by John Ellis
A couple of days ago, a friend mentioned how he had watched (started to watch) a movie from his childhood with his kids. “I forgot what was in it,” he confessed. “It was terrible!”
That started a brief conversation about how the MPAA ratings system works and how in the mid-eighties Tipper Gore helped change the content in movies. This may seem counter-intuitive to many people, but the movies of the seventies and the early eighties were generally much filthier and contained more nudity and explicit sexuality than the movies released from the mid-eighties until recently.
Mainly focused on music, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) lobbied Congress to require music with explicit content to be labeled. Her successful actions had reverberations throughout the entire entertainment industry.
Pressured by parent’s groups, Wal-Mart begin denying shelf space to music, video games, and movies that they deemed too far over the line. This, in turn, forced movie producers to be more conscientious about the content of their movies. Missing out on Wal-Mart’s behemoth market was akin to financial suicide. Reflecting the shift in culture and the market, the MPAA ratings tightened up as movie theatre owners began pursuing the family market, too.
For those who are unaware, there is no law that requires a movie to receive an MPAA rating. However, the National Association of Theatre Owners frowns, to put it lightly, on screening movies that haven’t been submitted to the MPAA. Between the pressure from Wal-Mart and the National Association of Theatre Owners, movie producers were kept “somewhat” in check. They answered to gatekeepers who were pursuing families in middle America. Netflix, however, is changing the game, and not for the better.
As anyone with a Netflix account is aware, the streaming giant has invested heavily in producing original content. In 2017, Netflix spent 6 billion dollars on producing content. For 2018, that figure was raised to 7 billion dollars. That’s billion with a “b.”
With the allure of much more creative control and Netflix’s deep pockets, some of Hollywood’s best storytellers have left the traditional studio system in the rearview mirror and are busy producing compelling, engaging content for Netflix. And the talent Netflix has accumulated is paying artistic dividends. Without question, Netflix produces movies and series that outshine the traditional studio’s output. They have their duds, of course, but Netflix has done a masterful job of reshaping how movies are being made. And one of the main ways they’ve done that is through their ability to completely ignore Wal-Mart, the National Association of Theatre Owners, and, hence, the MPAA.
Netflix doesn’t release its movies wide (they’ll do an obligatory limited release to qualify for the Oscars) and it doesn’t package and sell them in Wal-Mart. Because of that freedom, Netflix answers to no one but its subscribers. Therefore, it has no need to submit its movies to the MPAA. Since it’s not broadcasting over public airwaves, it’s also not beholden to the FCC and its rules and regulations (think HBO).
Netflix’s ratings system consists of four categories – Little Kids, Older Kids, TV-14, and Mature. On the top end, the Mature rating corresponds to the MPAA ratings of R and NC-17. Read that again – Netflix’s Mature rating corresponds to the MPAA ratings of R and NC-17.
This means that if you click on a Netflix movie or series rated Mature, you might be watching something that would’ve received an NC-17 rating if it had been submitted to the MPAA. By way of example, you know what porn classic has been assigned an NC-17 rating by the MPAA? Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman, which was originally rated X when it was released in the mid-seventies.
Another, well-known and more contemporary movie that received an NC-17 rating is Showgirls, the infamous movie from the late-nineties that featured full-frontal nudity throughout.
Netflix has decided to iron out the R and NC-17 ratings into one rating. I first began picking up on this about two years ago when I began recognizing a pattern.
My wife and I would start a Netflix series, only to have to abandon it because of the nudity or explicit sexuality, often both at the same time. After about three or four times of being burned, I began to check the IMDB parent’s guide for Netflix shows and movies rated Mature that we found interesting. I discovered that every single one of them contained nudity and/or explicit sexuality, and the none of the story arcs lent themselves to nudity. Netflix has mastered the “art” of gratuitous nudity.
While I’m sure that examples exist of Netflix movies rated Mature that don’t contain nudity and/or explicit sexuality, my point is that Netflix is producing movies and series with content that only exists every once in a while in an R rated movie. To make matters worse, Netflix’s TV-14 rating isn’t safe either. One episode into a series rated TV-14, we quit watching because of nudity.
For whatever reason, parent’s groups and people living in middle America are not putting up much of a fuss. Netflix has seemingly inoculated society from caring about nudity and sexually explicit content in movies and series. To be fair, Netflix is only perfecting what HBO started in the late-nineties beginning with Six Feet Under continued through The Soprano’s and now with Game of Thrones.
Without question, the content in movies and series on Netflix is far more explicit than it has been in traditional movies over the last few decades. And unless something unforeseen happens, it’s not going to get any better. In fact, to compete, traditional Hollywood is going to have to change. Chances are, the MPAA ratings will soon accommodate content it previously penalized in order to help ensure that consumers shaped by Netflix will spend dollars in movie theaters.
With all of my introductory information finished, my point with this post is that Netflix does not care one bit about your sanctification. In fact, Netflix’s production model will be a stumbling block to your pursuit of holiness if you don’t exercise extreme caution and discernment.
It’s easy to become inoculated against the effects of sin, especially in the arena of our entertainment choices. Yet we are commanded to pursue holiness, and the truth is that much of Netflix’s content is the opposite of holy. The question is, do we love Netflix more than we love Jesus? To put it another way, are our entertainment options more important than pursuing holiness?
As of now, I still have a Netflix subscription. I pray that by God’s grace and the power of His Spirit, Netflix and my entertainment preferences will not become idols that tempt me to step off the path of righteousness. By God’s grace, I will continue to refrain from watching content rated Mature and will be diligent in checking out content rated TV-14 before clicking play. If you have a Netflix account, I encourage you to make that your prayer, too. Our sanctification is far more important than movies.
Addendum: Because Netflix is doing a masterful job of producing entertaining, interesting shows with high production values, it’s easy to get sucked into a movie or series. The danger then becomes if and when (most likely when) nudity or explicit sexuality presents itself. Do I (and you) have the moral fortitude, the commitment to pursuing holiness to cause me (and you) to turn it off? In that moment, will I demonstrate that I treasure Jesus above all else, or will I demonstrate that entertainment is an idol in my heart? For me, and probably for you, I believe that it’s better to do the work on the frontend before clicking “play” to find out if you can watch the show in full faith before the Creator of the Universe who has saved you out of darkness and has brought you into the light. Like Lot’s wife, will we turn back?
Soli Deo Gloria