Eighth Grade is an accurate depiction of adolescence, but many teens can’t even see it because of its R rating.
by Andrew Millman
Eighth Grade, a movie that accurately depicts the lives of middle school students, is rated R, meaning that actual middle school-aged teenagers need to have an accompanying parent or adult guardian to see it. I saw Eighth Grade with my little brother who just graduated from middle school. At our local theater they had a new sign reiterating the establishment’s prohibition policy, obviously a result of teenagers wanting to see the movie. Interest among teenagers across the country led the studio behind the film to offer special free all-ages screenings in all fifty states. These screenings had so many young attendees that some theaters had to quickly add second screenings to accommodate them. The movie has gone from airing in four theaters nationwide a few weeks ago to over a thousand theaters this week.
The reason so many teenagers are flocking to this movie is its authenticity. While watching it, I couldn’t help but notice my brother and other members of the audience cringe and squirm at what they were seeing, covering their eyes at particularly embarrassing moments. The movie is a reflection of an incredibly awkward time in everyone’s life. Eighth Grade is scarily accurate at portraying the world that teenagers inhabit, from teachers trying to be cool (one attempts an ill-advised dab) to social dynamics to the omnipresence of social media and its performative effect on kids.
There’s a scene where the protagonist Kayla wakes up and puts on her makeup while watching a tutorial on YouTube before carefully getting back into bed to send her morning snaps, claiming that she “just woke up like this.” Additionally, the characters depicted in this movie are accurate reflections of teenagers themselves. Most movies and television shows cast actors who are much older than their roles as middle and high schoolers. For example, Cole Sprouse is 26 years old, yet he is supposed to be a high school student on Riverdale. Elise Fisher, the actress who plays Kayla, just graduated from eighth grade when she filmed the movie. Kayla and her classmates are real kids, not super models, with acne and all. Eighth Grade is a movie that will make teenagers feel good about themselves through mutual catharsis and realistic beauty standards. Parents should be encouraging their kids to see a movie with such a positive message.
So why is Eighth Grade rated R? The MPAA’s official reasoning is “language and some sexual material.” Spoiler alert (but mostly irrelevant to the plot): the “language” referenced is a grand total of five “fucks” throughout the whole movie. “Some sexual material” refers to some discussion of blowjobs and a predatory older guy trying to pressure Kayla. For anyone that’s lived through eighth grade recently, this is all pretty mild stuff. The “sexual material” is never portrayed in an exploitative manner designed to arouse audience members. Kayla doesn’t even know what a blowjob is and searches it on YouTube. The scene with the creepy guy stops when the guy takes his shirt off and nothing happens between them.
Both scenes are done to portray problems that teenagers actually face today. The former is a representation of how kids are exposed to sexual material at a young age because they learn most things of that nature through their friends and the internet while the authority figures are oblivious. The latter shows the pervasiveness of predatory behavior in our society, even among younger generations. As for the curse words, my brother probably cursed more on the ride to the theater than the characters did in the movie, and he’s not more foul-mouthed than other kids his age. For all this, Eighth Grade received the same R rating as The Wolf of Wall Street, which was so gratuitous in its profanity that the word “fuck” was said over five-hundred times, in addition to numerous scenes of sexual depravity. The lack of distinction between Eighth Grade and The Wolf of Wall Street shows that the MPAA film rating system has failed in its mission of providing “parents with the information needed to determine if a film is appropriate for their children.” Both films are rated R, so a parent could reasonably assume that they are at about the same level of “appropriateness.” In reality, they are nowhere near close to each other in any sense.
Ironically, the MPAA rating system turns fifty this year. Before the ratings, there was the Hays Code, a self-imposed morality-based set of guidelines that censored what Hollywood could put in its movies. The code included rules against depictions of biracial couples and homosexuality, as well as portraying sexual relations outside of marriage as anything other than evil and sinful. In addition, authority figures and clergy couldn’t be portrayed negatively. This kind of censorship can make movies really boring. The code was replaced because of concerns about its constitutionality. In its place arouse the current system, wherein filmmakers are allowed to produce whatever they want, but movie industry executives will assign it a rating based on an incongruous and outdated morality that dramatically affects a film’s commercial viability.
This system affects most of the movies we watch. The big movie studios, which are companies with the goal of maximizing profits, design most superhero and blockbuster movies to be PG-13, in order to attract the widest possible audience. However, movies such as Logan, Deadpool and Mad Max: Fury Road show that many of these stories are so much better when they aren’t censored. As seen with Eighth Grade, these ratings can prevent a whole segment of the population from seeing a movie that accurately reflects their daily lives. Movies like that should be PG-13 because anyone over the age of thirteen would learn nothing new from watching a movie like Eighth Grade.
The MPAA film ratings are an abject failure at their stated mission of accurately informing parents about mature content in movies. A system that can’t differentiate between Eighth Grade and The Wolf of Wall Street is not about giving useful information to parents who justifiably wouldn’t want their kids, even younger teenagers, to see things like a scene involving a candlestick in the latter.
The R rating for Eighth Grade proves that the MPAA is more about conservative parents policing the entertainment that everyone enjoys. These puritans can’t just stop at choosing not to watch these types of movies themselves, but they want to make sure no one else can enjoy them either. For example, the Parents Television Council, a conservative group that advocates for increased censorship, said “the Hollywood studio at issue here is grotesquely and irresponsibly usurping parental authority,” about A24’s free all-ages screenings of Eighth Grade. The MPAA ratings aren’t legally-binding. Their enforcement is left up to the movie theaters. The system is broken and it needs to be changed. Parents aren’t being properly informed, and kids are left potentially missing out on the opportunity to see rare self-affirming and nuanced portrayals of their adolescence.
Also, go see Eighth Grade because it’s an amazing movie.