiling regarding the R rating of 3 Generations. Harvey Weinstein, the film’s director Gaby Dellal, and stars Susan Sarandon, and Naomi Watts have all spoken out against the film’s R rating, which will impede young people from seeing it. According to Deadline, Weinstein, whose production company the Weinstein Company is releasing the movie, enlisted his longtime lawyer David Boies to help appeal the rating (Boies, notably, was one of the lawyers in the case against Prop 8 in California). Weinstein previously negotiated with the MPAA to get the 2012 doc Bully a PG-13 rating after it had been initially given an R, and the result was the rare PG-13 movie that contained three instances of the word “fuck.”
The road to theatrical release has been bumpy for 3 Generations, which was originally scheduled to come out in September 2015 as About Ray, but was yanked last minute from the schedule. Back then it was controversial for its employment of a cisgender actor playing a trans character, as well Dellal’s misgendering explanation for this casting: “The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy. She’s not pretending to have a deeper voice. She’s just a girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about.”
Interestingly, trans writer and advocate Blair Durkee recently started a Change.org petition to challenge the MPAA’s R rating of 3 Generations. “3 Generations, a new movie about a transgender teenager, is debuting soon, but there’s one problem: It’s rated ‘R’ so most trans youth won’t be able to see it,” reads the intro to the petition, which as of press time has almost 20,000 signees. From there, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis picked up the cause, citing the “shockingly awful” history of trans representation in film. In a Daily Beast story on this commentary, “Why Did Transgender-Themed Movie ‘3 Generations’ Get an R Rating?,” GLAAD chief communications officer Rich Ferraro said, “There are five instances of strong language in the film and there has never been a transgender character in a G, PG or PG-13 film—with the exception of a handful of PG-13 films that have used trans women as punchlines. It appears that the film’s focus on a trans teen played into the restricted R rating.”
I didn’t keep a running count when I watched the current cut of this movie, which has been somewhat edited from its original 2015 release version, but five instances of strong language—the use of the word “fuck”—sounds right to me. After reviewing the original 2015 cut earlier today, I can confirm that “fuck” is said five times (which seems to match GLAAD’s count), never in a sexual context. They are:
- “This is fucking insane”
- “The fucking earthquake you caused”
- “We both fucked up”
- “I fucked up, I know that”
Now, here’s what makes the situation particularly complicated: It’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that a PG-13 movie can get away with one, maybe two “fucks” before it’s R. But there have been exceptions—the aforementioned Bully, for one. By my count 1997's As Good as It Gets had three, while 1992's Hero had a whopping seven “fucks” and was still PG-13. In contrast, 1997's R-rated Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion had only nine, but it did have a scene of simulated sex between Romy and one of her co-workers and a reference to boners. Could those have pushed it over the edge? Could 3 Generations have skated by with its five fucks and reference to big dicks if it didn’t have the trans storyline? Even with a cis, straight storyline, it’s doubtful. Hypotheticals aside, it’s weird that “fuck” is said so many times in 3 Generations, given the MPAA’s well-known allergy to it. Everyone involved who’s spoken out should be aware of this, thus unsurprised—especially Weinstein, given that he battled on this exact front not very long ago for Bully.
“There’s no way that they threw caution to the wind, ‘cause I know that [between] [production company] Big Beach and the Weinstein Company, nobody intended for this movie to be restricted in any way,” said 3 Generations co-writer Nikole Beckwith today when reached by phone. “The whole point of the movie is for families to watch it together.”
Beckwith said she wasn’t sure whether the instances of “fuck” had been written in or perhaps improvised during filming (the majority of them occur during an argument). From her experience directing her own movie, 2015's Stockholm, Pennsylvania, she mentioned the common practice of ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement), in which multiple versions of certain lines are recorded so that the movie can be used in a variety of broadcasts, which may have less relaxed rules on profanity (in the example of Stockholm, the “fuck” had to be removed for the film’s eventual broadcast on Lifetime).
“Fucks are easy to take out,” she said. “That’s not an unfixable thing.”
That’s to say that the solution for 3 Generations could be within reach, and that in fact many of those who’ve spoken out against the rating should be well enough versed in the MPAA’s ways that they should have already predicted the R rating.
In an op-ed on Variety that ran yesterday, GLAAD’s aforementioned President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis wrote:
“3 Generations” contains a few instances of strong language, but it does not contain “tough violence, nudity with sensual scenes, or drug abuse” — leaving the question “Why the R rating?”
I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to challenge systems that may be generally taken for granted, especially those devised by a de facto censorship board like the MPAA—but that’s a slightly different conversation. In all but a few cases, it seems that the MPAA’s “fuck” rule supersedes all other content by design.
In fact, there has never been a film from a mainstream distribution company about a transgender teen. Belgian drama “Ma Vie en Rose,” which received the Golden Globe Award in 1997 for best foreign-language film and a GLAAD Media Award as well, was about a 7-year-old transgender girl. It was given an R rating from the MPAA.
Further, there has never been a transgender character in a film rated G, PG, or PG-13, with the exception of films like “Hot Pursuit,” “Instructions Not Included,” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” all of which were rated PG-13 and received criticism for their defamatory depictions of transgender women.
Apparently, if a film includes transgender people who are only in the film to be treated badly, mocked, and disrespected, the MPAA considers it appropriate for teenagers.
All great points, but then we should be asking those responsible for making and releasing this movie, which is otherwise mild, why it contains so many “fucks.” If the MPAA is already tough on queer storylines (as many have discovered through observation, not necessarily posted rules), why make it harder for a movie to be seen by its intended audience by including enough “fucks” that would have had any movie, regardless of content, struggle to nab that PG-13?
Jezebel reached out to the MPAA and a spokesperson provided this statement:
The goal of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), the voluntary film rating system administered by the MPAA, is to provide parents with credible and consistent information about the level of content in movies to help them determine what is appropriate for their children. None of the ratings indicate whether a film is good, bad, or otherwise, nor is it CARA’s purpose to prescribe social policy. This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system. Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices.
If the submitter of a film disputes the assigned rating, they may file an appeal of a rating with the Classification and Rating Appeals Board. The Appeals Board is made up of members of the industry knowledgeable about the distribution and exhibition of motion pictures and whose sole mission is to maintain the integrity of the voluntary ratings system. A successful appeal requires a decisive two-thirds majority affirming that the rating is “clearly erroneous.
Regarding THREE GENERATIONS, the submitter has not filed an appeal of the rating.