Why are "Saw X" and "No Hard Feelings" both rated R?

What are the two films about?

"Saw X" and "No Hard Feelings" are both popular R-rated movies this year.

The former is currently a hit horror film that tells a story about a massacre. In this movie, Jigsaw takes on the role of the protagonist. He is tormented by cancer and deceived by impostors posing as medical organization members. ’His tragic experience elicits empathy from the audience and evokes a strong sense of hatred towards the impostors. Ultimately, these deceivers are tortured to death through brutal traps meticulously designed by Jigsaw.

As a fan of this series, I've noticed that "Saw X" presents a significantly more intense level of gore than the previous installments.

One of the most terrifying aspects of this series is that the victims have to continually self-mutilate to survive, and these acts of self-mutilation are taken to an even greater extreme in the latest installment. For instance, in order to escape a trap, a woman has to saw off her leg to disable the fatal contraption (which reminds me of "127 Hours" where the protagonist had to amputate his own arm to escape a predicament, but "Saw X" is even bloodier); similarly, to disable another trap, a man must use a power drill to bore into his own skull and extract his brain (this brings to mind "Hannibal" where Hannibal Lecter consumes others' brains, while "Saw X" involves doing it to oneself); and there's also a girl who has to break her own hands and feet to free herself from shackles, to avoid being burned to death.

Blood, obviously, is the theme of "Saw X."

Saw X
Saw X

In contrast, another hit movie, "No Hard Feelings", is a romantic comedy with a story that narrates a young boy's romantic encounter with a much older woman.

In the movie, there is a brief scene of nudity lasting less than 2 minutes. The female lead Maddie (played by Jennifer Lawrence), skinny-dipping in the sea at night, finds a thief stealing her clothes on the shore. She swiftly runs ashore to retrieve her clothes and humorously chases away the thief.

The scene of Maddie defeating the thieves benefits Maddie's character development. It showcases her physical strength and fearlessness. It also emphasizes her confidence and defiance against shame of her naked body being shown openly in public, which distinguishes her from traditional notions of femininity.

The theme of "No Hard Feelings ", however, is not nudity, but rather comedy and romance.

No Hard Feelings
No Hard Feelings

Imagine yourself as an alien curious about the American movie rating system. You would surely be confused by the rating results. Why is a romantic comedy like "No Hard Feelings," which only has a 2-minute scene of female nudity, rated R alongside the brutal and bloody "Saw X"? What kind of movies would be rated as NC-17, a rating that is even stricter than the R-rating? What exactly do these ratings mean?


The movie rating system in the United States is a voluntary classification scheme established by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1968. Initially, movies were rated as G (equivalent to the current G), M (equivalent to the current PG and PG-13), R (current R), and X (current NC-17).

At the time of inception, X-rated films received significant attention and were almost synonymous with pornography due to their explicit sexual content. In the 1990s, the letter X, which represented the unknown and the highly provocative, was replaced with NC-17 in order to make X-rated films sound more respectable.

According to Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst with over 30 years of experience, including 10 in his current role at Comscore, the ratings that have the greatest impact on box office are R and NC-17. Dergarabedian believes that the influence of other ratings on box office performance is minimal. However, the difference between NC-17 and R ratings can often translate to several million dollars or even tens of millions of dollars in some cases. This is because the restrictions imposed by these ratings affect certain films from the promotion stage. If the promotion is restricted, audiences may not be aware of the movie and might not choose to watch it in theaters.

According to data from Indiewire, when a movie’s rating is changed from NC-17 to R (both of which are restricted ratings, with NC-17 being stricter), there could be a 70% increase in box office revenue. Consequently, many films that could have received an NC-17 rating engage in negotiations with the MPAA's rating committee to make edits to the film. For instance, the film "Natural Born Killers" had to remove a 4-minute scene to comply with the R rating.

So, what exactly is the difference between the R and NC-17 ratings?

R stands for Restricted, which means that individuals under the age of 17 are not permitted to watch the movie without a parent or guardian. The film may contain sexual themes, sexual dialogue, nudity, strong language, and intense violence, such as graphic gun violence or the unjustified use of the F-word by characters. Several Oscar-winning films, including "The Silence of the Lambs," "The Shining," and "Alien," fall into this category.

However, if a film depicts scenes involving explicit sexual content such as intercourse, anal sex, or group sex with three or more people, as well as aberrational behavior, it is classified as NC-17. NC-17 films are restricted to adult viewers only, and individuals under the age of 17 are not permitted to watch them. Examples of NC-17 films include "Lust, Caution," "Blue Is the Warmest Color," and "Showgirls."

The rating system is never perfect. A documentary called "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" reveals the flaws of the rating system. It highlights the ambiguity of criteria for the NC-17 rating, specifically when it comes to "aberrational behavior" with various ridiculous and amusing comparisons.

For instance, in the comedy "Scary Movie," there is a scene where a hitman attempts to assassinate a woman but unintentionally stabs her in the prosthetic breast. Despite its dark humor and violence, this film received an R rating. In contrast, "The Cooler," a highly praised romantic film that received an Oscar nomination, was given an NC-17 rating solely because it featured a shot of female genitalia. Similarly, the film "Jersey Girl" also received an NC-17 rating due to a discussion about masturbation.

Scary Movie
Scary Movie

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" criticizes the MPAA for more leniency towards violence compared to sexual content. But why is it more unacceptable for the rating committee to depict two people engaging in consensual sexual activities than violence?

Different Perspectives

There are different answers to the question, and the reasons behind these interpretations are complex.

Director Kimberly Peirce believes that society is fearful of women openly expressing pleasure in their sex lives. Her film "Boys Don't Cry", for which she made a name, received an NC-17 rating due to its portrayal of a female character experiencing sexual pleasure. Peirce expressed her discontent to the rating, "We know it’s all about Lana’s pleasure when we witness her orgasm, and that frightens and unsettles them (the rating board)."

Many independent filmmakers think that the MPAA's rating system may be influenced by major film studios, resulting in the suppression of independent films. They argue that the rating system imposes stricter restrictions on independent films. When major studios produce NC-17 films, the MPAA provides detailed guidance on how to edit the film to obtain an R-rating. However, independent filmmakers receive only the rating without any editing suggestions. They are eager to know about the individuals and entities responsible for rating decisions, but the MPAA has never publicly addressed these concerns.

For filmmakers, the MPAA's rating system seems to be deeply flawed. However, I found an analysis from an anonymous film scholar who suggests that things may not be as bad as the filmmakers claim.

First, the rating standards themselves are regularly updated and revised.

The initial prototype of the American film rating system was the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the "Hays Code." It was developed by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), which was established by film producers and distributors. Introduced in 1930, the code consisted of twelve strict and detailed regulations that prohibited various aspects related to crime, sex, vulgarity, dance, racial relations, ethnic emotions, religion, language, film titles and more. For example, kissing scenes were limited to a maximum duration of three seconds.

In the early 1950s, the film "The Miracle" by Italian director Roberto Rossellini sparked religious controversy, resulting in a lawsuit against its American distributor. The case ended in a victory for the film, undermining the authority of the Hays Code. Eventually, the code was abolished in 1966.

Under these historical circumstances, the film "The Moon Is Blue" in 1953 became the first to receive a "Passed" classification, allowing it to be shown despite openly discussing male-female relationships and sexual activities. In 1969, "Midnight Cowboy" became the first X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, featuring explicit scenes and addressing topics related to homosexuality. From the perspective of sexual openness, the progression from "The Moon Is Blue" to "Midnight Cowboy" already reflected societal progress. Similarly, as society continues to evolve, many films that would have been labeled X-rated in the past are now rated R.

The Moon Is Blue
The Moon Is Blue
Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Cowboy

Secondly, the rating process is flexible.

When a producer submits a film, the members of the rating board watch it and vote on the appropriate rating. Each person has their own subjective judgment of what qualifies as an "R-rated" film, and there is no universal standard. If a producer disagrees with their film being rated R, they have the right to appeal, and the film will undergo re-evaluation by a different group of individuals. If the outcome remains an R-rating, the producer can only retrieve the film and have it re-edited by the director and editor before submitting it for review again. Therefore, the ratings may vary, but the process essentially limits significant deviations.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the judges responsible for rating films consist of everyday individuals who represent the diverse values and beliefs of society. These individuals, commonly referred to as "parents," play a crucial role in determining the movie's rating based on the generally accepted standards upheld by the society.

After hearing these different viewpoints, I am more confused than before.

Who is the film rating system really protecting?

On one hand, its effectiveness in protecting children is limited.

It is quite puzzling to see the MPAA's tolerance of violence and strictness towards sex. Today's children have received sex education in schools from an early age, and the human body is no longer a secret to them. The constant occurrence of school shootings and various violent incidents worldwide have already shown that violence is a more pressing issue than sex - the process of making a baby.

At the same time, the advent of the internet has also weakened the power of the rating system. With a laptop, or even a mobile phone, children can easily find any content they want to watch.

On the other hand, it has a greater impact on adults. To be precise, I am referring to the intense games between the rating system, commerce, and film creation that are inevitable. Considering the huge impact of ratings on the box office, film producers have to try their best to lower the rating; yet for better expression, filmmakers will try their best to minimize cuts; to maintain their advantage in the industry, whilst film giants will find ways to suppress small independent film companies through it...

And this is just the case in the United States. In many other countries, additional factors such as politics, religion, and various social institutions may come into play, which makes the film rating system even more complicated.

Regardless, all of this is definitely not just for the protection of children.

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