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How “X-rated” Came to Mean “Porn” and the Death of Movies for Grown-ups


The poster for LAST TANGO IN PARIS, including X-rating symbol
(click to enlarge)

Fad23 is absolutely right. The X-rating was a part of the MPAA four-tier system first introduced in 1968.

But unlike G, PG, and R, X was not a trademarked MPAA property. The X rating was conceived of by the MPAA as a rating meaning ‘not suitable for children’ that could be and was self-applied by producers who did not feel their film needed and/or warranted a less restrictive rating.

But there have always been films deemed “not suitable for children,” and long before X or NC-17 there was an “adults only” classification, given to films like DUAL IN THE SUN, BABY DOLL, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, TO EACH HIS OWN and others that, by the standards of the day, were deemed to be inappropriate for children.

But in the 1950′s “foreign films”, made outside the (self imposed) Hayes Code that governed Hollywood production, began to make their way into the US. These films frequently addressed issues of sexuality in a manner that was far more frank than the coded subtexualized language required to address adult themes within the strictures of the code.


Poster for THE LOVERS, the film at the center of Jacobellis v. Ohio.

The 1950s also saw the breakup of the studio system, particularly the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, which considerably loosened control on what theaters could and would screen, and by the 1960s cultural mores had shifted to the point that the old production code was becoming increasingly irrelevant. In response code was revised in 1966, and in 1968 the production code was abandoned in favor G,PG, R and X system (originally G, M, R, X.)

But it’s important to remember that from the start, the X-rating was always intended as a rating that could be self-applied by producers, and unlike G, PG, and R, the MPAA maintained no control over the X rating as a trademarked property. It’s also important to remember that when the system was introduce “X” had no special stigma, any more than the previous rating of Adults Only rating give to DUEL IN THE SUN, et al.

Around the same time, there were court decisions established the legality of both producing films depicting actual sex acts and showing them in theaters. This new legal climate gave rise to the open production and theatrical screening of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts. Because X, which meant “adults only” was a self-applied rating, producers of these films were free to give their films an X-rating with or without the MPAAs approval.

At first this was done to give these sexually explicit films an air of legitimacy, but with no control over who could or could not use the X-rating it quickly became associated with very low-budget products concerned with little more than creating a vehicle for the presentation of explicit sex. It was at during this time that films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and others moved to have their ratings changed from X to R. Sometimes this was done by petitioning the MPAA to re-evaluate the rating, sometimes by simply editing out the “offending material”.

The stigma of the X-rating was further deepened when some producers began using XXX an gimmick to communicate that their films were especially raw or filled with sex, as opposed to merely X-rated, which could and did refer to films (such as MIDNIGHT COWBOY or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE,) that were unsuitable for children, but contained little, if any, explicit sex or nudity.


42nd Street, circa 1975 (click to enlarge)

This was also a time when many urban areas were in decline, and many theaters were turning to sexually explicit movies to draw audiences to theaters that would otherwise have been empty (think Times Square in the 70s.) In response, theater landlords began to write “no x-rated films” into their leases. Also theater chains enforced “no X” policies on their fanchiseese, and many newspapers had “no X” advertising policies.

Now remember, R means a film may be suitable for suitable for children when accompanied by an adult; X meant a film is not suitable for children at all. The concept of an “adults only film”, a concept that had existed from the beginning of commercial cinema, suddenly collapsed. It became impossible to advertise or exhibit a film that that was not suitable for children. For a film to be able to advertise in most newspapers, or play in most theaters, it had to have an R-rating, and that meant the omission of any element–sex, violence, language, drug use–that was not suitable viewing for children.

This collapse was not some grand conspiracy on the part of the MPAA to put an end to films for grown-ups. It was the result of the collision of changes to the MPAA ratings system, court decisions that allowed the production and public exhibition of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts, demographic and social changes that altered theater going habits, and the odd quirk that the MPAA had allowed their X-rating to be “public property”.

As a result, the X-rating was more or less abandoned by all parties. Hollywood producers weren’t going to invest millions of dollars in a film that couldn’t be advertised or screened in legitimate venues, and restricted their “adult” efforts to R-rated films. And producers of sexually explicit film and videos preferred to label their product as XXX, rather than the seemingly milder X. According to their own website, no films were rated X by the MPAA during the entire decade of the 1980s, (and virtually none in the 1970s.)

What that means is that for 20 years, all films produced by the Hollywood establishment that were produced within the confines of what could conceivably be shown to children. Moviemaking for grown-ups died.


Poster for HENRY AND JUNE, 1990, NC-17

In 1990 the MPAA attempted to reestablish a “legitimate” adults-only movie-making space with introduction of the NC-17 rating. Not wanting to repeat their mistake with the X-rating, the NC-17 is a trademarked property that can only be used if you submit your film and advertising to the MPAA process. But it was too little too late.

Not understanding the history of the X rating, and convinced that the MPAA was simply trying to put a new name on porn, most exhibition and advertising venues simply re-wrote their rules to prohibit the exhibition and advertising of NC-17 films. To this day some of America’s largest theater chains will not exhibit NC-17 movies, and many of America’s largest media outlets will not accept adverting for NC-17 movies. A few NC-17 art-house films were made, mostly in the nineties, and in 1995 MGM/UA gambled (and lost) on the NC-17 rating with the laughably bad big budget feature SHOWGIRLS. But in this decade (2000s), only a small handful of films have been rated NC-17, (including our own MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY.)

Now lest I be seen as an apologist for the MPAA, I think they were slow to understand what was happening to the X-rating, slow to take action, (nearly 20 years!) and when they did finally introduce the NC-17 rating, they did “drop the ball”. More over, as far as I can tell, they’ve done precious little since then to correct their mistake.

These days there’s very little movie-making that is truly for grown-ups. Even “serious films” that have no interest in attracting a teen audience have to be made “suitable for children” to avoid the dreaded NC-17, so even “realistic adult dramas” have an odd lack of candor in the way that sex is depicted visually.

The situations are adult, the language may be frank, but the sex and nudity is strangely demure. Sex is always under the covers, or with the lights low, or the camera-angles are cheated just enough to the left or the right to preserve the all important R-rating.

As a result we have a cinematic landscape where every other aspect of the human experience is rendered in vivid detail (with often a special fetishization of violence,) but the simple truth of what people look like naked, or what people look like when they give themselves over to sexual desire remains largely unexplored by filmmakers, and remains largely unseen by audiences.


Production still from MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY, 2002, NC-17

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5 Comments

  1. Posted August 7, 2007 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never felt simultaneously vindicated and like a complete know-nothing at the same time. Thanks for the perspective.

    So would it take a new rating AND a new movement of films marketed to adults before something would take? Are we better off ignoring the MPAA altogether?

    The weird thing is that I’m beginning to believe that controversy is what drove so many people to see Deep Throat. That kind of controversy was completely alien to movies like Shortbus or 9 Songs. They both seemed to fly right under everyone’s radar. Is that the consequence of our permissive (sic) society? Are conservative picketers the key to generating an audience?

  2. tony
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    Before the court cases that made exhibition of films with explicit sex possible, truly hardcore, cunts and cocks detail oriented films were confined to loops that were seen in peep booths, or screen at Elks’ Lodge smokers.

    When DEEP THROAT was released, it was something truly novel: a film filled with explicit sex that had something resembling a storyline, with production values on par with the cheap exploitation flicks people had been seeing at drive-ins for years. And it was playing at regular movie theaters. You didn’t have to go anywhere weird or uncomfortable to see it.

    People were curious, people were turned on, and of course the social mores of the 70s didn’t hurt either.

    I think the reason that films like SHORTBUS or 9 SONG “fly under the radar” is that after 30 years of truly awful depictions of actual sex, most people think that making a film that centers around showing people “doing it” is nothing more than a sad joke.

    Add to that the fact that we’ve had two first-rate porn scares in the last thirty years; The Meese Comission in the 80s, and Ashcroft/Gonzales in the 00s, and anything to do with sex on film has gone into a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” limbo.

    Now if SHORTBUS or 9 SONGS (both produced on tiny budgets) went on to make BLAIR WITCH PROJECT sized returns, there’s no doubt in my mind that Hollywood would take notice. But as it stands now the game is rigged so that this just can’t happen. If I recall correctly, SHORTBUS played on a total of 52 screens nation-wide. 52 screens? I’d guess 9 SONGS played on even fewer.

    Why would the majors, who are making real money by making real films with real budgets waste their time on sexy movies that can’t make money and might get them hauled in front of a senate hearing?

  3. Posted August 8, 2007 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the majors have a stake in films about sex at the moment, short of the summer teen film like American Pie, or whatever happens to be playing at the moment. I’m not really concerned with the ends of the big corporations, but with the right of audiences to be informed. It seems now that there are many films (about sex, and not) that are looking for audiences.

    I suppose that I’m really more concerned about finding ways for the public to hear about smaller films that they’d (arguably) want to see. So if Shortbus only played on 52 screens, why weren’t those theatres full? I guess JCM knew that this movie was going to be seen by more people on DVD than ever in the theatre.

    Anyway, thanks again for the thoughts.

  4. Posted August 8, 2007 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I love that you know so much, and are so aware of the history of pornography. This blog isn’t just a usual industry blog, it’s always a learning experience, and I appreciate that so much.

    But what else should I have expected from the man who borrowed the name of Anthony Comstock from times of old :)

  5. tony
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Fad: For films like SHORTBUS or 9 SONGS, the theatrical runs are best understood as promotional vehicles for the ultimate release of the DVD. When a film has a theatrical run, critics write about the film, and that end up being a lot of free publicity. It’s all a part of playing the game, and a part we need to get better at playing.

    Shanna: I am fortunate in that I have an uncle who has an extensive movie collection (on laser disc, then DVD) and an encyclopedic knowledge movie/Hollywood history. Since I was about 15 he made my education in film history one of his priorities. In fact, when writing this post, I called him to get more “adults only” film titles from the Golden Age. All I could remember was DUEL IN THE SUN. :-)

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