When the controversial documentary Bully opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles today, it will indeed include a rating, just not the traditional MPAA rating that most moviegoers are familiar with. Instead, the posters, advertisements, and other promotional materials will include a new rating: the 13+ rating for the film from Common Sense Media, my national nonprofit organization that provides age-appropriate ratings and reviews of movies and other media titles. This move by The Weinstein Co. represents a bold first step in advancing the need for independent, third-party ratings, and it's about time.
As both the Bully controversy and last week's concerns with the violence in PG-13-rated The Hunger Games demonstrate, the MPAA's ratings system is often too simplistic and too blunt an instrument to be truly helpful to parents, the audience for whom the system was designed to help and guide nearly 50 years ago. Parents have put their faith in accepting a film's rating rather than its content. The antiquated approach of the MPAA not only avoids looking at a film's content through the lens of its larger thematic issues, but also doesn't take child development guidelines into consideration. The result is misleading ratings that do not fully capture the extent to which films can be used to teach, unite, and heal.
There is no question that Bully is a difficult film to watch. It's often heartbreaking, deals with tough issues like suicide, and yes, contains a few lines of vicious language spewing out of the mouths of pre-teens. But, like it or not, every kid in middle and high school hears this kind of language every day. It may shock parents, but realistic scenes like this are exactly what gives this film credibility with kids. It shows real kids in the real environments they experience every day. The film addresses bullying in a frank and relatable way that teens and preteens can not only handle but also deeply respond to.
The rub is that the MPAA's R-rating can act like a scarlet letter, basically preventing most parents from even considering this movie -- or any movie -- for younger teens. And that's where the system fails. Films like Bully can become jumping off points for truly enriching and vitally important conversations between kids and parents that are often extremely difficult to start on their own. Bullying is a deeply personal subject that, as we know from tragic cases, kids simply do not talk about. Often, it takes seeing relatable characters in a compelling film for kids who are hiding serious problems to feel comfortable enough to bring them up.
That's why an alternative ratings system is necessary -- to be a guide for families who are looking for more information and guidance about quality media than the MPAA is able to provide. Parents need to be able to make a fully informed decision about what will work for their kids, and what may not. Every family is different, but all families need information to make educated choices. When it's created well, media of all types can educate as well as entertain, establish powerful bonds among families and friends, and start conversations we all need to have. Evaluating products that contain as much peril and possibility as media do requires so much more finesse and detail than a handy, one-size-fits-all rating can possibly provide.
The Weinstein Co. may be the first studio brave enough to forgo the MPAA for an alternate rating, but hopefully they will not be the last. When it comes to Bully, we hope that parents will take Common Sense Media's rating to heart, and consider seeing the film with their kids. Bullying is real, it's happening, and parents need to acknowledge it, no matter how hard it is. It's our job as parents not to cover our kids' eyes but to help them see the world around them -- and what they can do to make it better. Don't let the MPAA force your kids to make sense of bullying on their own.