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Discretion Adviser

As head of Hollywood’s movie ratings board, Joan Graves keeps parents in the know.

Brad Hines

MATINEE IDYLL: Graves was hired after someone she met at a party recommended her as a person of good judgment. 'Getting paid to watch movies sounded great. I didn't want to be a stock broker again, or go back to real estate.'

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By Sonja Bolle

Parents all over America rely each day on Joan Graves’s judgment, but almost none of them know her name. What they know is G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17, the code she administers as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) board that assigns movie ratings.

Her position as Hollywood gatekeeper—Joan Eldridge Graves, ’63, has been with the Classification and Rating Administration since 1988 and its chair since 2000—puts her in the crosshairs of many culture wars. Are kids being oversexualized, and at younger and younger ages? Are they being desensitized by exposure to graphic violence? After every screening of a new film, Graves’s staff casts a ballot to answer these questions: For what age level is this film appropriate? How would most American parents rate this film?

Her job is a magnet for controversy, and Graves reacts to criticism by emphasizing two points. First, ratings are not intended as judgments on the merit of films. The board provides an informational service to parents that describes the content a film contains. Second, the raters strive merely to reflect the current sensitivities of American parents. Ratings are not proscriptive; hers is not a job of censorship.

Time was, in America, that censorship threatened to rein in film. But the movie business maneuvered to submit voluntarily to certain standards in hopes of avoiding government control. The famously restrictive Hays Code, laid down in 1930, decreed the general principle: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”

By the 1960s, however, social standards were shifting, the popularity of European film was bringing a new sensibility to Hollywood, and the industry was bogging down under the weight of dozens of local film censorship boards.

Graves says her first boss, MPAA head Jack Valenti, suggested that the way to end the disarray was to organize one board of parents hired by, but independent of, the MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration would not approve or disapprove the content of film but would raise a flag about content that parents might find unsuitable for their children. All kinds of films could be shown, but distributors could not be accused of failing to protect children from disturbing experiences. This system, with minor modifications, has been in place since 1968.

Graves emphasizes parents’ tolerance can vary widely. When her daughters, now in their 30s, were young, she took them to many movies with mature themes; she believed a discussion afterward was an important part of the moviegoing experience. “I remember taking my girls to see Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when they were quite young,” she says. She loved the film, but certain moments gave her pause—like the one with opium and a sex scene between two women that involved toe-sucking. “And I remember thinking: this film is rated PG-13. Do I trust these people?”

That experience shaped her professional aim. “When we as a group make decisions, we don’t want to do something to make parents lose trust.”

The board hears from parents all the time, via letters, phone calls and e-mail. Graves has found that different areas of the country, generally speaking, have different sensitivities: “In the South they care about bad language, in the Midwest about sex, and in urban areas, violence.” Acknowledging different kinds of sensitivity, the board in 1990 started adding brief descriptions to explain its rating. Juno, for example, is rated “PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language.”

The PG-13 rating for this spring’s Drillbit Taylor contained a warning about “strong bullying,” and Graves acknowledges that new concerns emerge from time to time. Last year, the board announced it would start listing “pervasive smoking” in ratings notes. “Studios are being lobbied to stop depicting smoking in films,” she says, sounding a rare note of petulance in her studied neutrality. “Why not gun use?”

There is a phenomenon Graves refers to as “ratings creep.” As social mores change, some elements in film become more tolerated over time, some less. Drug use is much more harshly judged now than it was in the 1970s, she observes, whereas violence—especially what Graves calls the “stylized violence” made possible by special effects—is much more tolerated. Ratings creep is different, she adds humorously, from the fact that “there are always trends: One year it seemed every film had someone urinating. Another year everybody was throwing up.”

The ratings board is made up of 10 parents who, when they are hired, have children ages 5 to 17. Except for the names of three senior raters, the board members’ names are not made public, to shield them from industry pressure. If a company does not want to market a film with the assigned rating, a senior rater may provide feedback about what caused the rating to be given: language, nudity or so on. If the company wants to re-edit, specific scenes may be discussed.

The greatest change Graves has seen during her tenure has been that “ratings play a bigger role in a studio’s financial plan.” Where films used to be made and then marketed, Graves says, now studio executives planning a film will say: “We want to market this as a PG-13 movie,” largely because PG-13 films get the broadest audience. Nowadays Graves’ office even accepts scripts to review for a ratings opinion. “We don’t guarantee the film made from a script will get a certain rating, but we can give them an idea. We can say, well, you’ve got two ‘fucks’ in the script, or the violence on Page X sounds brutal. One of our senior raters is very good at assessing scripts. Another is the filmmaker liaison, to answer production questions like: ‘How much nudity can we show in this scene?’ ” Graves says the liaison issues are “the most interesting part of the job for me, and growing larger.”

Complaints about the intrusiveness of the ratings board in the filmmaking process came to a head with the 2006 release of a documentary directed by Kirby Dick. This Film Is Not Yet Rated mocked the secrecy in which the ratings board works and charged that it treats independent films more harshly than studio pictures. Graves defends the anonymity of her raters, and she answers that it’s her job to see that all submissions are treated equally. (Last year MPAA members submitted only 28 percent of the films the board considered.) One difference, she suggests, may be that studios that deal with the ratings board all the time have a single designated liaison, and knowing a system always confers an advantage.

Another problem, though, is that studios may embroider on the feedback they receive from the ratings board and request editing changes as if they were demands by the ratings board. Graves says, “We don’t make editing suggestions. So if a director complains, ‘The ratings board said we have to change the whole first half of the film,’ they’re clearly being lied to.” She predicts, however, that such scapegoating has peaked: directors, who are “wising up” to the studio trick, insist on speaking directly with the ratings person.

“It’s only fair,” Graves concludes. “The studios say, ‘We want a slate of so many movies next year,’ that’s their job, but it’s the filmmakers who put their heart and soul into a film.”

Though she leads a bureaucratic institution, Graves is at heart a movie-lover. She speaks passionately of films that affected her (The Man in the Moon, Lars and the Real Girl), but she also remembers the mistakes she made in letting her children see films too young. Her daughter, Kelly, ’98, told her, years later, that her life had been “ruined” by seeing Poltergeist. Parents have important choices to make, for once an image is in a child’s head, it can’t be unseen.


SONJA BOLLE, a critic in Los Angeles, writes about children’s books for the Los Angeles Times and Newsday.

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