An X by Any Other Name

By: Dr. Ted Baehr; ©2000
Why did Hollywood change the X rating to an NC-17? The answer may shock and dismay you. But Dr. Baehr also gives practical ways you can respond to this practice.


The government hearings on the FTC Report about marketing R-rated movies to children has brought forth a familiar argument from Hollywood, which can be summarized as follows: The R-ratings don’t work because it covers hard R movies and soft R movies. The NC-17 has failed to address this problem, and so we need a new adult rating.

To understand the fallaciousness of this argument, let’s look back just a few years. When the last round of government Hollywood blustering was getting headlines in the early 1990s and Senator Paul Simon was calling on Hollywood to clean up its act, the studios said they needed to replace the infamous X-rating with the now infamous NC-17.

At that time, the NC-17 was an attempt by the entertainment industry to market X-rated movies to teenagers. If teenagers were not allowed to buy tickets to NC-17 rated movies, they would fail just as the X-rating failed, and they did.

To understand why, one merely has to take the time to look at the economics of the differ­ent ratings. All the research indicates that very few adults want to see X-rated movies, whatever you call them: NC-17 or A, or M. Every year we do a thorough, economic analysis of every movie released, and the NC-17 movies, which used to be X, seriously under-perform because they do not allow the only audience with raging hormones who would be interested in seeing these salacious, excessive and perverse movies–that is, the teenager. Once you stop selling tickets to teenagers for X or NC-17 movies or whatever you want to call the rating, you cut out most of the audience for these movies. The studios know that if they can’t market the so-called hard R-rated movies toward teenagers and can’t sell tickets for hard R-rated movies to teenag­ers, those movies will fail.

Almost Famous is a good case in point. It must be noted that it has some virtues, but a movie about a 15-year old who gets the voyeuristic opportunity to be part of the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll scene, is not aimed at men and women over thirty. It is aimed at the curious 15-year­-old or younger who wants to be part of that rock scene. If you tell theaters that they can’t sell tickets to movies like that to 15-year-olds, then those movies will fail at the box office.

Splitting the R-rating into an R and an A, as the DGA (Directors Guild of America) recom­mends, may seem like a good idea to the DGA, but A-rated movies will go the way of the X and the NC-17. (With this failure in mind, maybe it is a good idea!)

The American people and Congress should not be fooled; the “ratings sham” is the prob­lem. For obvious psychological reasons, which have been confirmed through exhaustive re­search, PG-13 movies appeal to children under 13-years-old, and R-rated movies appeal to children and youth under 17-years-old. The research has been done and the reasons are understood–the ratings system attracts those who should not be viewing R-rated movies to the very movies they should not be viewing.

In fact, the MPAA rating system is the ultimate marketing ploy to children. Parents are confused only because they have not seen the research and they don’t consider the logic. The rating system itself must be replaced with high moral standards.

If it is replaced, Hollywood will start to prosper, children will be protected, and there may be a new Golden Age in the entertainment industry. Until it’s replaced, Hollywood and the rest of the country will be locked into the cultural conflicts which confront us over the marketing of inappropriate movies to our children.

By the way, here is the article I wrote in issue number 21 of the 1990 Movieguide®:


On October 5, 1990, the first NC-17 film, Henry and June, was released in theaters across the country by the infamous MCA-Universal, who distributed The Last Temptation of Christ. Actually, Henry and June is an X-rated film featuring a menage-a-trois (a man, his wife and their girlfriend), but the Motion Picture Association of America invented the new category of NC-17 to deceive the public so that the major movie companies, who pay the bills at the MPAA, can move into the lucrative X-rated market without the stigma of the X rating.

What this means for the average American is that obscene, X-rated movies, which were formerly restricted to so-called art houses and porno theaters and could not advertise on televi­sion, radio or in your local newspaper, will now be in your local mall multiplex theaters attracting an audience with deceptive advertisements in your local newspaper and on your local TV and radio stations. Since this will generate revenue for all involved, except the poor person who pays hard earned money to see this filth, the newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and other media are overjoyed with this repackaged smut peddling and have joined the bandwagon supporting the new rating.

Proclaim the Truth . . .

Here are some points which should be kept in mind to counter this deceit:

  • The new rating has not been established for artistic considerations. The NC-17 rating has been established for monetary considerations. The new rating allows major movie compa­nies to distribute X-rated films in major theater chains, who, prior to the new rating, would not screen these movies because of previously established laws and by-laws.
  • Movies are not art. They are entertainment which employ artistic and communicative elements. The entertainment industry is a $30 billion a year business which appeals to people’s visceral emotions to separate them from their hard earned dollars. Much of that money comes from R-rated films, what the movie industry calls “horny boy” movies, because they are targeted at the hormones of teenage boys who drag their dates along so they can be desensitized to promiscuous sex so they will consent to fornicate afterwards in some secluded spot.
  • Art is not beyond good and evil. It is subject to judgment on moral and ethical grounds. For example:
  • The Holocaust Museum in Israel displays Nazi art which denigrates Jews and inflamed the German people against the Jews. This bigoted art is evil and deserves the censure which society has leveled against it.
  • R-rated movies are very explicit. It is no great burden to the filmmaker to stop short of showing penetration and the eating of excrement. As one exhibitor noted: “I don’t think it [the new rating] is something that’s needed. It’s hard enough with an R rating which includes every­thing from three breasted women to necrophilia.”[1]
  • These NC-17 movies are not aimed at mature adults: they are aimed at the teenagers and young adults who frequent the R-rated movies. The 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography found that adolescents, aged 12-17, report the most frequent exposure to pornography—not mature adults! Mature adults constitute a small proportion of the movie going public and have indicated in poll after poll that they do not want to watch sex, violence, nudity, and profanity.
  • Researchers at the University of California project that “depictions of pornography and violence … have the greatest impact on persons … who have very poorly formed attitudes, such as adolescents or school-age children.” Thus, teenagers with raging hormones are more sus­ceptible to the lust, sex and violence in these films than more mature, desensitized adults.
  • Researchers David and Braught found that early exposure to hard-core pornography is one of the strongest predictors of sexual deviance in later life. The amount of exposure was significantly correlated with a willingness to engage in group sexual relations, frequency of homosexual intercourse and serious deviance, primarily rape.
  • Legally, the NC-17 is a self-appointed classification of the MPAA, not a law. Unlike the X rating which excludes minors from seeing filthy films in many neighborhoods because local laws have been written based on the X classification, the NC-17 has no legal enforcement. Like the R rating, teenagers will be hard to exclude from these films if there is no legal teeth in this new rating. Thus, this rating merely takes X-rated films out of community enforcement, forcing communities to either write new laws or go along with this new level of obscene degradation of their youth.
  • The MPAA is the public relations wing of the major movie studios who pay all the MPAA bills. The studios pay the piper, and they call the tunes. The MPAA set up the rating system in 1968 because the church withdrew from monitoring the Motion Picture Code, and, as a result, many communities set up ratings boards to regulate the movies that came into their community.
  • The purported hesitancy to make the change from X to NC-17 has only been a smoke screen. Within two weeks after MCA-Universal decided it wants to release an X-rated film under a new rating, the MPAA added the new rating. Thus, as the renowned columnist Joe Farah notes, “The MPAA ratings are dead. No one will be fooled by this industry PR gambit anymore.”
  • The X rating will not be reserved for pornography. Rather, the X rating will be reserved for small distributors who do not own the MPAA. The big distributors like MCA-Universal want to continue to hobble the small distributors. By reserving the X rating for the small players, the big distributors will keep them out of the major theater chains, reserving those multiplex outlets for their own brand of filth.

Do we care about our children?

The new rating means that more and more movie producers are going to push the limits in their depiction of graphic sex, gore and violence. Of course, just as most teenagers get into R-rated movies today, they will find a way to get into NC-17 rated movies as well. Furthermore, just as an NC-17 rating will allow former X-rated material to come to the screen, the R’s will probably get rougher too.

When our culture is teetering on the brink of moral collapse, is it not insanity to allow flood­gates of filth to pour into the minds of our children? The numbers are in, and they are up: por­nography sales, drug use, teenage pregnancy, suicide, DUI, child and spouse abuse. These crises are out of control, and yet the media believes it bears no responsibility for the moral turpitude that exists in Western civilization.

Study after study points the finger at the media as the greatest influence in today’s society. In fact, writing in the April 1989 issue of the “American Journal of Epidemiology,” University of Washington psychiatrist Dr. Brandon Centerwall maintains that movies and television programs are a major factor in 10,000 homicides annually and probably 50 percent of the rapes, assaults and other violent crimes taking place in this country. Even the United States Senate has concluded that there is a direct correlation between violence in movies and on television and violent crime. According to Dr. Aletha Huston, professor at the University of Kansas, “Virtually all independent scholars agree. We keep pumping children with the mes­sages that violence is the way to solve their problems–and some of it takes hold.”

Immediately following the Sept. 26, 1990 Associated Press story of the ratings change was an instructive parallel story about a 14-year-old girl who copied the movie Heathers, an R-rated, black comedy featuring teenage murder, by poisoning two playmates after inviting them to a picnic. The girl told friends that she got the idea of putting rat poison in the sandwiches from the movie. In fact, the dispute erupted partly because one girl hid a videotape of Heathers and then claimed that another girl had it. The picnic resembled the movie right down to the croquet game.

The number of these movie-induced violent acts among teenagers are increasing daily. In consequence, we must pay careful attention to the words of Ted Bundy, the vicious serial killer, in his last interview with Dr. James Dobson before being sent to the electric chair:

“Those of us who have been so much influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and we are your husbands. And, we grew up in regular families. And pornography can reach out and snatch a kid out of any house today.
“There is loose in their towns and communities, people like me today, whose dangerous impulses are being fueled day in and day out by violence in the media in its various forms, especially sexualized violence. And what scares me, and let’s come into the present now because what I’m talking about happened… 30 years ago in my formative stages. And what scares and appalls me, Dr. Dobson, is when I see what’s on cable TV, some of the movies, some of the violence in the movies that comes into homes today with stuff they wouldn’t show in X-rated adult theatres 30 years ago.”

Do we want our susceptible teenagers to turn into sado-masochistic murderers and sexual deviants? If we keep pumping them full of these evil images, they will.

What can I do? “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”–Edmund Burke.

Just after the ratings change, I had a morning meeting with a major movie exhibitor who owned thousands of theaters around the country. He said that they were worried that moral Americans might protest the new rating, in which case they would quickly rescind it. In other words, you can make a difference.

Officials of the United States Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches have called on exhibitors in a landmark joint communication to refuse to book films carrying the NC-17 rating, noting that the MPAA has “caved in to the commercial interests of those who are attempting to get sexually exploitive material into general theatrical release.” They also called upon the MPAA to reconsider their action. You should do the same.

A very effective step if an NC-17 movie screens in your local theater is picketing. Several years ago, two women in Milwaukee stopped the distribution of a movie about a crazed Santa Claus by picketing. The Last Temptation of Christ lost at least $12 million because Christians picketed. Many porno parlors have been closed down by picketing. This is an effec­tive way to take a stand.

Almost all television and radio stations and most publications, particularly newspapers, will not run advertisements for X-rated movies because of community pressure from years past. Thus, movie distributors are sensitive to the fact that if they can’t advertise, they can’t sell tickets, so they have shied away from X-rated movies. However, the new NC-17 rating frees the mass media from the X-rated stigma, so most will run advertisements for the NC-17 rated films. Therefore, please contact your local newspaper, television stations and radio stations to ask them not to carry advertisements for NC-17 movies.

The Legion of Decency redeemed Hollywood movies in 1933 because thousands of people signed their pledge not to see obscene and immoral movies. We have updated that famous pledge so that thousands of Americans can once more join together to stop the flood of ob­scene movies and encourage a return to wholesome entertainment. If you are willing to stand with us, we will send you a copy of the Concerned Americans for Moral Entertainment Pledge.

Because of the moral decline of Hollywood movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, hundreds of local ratings boards sprang up to protect children from obscene films in communi­ties across the nation. The unique variations in the rating system of these local boards con­vinced the Hollywood moguls to deal with the church and adopt the Motion Picture Code. Again, when the church pulled out of Hollywood in 1966, more than a dozen local ratings boards sprang up immediately. In response, the MPAA instituted the G, PG and R rating sys­tem to supersede these local boards. Now, only a handful of ratings boards remain in communi­ties like Dallas. Therefore, the ultimate step in driving back the NC-17 rating is to establish a local ratings board in your community. This will scare the big Hollywood studios and help pro­tect your children from obscene and immoral sex and violence.

A Pandora’s box of unequalled indecency is about to be unleashed in the movies, cable and videos in the 1990s. TIME magazine is probably right when they stated in their May 7th, 1990 issue that the 90s will be the decade of filth.

Filmmakers should not be trying to upset the rating system; instead, they should be asking themselves if they have lost touch with the heart of America. Through a network of 1,500 radio stations, 300 television stations and cable networks and more than a dozen publications, MOVIEGUIDE® is calling on concerned moral Americans to take a stand against this prolifera­tion of evil.

As evidenced by the Motion Picture Code, concerned Americans have redeemed the media in the past and we can do so again. Hollywood needs our money to survive. If we stop support­ing the bad and support the good, the entertainment industry will change overnight.

As David Puttnam, former president of Columbia Pictures, noted in an interview about the moral decline of the motion picture industry with Bill Moyers on PBS, “Someone in Hollywood must say ‘Stop!’ before we go the way of the Roman Empire.”

Action steps:

Please write Jack Valenti at the Motion Picture Association of America, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036; or, call: (212) 840-6161. (However, this is not nearly enough, because Mr. Valenti is paid by the same studios who want to foist this flimflam on the American people.)

Please call (770) 825-0084 for your copy of the Concerned Americans for Moral Entertain­ment Pledge.

Please plan to set up a ratings board in your community. Call us at (770) 825-0084 for more information on how to start a ratings board in your community.



  1. Quoted from John Voland’s article, “Cautious Praise for NC-17 from Exhibitors,” The Hollywood Reporter, Friday, September 28, 1990, p. 75.

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