Over the weekend, Ira Sachs’ lovely, heartfelt romantic drama Love is Strange performed quite well in limited release, claiming the top per-screen average for any film in theaters. But those numbers might have been higher, were it not one outside factor: the MPAA, bizarrely, gave the film an utterly disproportionate R rating. Since the film concerns a longtime gay couple and the troubles they encounter after getting married, a bit of a storm has erupted around the picture, with a general consensus emerging that the picture’s rating is proof positive of the organization’s inherent homophobia. And believe you me, there’s merit to that claim — but maybe not when it comes to the case of Love is Strange.
Let’s make one thing very clear, though: there are plenty of examples of the organization rating films with LGBT themes more harshly than their straight counterparts. Last year, for example, director Darren Stein railed against the MPAA for giving his PG-13-flavored teen comedy G.B.F. an R, “for sexual references,” while noting that there is not “a single F-bomb, hint of nudity or violence in the film.” (“Perhaps the ratings box should more accurately read ‘For Homosexual References’,” he wrote.)
Stein’s complaints echoed those of filmmaker Jamie Babbit, whose 1999 comedy …But I’m A Cheerleader was one of the films featured in Kirby Dick’s excellent anti-MPAA documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. “I really wanted teens to see it,” she tells Dick, particularly “teens that are in high school in like Wyoming or wherever, teens that are feeling like they’re the only ones.” To Babbit’s surprise, it received the adults-only, “kiss of death” NC-17 rating, even though (per Babbit), “there’s no nudity in the sex scene, and they’re fully clothed.” In order to get an R, Babbit also had to cut a scene where Natasha Lyonne masturbates… without taking off a stitch of clothing. Babbitt notes that at around the time she was battling the MPAA over that scene, the comfortably R-rated American Pie featured a character masturbating into a pie, and another ejaculating into a glass of beer. Well, you know how those straight boys are!
So prevalent is the double standard for acts of gay and straight sex that Dick, in one of This is Not Yet Rated’s most memorable sequences, creates a split-screen comparison of sex scenes with nearly identical actions and framing, where the MPAA slapped an NC-17 on the gay version and an R on the straight one. There is the fully clothed masturbation scene in But I’m A Cheerleader compared to the nude shower masturbation scene of American Beauty; women having orgasms while receiving oral sex from other women in the (originally) NC-17-rated Boys Don’t Cry and Where the Truth Lies, compared to an R-rated man having an orgasm while receiving oral sex from a woman in Single White Female; intercourse in Boys Don’t Cry vs. American Pie and Henry & June vs. Sideways; and sex from behind, NC-17 when between two men in Mysterious Skin, R-rated when between a man and woman in Unfaithful.
And there are plenty of additional examples. Lionsgate’s Tom Ortenberg told The Advocate that his company had to cut a character’s fully clothed gay make-out fantasy scene from The Rules of Attraction to get the R rating (while the film’s copious scenes of heterosexual couplings were all A-OK). The brief scene of male/male kissing during the climactic ménage a tois of Y Tu Mamá También is about the only explanation for that film’s NC-17 instead of R. A Single Man gets an R, though there is no explicit sex, no “f-words,” and only bare buttock nudity (seen frequently in PG-13 and even PG movies). And so on, and so on.
Which brings us to Love is Strange. It is the low-key story of a longtime gay couple who get married, and must drastically change their lives after that wedding causes one of them to lose his job. There are no sex scenes, and no nudity; the pair occasionally kiss, and have a scene of fully-clothed cuddling. And the MPAA gives the film an R, which has rightly raised some hackles. Leading the charge is the Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty, who uses his Love is Strange review to point out the utter ridiculousness of that R rating by comparing it to the week’s other new releases: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (“It features nudity, sexual situations and substance abuse… There is violence and graphic gore, including one scene of a man having his eye plucked out and another of a man having his fingers broken with pliers”) and Jersey Shore Massacre (“It features nudity, sexual situations, substance abuse and ethnic and racial slurs. There is violence and graphic gore, including one scene of a woman being disemboweled, another of a naked woman getting her breasts sliced open and one of a man having his hands fed into a wood chipper”). Comparing those two titles to Love is Strange, Whitty writes (correctly!) “If there’s an equivalence among these three films, and their equal unsuitability for anyone under 17, it’s lost on me — and, I suspect, on anyone but the censors at the MPAA.“
But — and this is where it gets tricky — though that comparison is proof of the deeply silly standards of the “R” rating, it is not, in and of itself, proof of homophobia on the part of the MPAA. Because, you see, Love is Strange gets an R rating “for language.” According to (the rather laughably conservative) Movieguide.org, “the family guide to movies and entertainment,” the film features twelve obscenities, including ten “fuck”s. And that is the problem here — that the MPAA operates, and has operated for decades, under the twisted logic that hearing someone say “fuck” is just as potentially damaging to young viewers as seeing someone fuck, or getting their head blown off, or having their eye plucked out, or getting their breast sliced open.
The application of R ratings to films that are totally acceptable — and even worthwhile — for teenage viewers is nothing new; we rounded up several examples just a couple of weeks ago, from Boyhood to The Breakfast Club. But context, tone, and precedent aren’t taken into account by the MPAA’s raters; they merely tally up the “f-words,” and rate according to an unbending scale. They’ll give you one and only one in your PG-13 (an unwritten rule that some filmmakers have even made in-jokes about); more than that and, well, you’re shit out of luck.
One of the few documented examples of an exception was the 2004 film Gunner Palace, an Iraq War documentary that preserved soldiers’ salty language (including 42 “fuck”s) and still got a PG-13 rating, due to the significance of the subject matter. Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder makes a persuasive argument about Love is Strange’s importance: “Love Is Strange is exactly the kind of ‘gay film’ that younger teenagers, both gay and straight, would benefit from seeing. For the former group it offers a vision of a gay romantic future that, while beset with a specific struggle, is also full of love, as well as a sense of community and history — older, happy gay people exist! And for the straight kids, the film can reinforce the dignity of gays and their relationships in a way that abstract lectures never could.”
But such noble goals are well beyond the bean counters of the MPAA, and the importance of such a message is presumably lost on them as well. (Jay Landers, former MPAA rater told This Film is Not Yet Rated director Kirby Dick, “To my knowledge, there weren’t any that were self-proclaimed homosexuals on the board when I was there, no.”) So unless they’d made an unprecedented decision to take a stand on a social issue, Love is Strange’s R isn’t evidence (though other films are) that our rating system is homophobic. But it is evidence, as we’ve seen countless times before, that the MPAA is deeply, perhaps irrevocably, fucked.