When I watched Call Me by Your Name for the first time, I was captivated by the vividly picturesque setting and the many tender moments throughout the film. I was surprised though to learn that the film had received an R rating, especially since there were hardly any overtly sexual scenes, and definitely nothing that would normally constitute such a rating. The only thing that really stood out about the film was the centrality of its gay love story. In fact, out director Luca Guadagnino says he intentionally left out any extended sex scenes in the hopes that a PG-13 rating would allow for a more “powerful universality”. The only problem is, the MPAA ended up giving the film an R rating anyway.
Call Me by Your Name is just one example of a plethora of films featuring LGBTQ+ content that have received particularly harsh MPAA ratings. G.B.F, a movie that features no nudity or any usual R-rating profanity, was given an R rating. I have seen G.B.F, and it’s a campy and extremely tame teen movie that is specifically geared towards young queer boys in high school. How ironic that those same boys couldn’t even go see the movie in the theater when it opened. Pride, another movie with queer content about a group of lesbian and gay activists who rallied together to raise money for families affected by the U.K. miners’ strike in 1984, was also given an R rating. The movie contains no significant depictions of violence or sex, and has only an occasional use of profanity.
Love is Strange, Moonlight, and Milk also received R ratings when they came out. In contrast, movies like Transformers and The Expendables 3, or even The Hunger Games trilogy, all received only PG-13 ratings, even though they depict considerable violence. The MPAA has shown time and time again, that not only is it more concerned with shielding children from sex than it is with cautioning them about violence, it also feels the need to slap particularly harsh ratings on movies with specifically queer themes. Rating movies that portray queer themes or queer sex with an undeserved R rating says something about the way we not only view queer sex, but queer stories and queer lives in general.
Throughout history, queer folks have been told again and again that we are disordered and perverse, that our bodies and lives and stories are not suitable for family consumption. On screen, queer folks have often at best been relegated to sidekicks and minor characters who have borne the brunt of homophobic and transphobic jokes. At worst, we have been typecast as the darkest of humanity, stereotypes and tropes about queer pedophiles and murderers and other villains often becoming our only representation. And those are just the white queer characters. Queer folks of colour still barely make it to the screen in the first place. In GLAAD’s 2016 report of LGBTQ+ representation in film, it was reported that of the meagre 18.4% of films from major studios that contained LGBTQ+ characters, only 20% of those characters were people of colour.
This makes it all the more disheartening then when the MPAA slaps movies with good and diverse queer content with undeserved R ratings. LGBTQ+ content that puts us in a positive light and breathes nuance and humanity into our experiences needs to be seen. It is true that we can imagine more positive outcomes for ourselves when we actually see ourselves represented in ways that respect our lived experiences and highlight them, instead of denigrating them as is so often the case. This is especially important for young queer kids who are still trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in to the world. Seeing and hearing messages that we are worthy of love and that we can go on to lead successful, fulfilling and love-filled lives is crucial not just for our thriving; it is crucial for our survival.
The MPAA’s propensity to rate movies with queer themes more harshly than those without indicates perhaps how little society has really changed. Our bodies are still continuously seen as somehow more “dirty” than straight and cis bodies, and our lived experiences are still imagined with discomfort. To achieve more reasonable MPAA ratings, films will often have to cut out the majority of scenes that depict any sort of queer intimacy, thereby removing the reality of what everyday queer experiences really look like. Even under the banner of “acceptance”, we are still considered palatable only when we live our lives within the narrow confines that society deems as “acceptable”. These confines often center only white, cis, conventionally attractive and masculine gay men, who are allowed to show little to no real affection for their love interest on screen.
What the harsh MPAA ratings leave queer folks with then, particularly queer youth, is bland story telling devoid of soul and heart that has been scrubbed “clean” of any real, meaningful queerness. This is not acceptance, and this is definitely not liberation. At best, it’s some watered-down version of “tolerance”. At worst, it’s thinly veiled discrimination that seeks to keep queer stories about real queer lives from reaching those who need it most. In the end, the MPAA ratings are just another covert way that those in power have continued to try to name who we are and what our bodies are for. And I think often we don’t even realize this type of discrimination is happening because of how subtle it is. Sometimes, the most insidious way that violence is written onto our bodies is in the small and quiet steps that long-standing institutions continue to take to shut out queer folks (especially queer folks of colour) from ever having a voice in the ways that their stories are or are not told.
Queer and Trans folks, who are making wonderful and diverse on-screen content, have worked to find ways to subvert the MPAA ratings altogether, often finding a home on the small screen via streaming sites and network television. However, I still believe we need to hold the MPAA accountable for more comprehensive ratings that do not unnecessarily penalize movies that have honest depictions of sex, especially queer sex. The box office is still used as a huge indicator of entertainment trends, and movies with diverse queer characters and stories deserve a chance to be showcased and made available for a wide array of audiences. We can and must do better, not just for ourselves, but also for all the queer youth that yearn to see themselves represented on screen in ways that respect their experiences by showing more of the depth and breadth of what it can mean to be queer. Queer folks’ stories are beautiful and important, and it is crucial to our survival that those stories be told and made available for people to see.