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Speculation around the rating downgrade for “Asteroid City” suggests that the nudity in the film is not presented in a sexual context. Since the MPA guidelines for an R-rating specify “sexually-oriented nudity,” there was presumably just enough wiggle room to allow a PG-13 rating. But the ruling calls into question the entire rating system, which has come under fire many times over the years for its inconsistencies.
The decision to downgrade “Asteroid City” from R to PG-13 demonstrates some of the flaws inherent in the notion that films can be neatly sorted based on the age-appropriateness of their content. The MPA rating system is a crude remnant of the Hays Code, which was instituted in 1934 by the Association’s first president, William Hays, in response to the specter of government censorship looming over Hollywood at the time. The Code banned, among other things, the usage of the words “God” or “Jesus,” depictions of interracial relationships, anything disparaging the institutions of marriage or police, and even “lustful kissing.”
In 1968, the Hays Code was reworked to become the MPAA rating system, which rid itself of the more odious aspects of those previous statutes but nevertheless has been criticized by major figures, including the late Roger Ebert, who wrote, “The MPAA cannot have values; it can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words.” It has been seen as a blunt and overbroad tool attempting to sort a broad spectrum of human creativity into a few small boxes based on an outdated and culturally specific sense of invented morality. Were “Asteroid City” packed full of gun violence, it would have cruised to PG-13 without issue, but it crossed a line in revealing the human form, however briefly.