When Blue Valentine managed to get its NC-17 rating reduced to an R-rating, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. For a second it seemed as though the MPAA realized that its ratings system, which routinely awards violent films PG-13 ratings, but slapped Blue Valentine with an NC-17 rating for a single scene depicting a woman receiving oral sex, is highly hypocritical. But the rating was reduced and so all is well!
…but it’s not, really, is it? As sexologist Dr. Logan Levkoff points out, we live in a culture in which violence, and especially violence towards women, is tolerated to the point that it becomes white noise. Meanwhile, sex remains a taboo topic.
A quick survey of the MPAA film rating system confirms that any nudity or swearing used in a “sexually oriented” manner immediately bumps a film’s rating to R, and it’s sex that bumps it to NC-17 nine times out of ten. As Twitter user @nevpierce put it, “Saw 3D has a woman bisected by buzzsaw. Blue Valentine has a woman orgasm by oral sex. Guess which the US censor will allow teens to see…”
So while the triumph of Blue Valentine’s reduced rating is certainly a victory (and we found a new feminist hero in Ryan Gosling as he publicly slammed the NC-17 rating), the fact that it needed to be reduced at all is indicative of a dangerous double standard in our media. A woman enjoying oral sex received an NC-17 rating while we constantly see men enjoying the same in R or even PG-13 rated movies. And while Black Swan also includes a woman receiving oral sex, the scene (SPOILER) is presented as the product of a fragmented mind. The fact that it was also a woman-on-woman scene perhaps sensationalized it to the point that the MPAA could pretend it wasn’t as “realistic” (…how ratings treat homosexuality could be a post all its own).
What it comes down to is this: media’s representation of people enjoying sex is so skewed towards men that it’s immediately considered problematic when women are portrayed as sexual beings. A woman’s naked body gives a film an R-rating, but a woman (even clothed) enjoying sex can land a film in the no man’s land that is NC-17.
Further, it’s this kind of sexist, terrified-of-women-enjoying-sex stigma that can lead to sexual assault. When we are fetishized as objects but not allowed to enjoy our sexuality in media, we feel the ramifications in our daily lives. It’s high time our media reflects reality, and allows women to be fully-fleshed, sexual beings instead of the sexualized object the MPAA clearly prefers.