The ethical line that determines what violence can be shown in films and mass media is greatly impacted by the fiction or nonfiction theme of the film, a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, and the sexual violence in the film.
Film ratings are essential in determining the ethical boundaries of what can be shown on screen and what cannot. Every major film is rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. The association began rating films in 1968 and for the past 50 years, the company has rated approximately 30,000 films. The association was created to give parents an easy way to distinguish which films appropriate and inappropriate for their children to watch. The rating system censors against violence, drugs, sex, adult activities, etc.
There are five different rating categories a film can be placed in that is determined by the content of the film. The first rating is G for general audiences meaning all ages are permitted to watch the film because there is no nudity, inappropriate language, or depictions of violence in the film. G-rated films are typically cartoons or family-friendly that are meant for children without the supervision of a parent or guardian. PG-rated films contain some mild depictions of nudity or violence which may be intense or disturbing for some children. These films are labeled PG which stands for parental guidance suggested meaning the parents are recommended to screen the content of the film before their children view it. Films with mature themes including nudity, sexuality, profane language, violence, etc. are rated PG-13. The Motion Picture Association of America states in the rules and regulations, “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence.” Additionally, any drug abuse and the single use of a harsh sexually-derived word in a film requires the PG-13 rating. PG-13 rated films are labeled as such because parents are strongly cautioned to review the content of the film because it may be inappropriate for children under the ages of 13 to watch on their own. A film that is rated R, which stands for restricted, may contain adult content, abusive language, intense or persistent violence, sexual activities or nudity, and drug use. Children under the age of 17 are not permitted to watch R-rated films in the theater unaccompanied by a parent. The last rating category the Motion Picture Association of America places films in is NC-17 which means no one 17 and under is admitted. Films are given this harsh rating if they exclusively contain adult themes including sex, drug use, and extreme violence.
Each film receives a rating based on exposure of sexual content, violence, drug use, and other mature themes. The MPAA began the Classification and Rating Administration Board that rates each film according to the content of each film; however, it does not determine what content belongs in the film. The filmmakers submit their films on a volunteer basis for CARA to rate. Although the rating system is done on a volunteer basis, the National Association of Theatre Owners will rarely accept movies that have not been rated by the MPAA. Filmmakers have been carefully crafting their films to fit into one of the four main rating categories; G, PG, PG-13, R, for decades. The Motion Picture Association of America explains that the rating system does not determine what is ethical or unethical to show in films. “It is not CARA’s purpose to prescribe socially-appropriate values or to suggest any evolution of the values held by American parents, but instead to reflect the current values of the majority of American parents, so that parents benefit from and feel fairly informed by the ratings system.” This distinction implies that American parents determine what is ethical and unethical to show in film for the rest of America. The number one export for America to the rest of the world is media which includes music, social media, and film. Hundreds of countries take in American mass media every second and absorb the culture whether they realize it or not. According to the MPAA, the content in films starts to become unethical and inappropriate when prolonged violence and sexually explicit content is shown that would be shocking to children and young adults between the ages of 1-17. Etcetera … violence of rape. (Russell 1993, p. 135)—these representations perpetuate these oppressive discourses about women. In this respect, Young (2009) coins the term “criminological aesthetics” to explain that “crime images are Screening sexual violence in film and mass media can have detrimental effects on the general population as well as the victims of sexual abuse. The ethical standards for showing rape and sexual assault in film has been widely debated since the start of the film industry. Trauma theorists and psychologists have studied the physical and psychological affects of showing rape in film and have studied audience’ reactions. Some common effects include triggering post-traumatic stress and anxiety, desensitization, and sexist gender role portrayals.
Mass media is no stranger to sexual violence. From books to news releases dating back to the 1830s Penny Press Era, sexual assault has been mass produced for consumers and their entertainment. The film industry faces a different challenge when it comes to communicating the ethical problem of rape and sexual abuse in mass media. According to Amanda Spallacci, in her article Representing Rape Trauma in Film, “The photograph offered a medium that could not only depict but also authenticate events, and as these images began to circulate publicly, they structured the ways in which the public understood trauma.” Visual depictions of rape and sexual violence are especially difficult for filmmakers to navigate. Rape and sexual assault are the most under-reported violent crimes in America with 63% of victims that do not report incidents to the police. Along with that, approximately 1 in every 6 women and 1 in every 33 men have been victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. These statistics contribute to the ongoing ethical debate because it is likely that every audience watching a film includes a large percentage of victims that were sexually assaulted or abused. Spallacci asserts that many of the shocking images found in film that depict sexual violence are problematic because the images can trigger audience members to recall personal traumatic memories. A sexually violent scene has the power to trigger post-traumatic stress or anxiety in viewers that have been sexual assaulted because the images in film can cause their personal traumatic memory to resurface. “Visual media and discourses about trauma have a symbiotic relationship with each other because a ‘memory’ which is represented by media and institutions must be actualized by individuals, by members of a community of remembrance…on shared notions of the past.” Spallacci discusses the psycological damage that comes from screening sexual assault in film. Rather than choosing to insert a physical rape scene in a film, emphasizing the trauma resulting from the sexual violence can less triggering for some audience members with traumatic memories themselves than showing the visual depiction of rape.
There are several different variables that filmmakers must consider when sexual violence is a significant part of the plot. The filmmakers must decide if the sexual assault will be implied or filmed on camera. If the sexual violence is shown on camera, the cinematographers must consider how it will be shown. In addition to the physical variables filmmakers must consider, there is a colossal amount of emotional and psychological considerations as well. Some emotional considerations include the antagonist’s motivation behind the sexual brutality and the other characters reactions to the event. Every decision made by the filmmakers in connection with the portayal of rape or other sexual assault on screen impacts the audience members watching it, which will likely include people who have experienced sexual abuse themselves. Spallacci reasons, “The ﬁlm techniques used to construct a rape scene certainly affect viewers strongly; however, the presentation of a rape scene and its subsequent affects also inﬂuence the ways in which people conceptualize sexual violence.” Filmmakers hold a position of ethical leadership that comes with the moral responsibility to distribute content that is ethical or unethical. They largely control how an audiences reacts to sexual violence and a nation conceives it outside of the film industry. The influence from film on rape culture in a society can be unethical and dangerous because there is potential to desensitize people to the injustice of sexual abuse.
Today sexual violence is glorified in mass media. Popular video games like the fifth edition of Grand Theft Auto has a feature in which players can buy a woman and use her for various sexual acts. Other medium including the Netflix original series ‘13 Reasons Why’ focuses on a high school girl who committed suicide after being bullied and raped. Sexual assault in these settings have been considered offensive and satirical, “This stylistic decision is controversial, as it has the potential to trigger viewers with histories of sexual trauma.” One of the arguments made in the ethical debate of screening rape and sexual abuse in film or media is that it displays the uncurable issue of sexual violence as a form of entertainment and desensitizes people to the seriousness of the problem outside of film. Rape culture is a substantial and regular part of mainstream American film which sends a negative message of normalcy and routine. Sarah Projansky writes in her historical survey of rape in U.S. film, “Rape is such a key narrative element throughout the history of American cinema that one cannot fully under stand cinema itself without addressing rape and its representation.” Sexual brutality is a powerful force that is constantly looming over the American film industry; much of the population is desenstized to the problem and has even grown supportive of sexual violence represented in the adult film industry.
A study done by Daniel Linz from the University of California and Steven Adams from Stanford University looked at the physiological desensitization toward the victims of sexual violence in film and media. They gathered a sample of male subjects and exposed them to 5 sexually violent films over the course of a two week time period. The films portrayed a female victims and male assailants. The researchers found that the subjects, “experienced significant decreases in anxiety and depression between first- and last-day viewing.” After viewing each film the researchers asked each subject about the emotional reactions and attitudes toward the victim in the film. By the end of the experiment, the researchers found that the, “subjects exposed to the filmed violence against women expressed less sympathy for the victim portrayed in the rape trial and indicated less empathy for rape victims in general.” The films desensitized the subjects toward the fictional characters in the films which I believe can lead to the desensitization toward sexual violence victims outside of film as well.
Sexual violence should not be filmed on camera and produced in mass media for entertainment purposes because The depictions of violence in question are achieved at the expense of completely dehumanizing Aileen and Libseth, and rather than challenge the beliefs held by most men who abuse women—men who fail to see women as human, but as body parts This essay therefore argues that event-based representations of rape—meaning that they focus on the rape rather than trauma—such as is the case in Room (2015); 13 Reasons Why (2017); Monster (2003) and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo1 (2011), keep affects contained within the movie or television viewing experience, whereas a television program like Sharp Objects (2018), in representing traumatic memory, can produce a multitude of affects, widen cultural understandings of rape beyond the event, and shed light on the chronically trauma-producing social structures so as to forge the will to change them”
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