Director and comedian Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade, a critically lauded exploration of the awkwardness of adolescence, has been slapped with an R-rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) making it a no-go for eighth-graders lacking fake identification. The reason behind the rating has nothing to do any sort of ’90s-era Harmony Korine Kids-esque shock scenes. The film contains no graphic nudity or sexual acts. The film doesn’t feature children in a dark spiral of self-destruction. The film doesn’t even feature people getting eaten by prehistoric beasts (that’s PG-13 stuff). The movie is rated R because the word “fuck” is used a total of five times and a character discusses oral sex. In other words, the puritanical MPAA has effectively barred children from seeing a movie that reflects their day-to-day lives in an honest way. Somewhere in a Washington D.C. boardroom, an MPAA executive is clutching pearls so hard they’re becoming diamonds.
MPAA ratings, established in 1968, were largely meant to help parents understand if films were appropriate for their children. To accomplish that task, the MPAA looks at a tight rating rubric that counts everything from instances of sex, nudity, and violence to profanity and drug use. The first established ratings were G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, and R for restricted. The PG-13 rating was added in the early 1980s after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom freaked parents out with a graphic depiction of the removal of a still-beating human heart.
And while the PG-13 rating was largely established due to Temple of Doom’s graphic violence, the MPAA has traditionally had less of a problem with blood and guts than with sex and sexuality. Consider, for instance, the double standard over male and female body parts. At one-time any full frontal male nudity warranted an X (or, later, NC-17) rating. Full frontal female nudity only merited an R rating. Other rules were just as arbitrary. How offensive is the word “fuck” to an eighth grader? Depends on the kid, sure, but it’s probably not new vocabulary.
And that’s the problem. The MPAA is no longer simply informing parents, they are pursuing an anachronistic agenda similar to the one behind the “Hays Code,” which twisted Hollywood films for decades by barring the release of sexually charged content and forcing protagonists to mash their cheeks together in a bizarre kabuki version of desire.
The point of Burnham’s movie is that being in the eighth grade is difficult. It’s an angsty and unpredictable time. Puberty sucks. Relationships get strained. You’re not a kid anymore. Words like “fuck” fall out of your mouth and frighten you. The power of depicting this, of course, is that it tells kids that they are not alone — not uniquely curious or perverted for being interested in oral sex or obscenity. That message, apparently, offends the MPAA.
I will say this though: It’s particularly annoying that the MPAA is doing this now given that the organization’s lead used to be the president and CEO of The Jim Henson Company, which spent decades trying to create characters representing a broad range of personalities and exploring real topics with both delicacy and generous humor. How far Charles H. Rivkin has fallen.
Sure, parents can accompany their 13-year-olds to see this movie. Most won’t. Why? Because it’s awkward and so much easier to go to the new Tom Cruise blockbuster (which also looks excellent). And parental controls will eliminate it from streaming queues when it comes time for the inevitable Netflix release. It’s safe to suggest that the very kids who might benefit from seeing a real depiction of their lives will be barred from seeing Eighth Grade by their parents on the recommendation of Mr. Rivkin. Again, bummer.
The bizarre rating for the film might also cause some parents, like me, to second-guess the legitimacy of a rating system. And maybe that’s for the best. Parents know their children better than the MPAA (hopefully) and instead of being beholden to a rating system run by prudes, they should be thoughtful about what their kids watch. Sure, that might require some homework. But if it means kids will be edified by art that reflects their experience, so much the better.