'Bully' downgraded to PG-13 as ratings system assailed from all sides

Antibullying advocates wanted 'Bully' to be bumped from R to PG-13 so teens could watch it. But family groups are appalled by the language. Did the process work or fail? 

By , Staff writer

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    Lee Hirsch, writer/director of the documentary film 'Bully,' poses at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles late last month.
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The documentary “Bully” has been officially retagged PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. This shift from its initial R rating for language occurred after a drawn-out battle of wills among the studio, the trade association responsible for the voluntary ratings system, and vocal advocates of antibullying initiatives.   

A compromise version, which cuts the number of "F-bombs," will be in theaters beginning April 13, when the film goes into national distribution.

Now that the critically lauded, but by all accounts emotionally difficult film will be open to the teen crowd it depicts, the question is: Was the film itself a victim of “bullying” by an outmoded, out-of-touch ratings group, or is it an example of the free-market system finding the best balance between freedom of expression and protecting family values in the marketplace? 

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“Ironically, 'Bully' the movie was bullied by the MPAA,” says Marie Newman, co-author of  "When Your Child Is Being Bullied: Real Solutions," via e-mail.

The MPAA has done this before, she says, but not with a film that mattered so much to the audience being excluded.

“If all children and parents are not allowed to see this documentary, it will defeat it purpose to generate higher awareness of the bullying epidemic and education of what bullying truly looks and feels like,” she says. “Thirteen million children being bullied everyday is 13 million too many.” 

The rating system, which dates to 1968, “is in any case a childish system,” says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media,” in an e-mail. Adults use this system, he says, “in a wrongheaded attempt to regulate what their children can see, especially in this online age in which people of all ages can see anything they like.”

But in the case of the "Bully" movie, he adds, “putting anything in the way of kids seeing this movie – kids who could well be victims of bullying themselves –was not only foolish but destructive."

Others suggest that in an age of free-for-all media, the ratings system provides a last vestige of guidance for parents hoping to steer their children to appropriate entertainment options. On Friday, the Parents Television Council knocked the MPAA for what it called an arbitrary and destructive decision to change the rating for "Bully" “despite the unprecedented inclusion of multiple instances of the harshest profanity.”

IN a statement, the council called for more accountability from the MPAA, such as a reform of the ratings system to allow greater input from the public “rather than just Hollywood insiders.”

The notoriously arms-length MPAA, which does not reveal the names of so-called “average” parents and community members that help assess a film’s rating,  however, has said that this process of negotiation between studios and the ratings board shows the resilience and flexibility of the ratings system in a swiftly evolving media environment. 

The MPAA did not answer calls to either its Los Angeles or Washington offices, but in a statement in the Los Angeles Times, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA division that oversees ratings, said: “Per the standard rating process available to all filmmakers, The Weinstein Company decided to resubmit a new, edited version of 'Bully' to be rated, and the ratings board gave this new version of the film a PG-13....”

She continued, “In the case of 'Bully,' the ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to: Parents have been kept informed of the content of each version of the film, and they have been given the information they need to make moviegoing decisions on behalf of their kids."

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