Please Don't Call It a G-Rated Dispute

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News Media Commentary
Title: Please Don't Call It a G-Rated Dispute
Commentator: Pamela Licalzi O'Connell
Date(s): April 18, 2005
Venue: print, online
External Links: archive link
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Please Don't Call It a G-Rated Dispute is a 2005 article by Pamela Licalzi O'Connell in "The New York Times."

The topic of the article was ratings and the cease and desist letters that had been sent to fanfic archives by The Motion Picture Association of America.

Some Topics Discussed in the Article

  • some snark about Harry Potter's wands
  • a comment by Heidi Tandy

Some Topics Discussed by Fans

  • whether sex was shameful
  • whether slash (regardless of explicitness) was shameful
  • the difficulty in enforcing these cease and desist orders
  • protecting the children
  • The Sentinel
  • off into the weeds with the intricacies of warnings and labels
  • icky slash; one fan compared it to finding snails in one's bed
  • smarm

The Article

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings code -- G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 -- is so familiar that the initials are used in everyday conversation about subjects that have nothing to do with movies. But that doesn't mean that the association wants just anybody to use them.

Recently the association sent e-mail messages and letters to people who write online fan fiction, demanding that they stop tagging stories with the ratings. Fan fiction, which uses characters from popular TV shows, movies and novels in original stories, has used movie ratings for years as a way to help adults find stories with mature content and to steer children away from it. Too many children looking for Harry Potter stories were stumbling onto new and unexpected uses for wands.

"We have a right to go after people who use our trademarks without permission, big or small, whenever we find out about them," said John Feehery, executive vice president for the association. "Our ratings are not supposed to be ripped off."

Wendy Seltzer, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that the association would have a point only if the fiction sites had claimed that association reviewers had rated the works. Using the ratings as a rough comparison is not a trademark infringement, she said: "It's like saying a beverage tastes like Coke."

Heidi Tandy, a lawyer who is also president of, an archive of Harry Potter fiction, added that ratings such as PG and R are not exclusive to the association, since they are used by some foreign film boards. Movie ratings are also used online to tag jokes and photos, so the association may have a difficult time stripping its ratings from the cultural vocabulary.

Nevertheless, the association's cease-and-desist letters have had a ripple effect, with many fan fiction sites switching to new ratings schemes. One fan fiction writer archly suggested a simple visual code: one bunny picture means no smut, two bunnies means smut ahead.

Fan Comments

From Cascade Times Mailing List

This was a topic of discussion on the strictly gen only Sentinel Cascade Times Mailing List, one which made one of its moderators state temporary permission to discuss or mention slash or explicit het:
Maybe this would be a good time to really *really* open up this discussion on the list and let all of you writers work something out. Feel free to discuss whatever you'd like about it, including if you write slash, discuss what the ratings will be. I know that there are some slash stories out there that have been rated *G*, which under this heading I suppose would be rated *FRC* . It's just a fact folks -- some *G* rated slash isn't as intense as some gen angst/torture stories that are rated *NC17*. So, making myself perfectly clear -- I'd like this list to discuss what the future of ratings for stories will be and what delianations might be used >for which category. I am suspending the list rules (insofar as the *no slash* or *graphic het* thing) because I think it's important *to* talk about this.

Below are some excerpts (quoted here anonymously) from Cascade Times Mailing List:

<sarcasm on> I wonder if the MPAA have informed the Australian Film Classification Board that they aren't allowed to use the terms "PG" when they classify Australian films? </sarcasm off>

Australia uses a similar but not quite the same system -- G and PG are the same, but we don't use NC-17, we use things like M, MA and R..

LOL! I wondered the same for the British Film Classification Board, since we use PG as well. All the others are different, but if the MPAA are that protective over their lassifications, how is it that other countries use them? Particularly since none of the other countries film boards seem to care about fanfic ratings.

I think we'll use the bunny method on CT though. Heh.

1 bunny - old method rated *G*
2 bunnies - "" *PG*
3 bunnies - "" *PG13*
4 bunnies - "" *R*
5 bunnies -- SHAME ON YOU FOR USING INNOCENT BUNNIES THIS WAY!!<G> Old method rated "NC-17"

And that's my thoughts on this matter.

We could use rabbits.......

Naw, use different animals!

a bunny - general audience
a dog - because kids that age are old enough to look after a dog
a horse - because a horse is more responsibility
a bird + a bee - because of the birds and the bees (older for "adult themes")
a tiger - because of the teeth and claws (older for "violence")
a snake - because it would be shameful... (old NC-17...)

My $.02... I write both gen and slash and use the MPAA ratings. I'm inclined to continue to do so on my private sites (which are protected from Google by meta tags) until and unless I receive a C&D from the MPAA. However, that said, I do like the above Fan Rating system as an alternative.

While it's true that some "G" rated slash might be less intense than some gen stories, I, personally, don't think that "G" should apply to *any* slash (and I *write* it, so this applies to me, too). "G" and "slash" together are an oxymoron. JMHO, LOL! "PG" is the lowest rating I've used. While I think it's a good idea to raise our children with a sense of tolerance toward others, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, if it's not something I'd want my kids to read, then it's not getting a "G" rating. ;-)

Trying to judge which rating to give a story can be a hard task at times. There are stories which are so innocuous as to fall under the general audience (G, FRC) rating without question, and others which are so violence, angsty, or sex-ridden as to fall under the adult (NC-17, FRAO) rating. But many are borderline. Where do you draw the line between G and PG, or PG and PG-13, or R and NC-17? My position with what I write has been: "When in doubt, go with the higher rating." I'd rather "over" rate something than "under" rate it. Better safe than sorry.

This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for opening up the forum, Angie.

I don't read slash, so the only rating I really care about for those stories is "slash."

For Gen stories, I can only speak for myself. I don't usually put ratings on my stories. I do put 'warnings' because I know some people have trouble with certain types of fic. Death fic, child abuse, rape, Blair as a cop, AU, and child fic (Jim or Blair as a child) are a few that I've seen people complain about.

...[how do] people who wrote slash handled the G rating? I do know that there is some slash stories where nothing happens -- it's just knowledge that same gender characters have a romantic interest in each other. I also know that there are some gen stories out there -- the ones really heavy on the smarm or maybe the ones that call for (lack of a better word here, not indicting anyone's fic) "bonding* that I wonder if they're bordering on not being gen -- even w/o that romantic interest.

Ah the wild and wacky world of fanfiction.<g> But yes, I understand what you're saying totally. I think it's a judgement call for the writer on that whole "Does any slash merit a *G* rating" question. When my children were small I would look over what they read to see if it had anything I considered untoward in it. After my son read through *everything* in the childrens' and young adult section it became a problem just to keep him in reading material. When he was eleven, he asked me if he could read my book -- which happened to be Stephen King's *IT*. I replied "Can you?" He said he's never forgotten my answer. To make a long story short, he's been reading everything ever since that time and we have discussed it and, IMO, he's learned from that experience.

My daughter's a bit different -- she pretty much sticks to what I would consider *tamer* fiction. Although, since started on the internet she's become as much of a hurt/comfort

addict as I am! And really, doesn't a lot of these books we read as children almost teach us to be that way? (Let's talk Hardy Boys, and don't even get me started on Harry Potter.)

Well, I do like the FRC,FRT,FRM,FRAO ratings, they seem sensible.

But I would be really *really* annoyed if "G-rated" slash didn't have a slash warning of some sort. I don't wish to read such stuff, even if the "slashiness" of the story consists only in mentioning that characters A and B are lovers -- I'm sorry, but that ruins the story for me, I go "oh yuck!", like finding a snail on one's bed. Some people happily eat snails (it being a French delicacy and all) but I want to be warned about the snails so I don't have to eat them.

Speaking of that, another thing I've noticed since I tend to *fandom* is that some fandoms really don't mark their stories with appropriate warnings. Or at least warnings that I can find. In the TS fandom I think, maybe, sometimes, *maybe* we overdo. I mean we give ratings, we give whether it's slash or gen or het, we tell what type of story it is (angst, smarm, hurt/comfort, etc) and we most definitely tell if it's a deathfic. Other fandoms? Not so much sometimes, esp if the stories aren't in a central archive.

That's one reason I can say what I have about the *G* rated slash.<g> Have wandered into one of those more than once -- not marked with anything other than *G* and the fandom so who's to know? Have also wandered into stories that aren't marked at all, read through it, like it and then find the authors notes saying something like "This is a slash story" which always makes me go "Whaa..?" Have also wandered into stories, read the first paragraph or two and then went "Whoa buddy I don't think I'm going to finish this". Not always because it was really a really graphic story of whatever kind, but also because every other word is mis-spelled or the POV keeps changing or -- well, y'all get the picture.

Sigh. I think our fandom spoiled me with archives, a good rating system and people who actually have beta readers.

Maybe we should also promote beta readers to the fiction world? :-)

I do like that ratings system though. Add a warning system of some type and it would probably be good. While I don't like to know everything, some things I think we *need* to tell. And as far as "slash" or "gen" or "het" maybe we should call that "genre" instead of "warning". Just an idea.

Actually, I agree with you, though not for the more obvious reason of "inappropriate" content. I believe reading to be one of the most important skills anyone can learn. It should be taught early and encouraged throughout life. Everyone should be allowed to read anything they want from microbiology to fanfiction. And if a child _wants_ to read slash, then I

say go for it. Except, do you know any kids who would _want_ to? Really? I remember when I was a kid that the girls thought boys were icky and boys thought girls were icky and we were all just pleased to leave each other alone. Romance was GROSS!! I would hate for a child to get into reading a story then find out it has !_shock_! a _relationship_... eeewwww.... then have that child become somewhat wary of what they read in the future, maybe impacting how much they read. no, no, no. bad, bad, bad. So I say, rate "G" slash as PG to protect the kids from the _own_ sensibilities... Oh, and all who said, absolutely the parents should be involved. <sigh> Let's all take some personal responsibility for raising our _own_ kids, shall we?

Personally, I've often forgotten to rate my stories. I've not written anything beyond what appeared (or could have appeared) on the show, so I assume (never assume anything) that readers expect and accept that level (or less) of language and violence. Though since I tend toward humor and banter and the occasional parody, it hasn't really been an issue for me anyway.

Warnings are fine by me, though I've often puzzled at the need some authors have for warning what a story is not. (This is not a death story; this is not a slash story; etc.) If it's

  • not* a certain type of story, then why bring it up?
I do like to be warned about questionable or "adult" content, though. Just off the top of my head, LRH Balzer's "No Center Line" had a good warning, and Brook Henson's warnings clue me in pretty good. Just give me a heads-up on what to expect if you're going to get vulgar or graphic--coarse language, violent sexual content, etc. And definitely tell me if it's a death or permanent maiming story, or if it's slash, 'cause I don't do any of those.

The application of the specific content warnings to stories is required regardless of which system is chosen and the categories -- such as gen, slash (/) and sub categories (h/c, BSDM) -- are currently in use in fan fiction and they are not part of the MPA (Motion Picture Association) system. Is anyone aware of any reason why we cannot continue to use these specific warnings?

Ratings supply a concise method of determining the broad content of the story without spoilers. Specific content warnings support the rating. Longer warnings can supply the same level of information, but often segue into an abstract that can spoil the story.

Ratings are in place to guide those that feel that they need ratings or allow guardians/parents to make a decision about releasing the content of the story to their wards/children.

Not everyone needs this level of guidance and you can choose not to look at ratings and warnings as you see fit.
I'm sometimes of two minds about warnings -- I mean, things that get to the level of "Blair is/is not a cop", "Blair's hair is/is not cut" -- that gets into the level of, for me, *spoilers* for the story itself. I like *not* to know the plot beforehand, y'know? Warning about slash, yes I want to know that. Warning about character death? Well... sometimes I would want to know, sometimes I wouldn't want to know. Especially the stories where it looks like it might be character death and turns out not to be -- I'd rather not have known beforehand how the story was going to end. On the other hand, a story with lots and lots of angst and a downer of an ending, I'd kind of like to know, so that I could avoid it if I was in a downer of a mood, and read it some other time when I felt able to cope with lots of angst (or maybe not read it at all, depending how terribly angsty it was). But saying "warning, really heavy angst" doesn't spoil the plot, so that's a good thing.

Do ratings mean anything to me when I read fanfic? Not so much, though it does tell me what the *writer* thinks of the story. Do the summaries mean anything? If they're more than just an ultra-vague teaser, yes. Do warnings mean anything? Yes. It is possible to warn without spoiling. Do categories mean anything? Indeed. If I'm in the mood for a case story, I don't really want to something that is angst for the sake of angst, you know?

As far as category labels go, those are just acronyms for what the story is or contains. I doubt anyone outside of fandom knows that h/c stands for hurt/comfort or what exactly that means. Outside of fandom, slash is simply a way of connecting two elements (and if you're speaking, you can actually say "slash" to designate the punctuation you'd use in writing--like "parents-slash-caregivers" above). BDSM is just an abbreviation, like TLC (tender loving care), SWAK (sealed with a kiss), R&R (rest and relaxation) or any myriad of 'Net abbreviations (TIA, BRB, LOL, AFK, IIRC, JMHO, BTW, FWIW, WYSIWYG, AFAIK, YMMV, etc.).

And for me personally, having to learn a new rating system with no reference point or context doesn't mean much. Will the writer spell out (literally) Fan Rated for Mature Adults? Or do I just have to figure out for myself what FRMA means? (And really, how many "mature adults" are out there, anyway? ;-) )

Another thing to consider: will different fandoms use different ratings? I would suppose that they do, but since I don't fandom-hop, I don't know.

The thing that I'm most concerned about -- or maybe that's a tad strong but for lack of a better word go with it -- is that if all the fanfiction writers do replace the MPAA system that we're going to end up with many *many* different ones instead of something central.

While that might not be a problem if other things are labeled, it will cause a problem for us poor list owners that allow/accept/encourage fanfiction on their lists.<g> No, I don't think it'll be a world ending disaster but I can see, even from this discussion, that all of us seem to have differing ideas about what constitutes what.

And while I was being facetious about the bunny system, I would like to see something that brings it altogether. I do like the one that [S] mentioned but I think that'll take time to catch on as well. On most of the other lists that I'm a member of, the writers also post to (which isn't like it used to be even though it's still not great) and they're using that first ratings system -- the one you have to submit fiction to. Of course since it's owned by the same folks who own, if you post there, your work is pretty much there for them to look over anyhow. That rankles a bit for me -- I don't like to think of any work as being censored to that degree.

Bother and frustration. If it's not one thing it's another.

I think I like the idea of just giving certain warnings for the fiction -- but that probably won't make everyone happy either.

Discuss on folks. There may not be an answer right now, but we can always hope there's one out there that will satisfy most if not all. :-)

Perhaps I'm more trusting (though when it comes to fanfic, I've learned to be *really*, REALLY careful, 'cause I've felt . . . "betrayed" . . . by some stories I've read), because if it doesn't have a death fic warning, I assume it's not. If it doesn't have a slash warning, I assume it's not. (But when someone says "This is not a slash story," I'm now jaundiced and looking for stuff that "appears" to be slash, but "isn't.")

It's kind of like Jim's line about if a man has to tell you he can't be intimidated, he's usually scared to death (Trance).

Though I do appreciate "intense bonding" warnings. As others have suggested, these are often borderline slash (or perhaps something akin to slash in disguise), so I steer clear.

Another type of warning I appreciate is what I'll call "character assassination" warnings. (Again, that's kind of strong phraseology). Warnings that I often find on fics written right around the TSbBS NaziJim/St.Blair arguments. Or stories that deal with TSbBS by completely re-writing one of the characters into something that, if I weren't reading a TS fic, I would never recognize the character. Does that make sense? (And since I don't ascribe to the NaziJim/StBlair theory, I've kind of given up on TSbBS stuff, with a few

exceptions by writers I like.)