G.B.F. is a good-natured teen comedy about prom queens in search of gay best friends. Its depictions of affection are chaste and its language is clean. So why does it have an R rating?
Yesterday, the movie's director Darren Stein (Jawbreaker) took to Facebook to lament the MPAA's R-rating. Said Stein:
I always thought of G.B.F. as a PG-13 movie, but we were given an R "For Sexual References" while not having a single F-bomb, hint of nudity or violence in the film. Perhaps the ratings box should more accurately read "For Homosexual References" or "Too Many Scenes of Gay Teens Kissing." I look forward to a world where queer teens can express their humor and desire in a sweet, fun teen film that doesn't get tagged with a cautionary R.
I reviewed (and enjoyed) G.B.F. when it played the Tribeca Film Festival. But even if I hadn't enjoyed it, Stein would still be right. G.B.F. is a PG-13 movie, and its R rating appears to be another example of the MPAA's squeamishness when it comes to gay sexuality.
This has been an issue for years. The 2006 documentary about the MPAA's contradictory, almost cultlike ways, This Film is Not Yet Rated, has an entire section on the harshness with which the MPAA judges gay content, frequently slapping movies with NC-17 ratings for depicting gay sex. The light teen comedy about a conversion camp, But I'm a Cheerleader, for example, was initially rated NC-17. It included a fully clothed lesbian sex scene and a female character, fully clothed, masturbating over those clothes.
In G.B.F., there aren't even really suggestions of sex, just a few brief make-out scenes, which are filmed in medium shots with no visible tongue and barely parting lips. The couples (sometimes gay, sometimes straight) that kiss are always clothed (there's a brief shot of the principal character's abs at one point, and some guys in underwear at another). No one says "fuck" at all—two instances of that word will typically what earn a movie an R-rating, though there are exceptions (Soapdish). Says the MPAA's site on this matter:
A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.
The MPAA's Wikipedia entry adds: "PG-13 rated films may contain up to four "harsher sexually derived words." Though that's vague—are they talking things like "cock" and "cunt" or more creative language? Is "rim job" a "harsher" word, and if so why? Because it's something that's more likely to come out of a gay man's mouth? Would G.B.F.'s "jizz bin" qualify? It's hard to say, and that's exactly how the MPAA keeps it, I think. That way, there's ambiguity to hide behind when a movie's subject matter shakes the organization's conservative core.
So what is said in G.B.F.? I reached out to the MPAA, but the organization didn't respond. I also rewatched the movie last night to see if I could figure out what raised raters' flags. Here's a list of the potential individual offenses so you can see for yourself:
- A straight guy is referred to as a "token vagina enthusiast."
- A Grindr-like hook-up app is employed in the most chaste possible way (a female character uses it to find a gay best friend).
- A math assignment is referred to as a "tough nut to bust."
- Megan Mullally's character (one of the gay kid's mom's who's desperate to be down) voices interest in doing poppers.
- Someone's lips are referred to as "high-speed DSLs."
- The word "mangina" is used.
- Megan Mullally narrates the Brokeback Mountain sex scene, but she is not explicit and the scene only works if you've seen Brokeback ("Necessity is the mother of invention...back then they didn't even need to use protection...")
- There are some "fags, "faggots," and "homos" here and there.
- Oral sex is described as "sodomy."
- There are unelaborated mentions of an "RJ," "HJs," and "BJs," and a similarly terse mention of "backdoor."
- There are signs protesting an inclusive prom that read "Boutonnières Not Butt Sex" and "No Tossing Salad."
- There's a reference to "dry-humping."
- One character's hook-up app handle is BringhamHung69.
- One gay character says that he wants the other one to be not his "BF" but his "BFF." "Go 'f' yourself," says the other.
- "Shit," "bitch," "ass," show up but sporadically.
- Someone tells someone else to "see [c] your [ur] next Tuesday" out of a conversation. (This is the other of the movie's raciest offerings, though I've heard it on American Dad and every week on Logo, RuPaul does something similar on Drag Race by extolling the virtues of "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.")
"When I was writing the film, I was thinking of it as writing the movie that I would want to see as a 15-year-old," G.B.F. writer George Northy told me when I reached him and director Darren Stein by phone earlier today. "I had it in my mind that it would be PG-13 and took care to not have any F-bombs, to make all the sexual references innuendo or abbreviations. I was shocked when it came down. I knew it was a possibility, but I really didn't expect it. It's hard to look through and find the five references that would have done it. The term 'B.J.', I guess? It's pretty tame stuff."
Stein says that the R-rating is like a "danger post" for parents, and Northy laments that with the classification, the movie is less likely to be shown to people for whom the movie may be most useful, students in high schools' gay-straight alliances, for example. Stein says that he can't afford to appeal the rating (like the Weinstein Company did recently for Philomena). It's just not in his budget.
"I watch the shows Awkward and Glee and you can find pretty much around the same level of references, and those are TV-14," added Northy. "It's so silly when you really think about the MPAA in terms of how every 13-year-old in the country has seen hardcore pornography in this age of the internet and yet they can't go to a movie theater and see a movie like G.B.F. It would be funny if it weren't so sad."
Northy calls G.B.F. the "softest R ever." He's right. Only The Conjuring springs to mind as comparable, since that was rated R for being scary. Really what G.B.F. is, at heart, is a "hard PG-13," as Stein puts it. It is a comedy that sometimes dabbles in raunch and frequently discusses sex, but so are so many other PG-13 comedies. There's nothing in G.B.F. that even approaches the explicitness of the male cheerleader fingering the one he lifts as part of their routines in Bring It On. There's no simulated sex or vibrators like there are in Easy A. No one talks about their pubic hair style like Miley Cyrus does in LOL. We don't even see anyone get to second base in G.B.F., like we do in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. (Each of those teen movies is rated PG-13.)
The difference is that all of those movies feature their straight characters talking about sex (and at times coming this close to having it), while G.B.F. dares to have gay characters do that as well. Its discussion of gay sexuality is frank without being explicit, and it's still too much for the MPAA. It seems like the MPAA is saying that kids need to be protected from discussions about being gay and guys kissing. That's an antiquated paranoia that years of increased gay visibility and acceptance have proven to be grounded in bigoted fantasy. This Film Is Not Yet Rated quotes a USA Today interview in which an MPAA spokesperson said, "We don't create standards; we just follow them." That's a copout, and as the world evolves, it sounds more and more like bullshit.