In his battle against the MPAA ratings board, which last week denied his appeal to soften "Bully"'s R to a PG-13, distributor Harvey Weinstein has found an unexpected ally in Ann Arbor, Michigan teen Katy Butler. The 17-year-old high school junior, who has not seen the movie but has suffered bullying herself, launched a petition at Change.org, urging the MPAA to reconsider. So far, more than 130,000 supporters have signed on, within three days of the petition's launch.
In her explanation, Butler cites an incident where bullies slammed a locker door on her hand, breaking her finger. Of the film, due out March 30, she writes, "I can't believe the MPAA is blocking millions of teenagers from seeing a movie that could change -- and, in some cases, save -- their lives. According to the film's website, over 13 million kids will be bullied this year alone. Think of how many of these kids could benefit from seeing this film, especially if it is shown in schools."
This isn't Butler's first petition drive over bullying. Last year, when the state of Michigan was about to pass an anti-bullying bill that included a religious exemption, Butler and a friend launched a petition that attracted 50,000 signatures urging that the religious exemption be removed. The bill became law without the religious exemption.
Butler, who is gay, also called for the bill to cite vulnerabilities, such as sexual orientation or gender identification, that might make students targets for abuse. But the bill passed without such language. "I think being gay and being bullied for being gay has given me more insight -- more than I should have to have -- into bullying, and I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone else," Butler told the Detroit Free Press.
Butler says Lee Hirsch, the director behind "Bully," contacted her to thank her. The MPAA has responded as well, but less favorably.
In a blog post published at the MPAA website on Tuesday, ratings board chair Joan Graves wrote that the MPAA agrees with the Weinstein Company that "Bully" has education value but says it's a "misconception" that the R-rating prevents children from seeing the film or schools from booking it.
"As with any movie, parents will decide if they want their children to see 'Bully,'" Graves wrote. "School districts, similarly, handle the determination of showing movies on a case-by-case basis and have their own guidelines for parental approval."
Graves' position may be disingenuous. Yes, kids will be able to see "Bully" if their schools and parents allow them to, but many schools have a blanket policy not to screen R-rated films for kids. (Many parents do, too.) How likely is it that those schools and parents will overlook the movie's profanity to give "Bully" a special waiver?
Graves, whose post is entitled "Ratings System Enables Parents to Make Informed Decisions," also wrote, "The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it." But it doesn't convey to parents that those elements are six uses of the f-word. That's it. One use means a PG-13, more than one means an R. How many parents and school boards know that? How many would agree that one use of the word is permissible, two uses are not, and six are unforgivably excessive?
Of course, Harvey Weinstein could solve the problem by bleeping or silencing the offending words, as he did last year with a special PG-13 edition of the otherwise R-rated "The King's Speech." But he says he refuses to do so. On Feb. 24, shortly after losing the "Bully" appeal, Weinstein appeared on Piers Morgan's CNN show. When Morgan asked why Weinstein didn't just edit out the f-bombs, Weinstein replied, "I don't think we should. Whatever. I think this is realistic. I think it's authentic. And I think we should win this battle rather than start editing the movie."
Weinstein, who has said the "Bully" ruling may make him decide to stop submitting Weinstein Company releases to the MPAA ratings board, at least for a while, added, "The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the School Board of Cincinnati saw the film. The people there were arranging for 40,000 people to see the film if it got rated PG-13. Now those 40,000 kids can't go to see the movie. They can't go without their parents."
Weinstein seems to be suggesting that he doesn't expect to be able to sway the Cincinnati bishops and school board members, any more than he was able to sway the MPAA. Will Butler and her 130,000+ friends be any more persuasive?