Commentary

Awkwafina Ratings Make a Mockery of Industry Self-Regulation

By Melissa Henson | April 23, 2020 | 10:13am EDT
Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens is a Comedy Central show. (Photo credit: YouTube/Comedy Central)
Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens is a Comedy Central show. (Photo credit: YouTube/Comedy Central)

What does the rating TV-14 signify to you?

Ostensibly, it is meant to imply that it is suitable for viewers aged 14 and over. You might safely assume that a program rated TV-14 would contain slightly elevated levels of sexual dialogue or innuendo; a bit more profanity, perhaps a little more intense violence than you would see on a program rated TV-PG; but certainly nothing overly graphic or explicit.

After all, a fourteen-year-old, while no longer a small child, is still not yet an adult. The areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and judgment are not yet fully developed. When the MPAA movie rating system was first developed, there was no middle-ground between “PG” and “R.” Movies of the 1960s and early '70s were either generally appropriate for all-ages viewing, or clearly for adults only. But the growing popularity of teen-targeted movies in the late '70s and early '80s led to the creation of a middle-category: PG-13. This designation was applied to movies that had enough adult content to make them unsuitable for very small children, but not so much that they warranted an "R" rating.

The MPAA recognizes that content that may be okay for adults might still be developmentally inappropriate for a young teen. That’s why if a movie contains more than one “f-word,” the MPAA will almost always increase the rating from “PG-13” to “R.” The academy-award-winning film The King’s Speech -- based on the true story of King George VI’s efforts to overcome a speech impediment so that he could communicate effectively to his subjects – was rated “R,” not because of controversial subject matter, graphic sex, nudity or violence – but because of one scene where he is asked to use the “f-word” repeatedly as part of a speech exercise.

The TV industry’s self-imposed and self-governed ratings system apparently does not draw such distinctions.

The serious, but mostly clean political drama, Madam Secretary is often rated TV-14, though it seldom contains anything more offensive than an occasional “h*ll,” “d*mn,” “b*tch,” or “*ss.” But so is Comedy Central’s latest sitcom, Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, which uses all of those, but also “d*ck” (six times in one episode); “p*ssy” (five times so far this season); “sh*t” (33 times in just 7 episodes – and all unbleeped); and bleeped “f*ck” (also 33 times in just 7 episodes). In addition, episodes have contained pixelated nudity, depictions of drug use, depictions of sex toys, references to anal bleaching, masturbation, and “eating *ss.”

Are the two programs in any way comparable? No. Do they deserve to be rated the same? No.

Comedy Central has also re-aired episodes of Awkwafina where the “f-word” was not bleeped-out – including one episode where it was used seven times in a row -- but kept the rating at TV-14 L. Again, more than one use is enough for the MPAA to increase a film’s rating from “PG-13” to “R.”

The Television Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board recently published its first-ever (in the more than 20 years since its creation) Annual Report. In it, they boasted that they had “agreed to explore the establishment of a spot check review process to internally assess whether television programs are receiving accurate and consistent ratings across different networks and time slots.”

Well, in the case of Awkwafina, the Monitoring Board's internal review and spot check processes clearly broke-down. The content on this program makes it unsuitable for a TV-14 rating at any time of day, on any network. The fact that the Board treated bleeped and unbleeped uses of the f-word the same when applying the ratings indicates that it has no clear standards; and the fact that a parent seeing that the raunchy, vulgar, and foul-mouthed Awkwafina is rated the same as the comparatively demure, feel-good political drama Madam Secretary means that parents can have no trust in the consistency, accuracy, or reliability of the ratings system.

Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.ParentsTV.org)

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