Rant: MPAA Rates Smoking In Movies

It’s becoming increasingly hard to defend the MPAA. In the past I’ve been the guy that stands up and supports having a good ratings system, and I still do. But if you’re any sort of a movie fan, or even if you just love the United States constitution or the idea of free speech, damn it’s hard to support the organization we have doing the rating.

Tonight’s MPAA misstep doesn’t involve their quest to blackmail foreign countries into passing laws to suit their whimsy, nor does it involve their mad power struggle to insinuate themselves into places where they just don’t belong. For once, they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing: Rating movies. They’re just (as usual) going about it all wrong.

The Hollywood Reporter says that on Thursday the MPAA announced that its ratings board will “consider film depictions of smoking among the criteria for assigning movie ratings.” Some of you may have noticed the recent push by anti-smoking activists to get the MPAA to rate any movie containing depictions of smoking “R”. Apparently it worked. In fact, some of their ads even appeared on this website. No I didn’t approve them, they come through our ad service, and no I wasn’t at all happy about it. In fact we got quite a few complaints from some of our readers, who didn’t agree with the politics behind them. Good on you, you shouldn’t.

To decide whether or not smoking merits a demerit in a film, the MPAA will use three criteria: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? Is there a historic or other mitigating context? They've left themselves a lot of wiggle room there, and it doesn't sound like they're necessarily bound to those criteria. If smoking affects a rating, they’ll let you know about it by putting it in that teeny tiny print next to the rating that no one ever reads or notices and so serves almost no purpose.

Here’s the thing. The MPAA is now in the business of labeling something your Dad does every night out in the back yard unacceptable viewing material for children. Parents: The next time you enter a building and have to wind your way past the big crowd of ejected smokers out front, make sure you cover your eyes. MPAA CEO Dan Glickman says, “Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society.” Except he’s wrong. It’s acceptable. Take two steps out your front door. Look to the left. There’s a good chance you may see someone smoking. Some people may wish it wasn’t socially acceptable and I think we’ve all come to our senses and acknowledged that yeah, it’s really freakin bad for you, but whatever Glickman and the anti-smoking Nazis may wish was the state of things in the world, fact is that smoking is a widespread and very normal part of society. People get tossed out of restaurants for taking their shirts off and dancing on the table. That’s socially unacceptable. Smokers on the other hand get a special section all to themselves. It couldn’t possible be a more normal part of every day life.

So that means the MPAA is now in the business of using their ratings system to shape and mold social change. They’re saying that movies are no longer allowed to be a reflection of our society. Filmmakers can no longer freely depict real, normal, public life. Kids can’t handle reality. The MPAA wants movies to be in the business of depicting the world the way the MPAA thinks it ought to be instead of the way it really is. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the way a ratings system is supposed to work, but face it, that’s what this is. I’m not a smoker, I hate smoking, and I hate that I probably sound like I’m defending it by writing this. I just don’t think the MPAA should be in the business of protecting kids from something they see almost every day, everywhere they go. Driving kills a lot of people too, maybe we should start taking cars out of movies. I want my movies to reflect society, not the other way around.

This isn’t even really a problem. It’s not like you see smoking is incredibly prevalent G-rated movies or even in PG movies anymore. Filmmakers have done a pretty good job of policing themselves on this without the interference of an all powerful ratings body. The MPAA seems to disagree.