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“Disturbing images” — yet another euphemism?

“Disturbing images” — yet another euphemism? November 13, 2006

Last summer, you may recall there was some confusion as to what the MPAA meant when it said that certain PG-rated films had earned that rating for their “thematic elements“. Now I’m starting to wonder what the MPAA means by “disturbing images”.

For example, last week, while finishing my review of Stranger Than Fiction, I noticed that the MPAA had rated the film PG-13 for “some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.”

Then, while looking up some info on Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Fast Food Nation, I noticed that this film was rated R for “disturbing images, strong sexuality, language and drug content.”

What do these two very different films have in common, that could fall under the rather vague label of “disturbing images”?

Scenes of animal death, is my guess. Fast Food Nation revolves around the activities of a meat-packing plant — and yes, we do see cows getting slaughtered, though for my money the footage is nowhere near as challenging as what we see in documentaries like Our Daily Bread — whereas Stranger Than Fiction includes a scene of Will Ferrell sitting at home and watching a nature show on TV, about animal predators pursuing and devouring their prey.

The funny thing is, some of the footage in Stranger Than Fiction — such as the clip in which a bunch of crabs gang up on a wounded bird — is taken from the documentary Winged Migration (2002), which the MPAA rated G without any warning whatsoever.

I wonder, what other films have shown images of animals being killed, and how has the MPAA treated them? Apocalypse Now (1979) famously included a scene of a bull being slaughtered, and when the Redux version was released five years ago, the MPAA rated it R for “disturbing violent images”, among other things.

On the other hand, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003) and Caché (2005) both included scenes of animals being killed — a horse and a chicken, respectively — and while the MPAA rated both films R for violence, it did not use the word “disturbing”.

Maybe it’s only the relatively mainstream films, and the relatively mainstream audiences they attract, that “need” this warning?

Have any films had the “disturbing images” warning for something other than scenes of animal death? And if scenes of animal death is the reason for these ratings, why can’t the MPAA just say that?

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