When the unsurprising but disappointing news came down yesterday that, indeed, the MPAA slapped Shame with an NC-17 and not what it truly deserves — an R rating — most people were appropriately outraged. A few shrugged and moved on to a new topic. Worse, some actually defended the MPAA’s boneheaded decision, as in, “it’s an appropriate rating.” As if.
There are really two discussions to be had. The first, does Shame deserve an NC-17. To my mind, no, it doesn’t. The second, how will this rating impact the sales of the film and its Oscar chances. It probably won’t affect the sales because Lo! Guess what MPAA and parents? the NC-17 is only going to make teens (yes, teens) fall all over themselves to get a copy of it, which they will probably download — which, they may have already downloaded. So in that way, yeah, all the rating does is make teens, maybe some tweens, download it for free as opposed to paying for it in the theater. Do any of you parents really know what your kids are doing online? Wake up, parents. You have no idea what your teens are doing and seeing. No idea. If you are lax enough with them to let them go to the movies by themselves as teens — as in, “I’m going to let the MPAA and the theaters parent my child for me because I’m too lame to parent them myself” then you probably don’t care enough to think about what they’re doing online. My kid? I decide what she can see and can’t see at the movies and the last thing I pay attention to is the MPAA rating.
Black Swan is a film I still won’t let my 13 year-old see, even though all of her friends have seen it and even though it’s rated R. I also won’t let her see The Exorcist. Again, rated R even though a ten-year-old girl jams a crucifix into her crotch and says you know what to you know Who? The reason? Both films I myself as a parent deem too disturbing. Yes, the girl on girl sex in Black Swan weirds me out enough that I don’t want her to see it. But she’s 13. She’s too young in my mind and you see what a filthy girl I am. So you can imagine. But the decision is mine because I’m the parent. I am certainly not going to go through the trouble to have a kid and then allow the MPAA or the school district or the government to do the job I should be doing: parent my kid, pass values onto my kid, teach morality to my kid. Frankly, I don’t trust government to be collectively smart enough to raise the kind of kid I want to raise — someone who is intelligent and can think for herself.
So, all the rating does is the same thing all of those cute little short skirts they put on Catholic school girls do: fan the flames of desire, my friends.
Before we get to Shame’s Oscar chances in light of this rating, let’s quickly talk about whether it deserves to given such a harsh smack down. What do we actually see? We see Carey Mulligan naked from head to toe. We see Fassbender’s full frontal fixtures. In close up. We see a few suggestive sex scenes. No erections. No bodily fluids being shot across the room. No body openings. Just suggestions of what might be going on. Your imagination does the rest.
Doesn’t Don Draper fingerbang a woman in an episode of Mad Men? He most certainly does. Let’s not even get into what goes on on Criminal Minds on CBS and Law and Order SVU on NBC every week. Oh, I think the last Criminal Minds I saw a man kidnapping young blonde women, tying them up and pouring hydrochloric acid in their eyes. Yeah, good times.
Midnight Cowboy (1969) — Back in the days when the AMPAS and Jon Voight were both a lot more liberal. A different era in so many ways, with new freedoms to indulge and wild frontiers to explore — before a speedy return to civilization and polite society. If anything, it might be argued, it was the Academy’s dalliance with films like Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris that sealed the fate of future sexual experimentation. Now the Oscars would like to forget they were ever X-curious.
What I get from this list of NC-17 on Wikipedia is that it isn’t only sex that raises the red flag for the MPAA. It is sometimes violence. Although you don’t have to look very far to see how many violent movies are given an easy R rating — and you don’t have to look very far to see how this country allows us (in fact, encourages us) to indulge in our violent impulses. Video games, films, TV shows — they all send the message that violence is not only okay but it is an appropriate outlet for our teenagers; sex is not.
So sex gets buried. It goes underground. It goes into the thriving porn industry. Labeling McQueen’s Shame with an NC-17 sends the message that this is a film about sex in the same way Mr. Goodbar was a film about sex. But of course, these films aren’t about sex at all. They are about the very forces that drive the MPAA and the out-of-touch parents to fear something like this in the first place: desperation, shame, addiction.
Would that the MPAA — and reactionary parents too — all had the collective intelligence to see how a film like this talks seriously about what no one really wants to talk about. It is bringing out into the open a dynamic that exists every single day in America — trust me on this one. I know.
It isn’t just sexual addiction, either. It is the entire industry of sexual addiction that Shame exposes. Porn feeds that addiction because the need is unending. The repression is unending. The hypocrisy, unending. When a population lives in direct contrast to its nature there is nowhere for that impulse to go except to subvert, to go underground, to become something we can’t really understand or control. Anyone ever listen to Dan Savage?
But this tangent is really off topic. Probably what everyone wants to know is whether the NC-17 rating will a
ffect Shame’s Oscar chances. And the answer is, of course it will. Fox Searchlight will have one formidable contender now, and that’s The Descendants and George Clooney. I’m sure Shame and Tree of Life will garner some nominations. But Searchlight’s best and surest contender is the Clooney pic.
So why does the NC-17 rating affect the film’s chances? For some reason, Oscar voters shy away from controversy. Maybe this is changing a bit. Maybe they will come to their senses and nominate Fassbender anyway — who, by the way, gave the performance of the year in Shame.
To get in, Fassbender has to bump one of these actors. I’m going to bet, all things considered, that he somehow makes it in. I just don’t yet know which one to bump.
I remain horrified by the rating and bored by people who say they knew it was coming and, thus, aren’t appropriately outraged. To quote The Social Network, “this is wrong. This action is wrong.” It is wrong to label it with an NC-17 rating. It does nothing but stigmatize the film and prevent theaters from showing it. It stuffs it into a little box that people think they understand and can control.
Shame is a film about sexual addiction. The dynamics that go into this need to fill oneself up with sexual satisfaction via porn and casual sex encounters is a mostly modern phenomenon. Steve McQueen wrote the film to address this affliction. The ironic part of it is that if parents really want to get their teens to stop spanking the monkey to porn, to stop thinking all women and men can so easily be objectified, to stop using porn and sex to fulfill a true need for intimacy, they can start by understanding where these impulses comes from.
Shame does this beautifully. It starts the discussion. It lifts the veil of hypocrisy and denial. And really only then can we start having real conversations.
But by all means, parents, put your faith in the MPAA. Don’t worry. They’ll protect your kids from the evils of a movie like Shame.