By Kevin Sandler
The NC-17 rating has historically been a film certification that’s bad for business due to its adults-only label and pornographic stigma.
Yet Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde, will carry the rating – a first for the company. On September 28, 2022, it will debut on its streaming platform, following a Venice Film Festival premiere.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 book and starring Ana de Armas, the film reportedly includes a graphic rape scene and a vaginal point-of-view shot in its treatment of the Hollywood icon’s life and career.
I study the rating system and am the author of The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Doesn’t Make X-Rated Movies.
Movies carrying the NC-17 rating were often difficult to screen and promote, as they were locked out of some movie theatre chains and traditional advertising. The critically acclaimed, sexually graphic Blue is the Warmest Color in 2013 was the last serious film released with the rating. Despite making over $2.2 million on 142 screens, its relative success as an NC-17 film didn’t fuel the production of any more movies like it.
So why would Netflix resurrect a rarely used, contentious, and restrictive NC-17 for Blonde? Netflix’s 2020 film Cuties, which caused a PR crisis over the perceived hyper-sexualisation of young girls, now has a “TV-MA” rating on the streaming service. Why wouldn’t the company simply use the same rating for Blonde?
From ‘X’ to ‘NC-17’
The NC-17 is one of five ratings – the others are G, PG, PG-13 and R – that the Classification and Rating Administration, a division of the Motion Picture Association, assigns to films submitted for certification.
NC-17 means “No one 17 and under admitted.” This classification prevents children from purchasing a ticket or entering a theatre, even if accompanied by an adult. It replaced the X rating in 1990, which had been the adults-only marker since Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti created the rating system in 1968.
However, Valenti’s failure to copyright the X made it possible for any film to carry the adults-only rating without its distributor having to officially pay the Classification and Rating Administration for certification. This allowed filmmakers to slap it on pornographic films like Deep Throat to attract viewers and to gain access to the legitimate marketplace.
While the X rating could be also assigned for representations of nudity, violence, language, drug use or overall “tone,” this association with hardcore sexual content stigmatized the category’s use by serious filmmakers for years.
Valenti hoped renaming the X rating as NC-17 would spur the adults-only rating’s use by the film industry. For the most part, it didn’t, with a few notable exceptions like Showgirls (1995), Bad Education (2004) and Shame (2011).
Instead, practically all distributors whose films were initially awarded an NC-17 by the Classification and Rating Administration chose one of three options: to re-edit their films down to an R rating, to release an R-rated and unrated version for home video or DVD, or simply to surrender the rating altogether and release the film theatrically without one.
It was commonly believed that an unrated film would encounter fewer barriers to exhibition in the US marketplace than an NC-17 one.
An eye toward awards season
Netflix, though, is not a movie theatre. It is a streaming service that requires no admittance in the traditional sense, has no employees patrolling its screenings for underage viewers, and shifts the responsibility of denying access to its content to subscribers themselves. Netflix offers parental controls so users can restrict access to certain content for each profile in their accounts.
Significantly, many Netflix films with mature content carry a “TV-MA” rating. The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board developed the designation, meaning “For mature audiences. May not be suitable for ages 17 and under.” It’s recognizable to viewers of television series like AMC’s Better Call Saul, FX’s American Horror Story or even Netflix’s Ozark.
So why wouldn’t Netflix apply a maturity rating from television to Blonde?
The answer is simple: Netflix likely sees the film as an Oscar contender.
Per the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ rules, to qualify for the Academy Awards, Blonde must have a theatrical run, even if that run is extremely short. In 2019, Netflix joined the Motion Picture Association – the first and only streaming service to do so. So if it decides to release its films theatrically, Netflix must do so with a rating, just like the legacy member companies: Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.
With its TV-MA-rated Ibiza: Love Drunk, Cuties and 365 Days, Netflix never carried a Motion Picture Association rating because these films bypassed theatrical exhibition altogether in the United States.
Making the media rounds
Netflix undoubtedly is also using the NC-17 for Blonde as a marketing ploy – what film scholar Justin Wyatt has called “marketing controversy,” a technique used in the past to sell films that received an X or NC-17.
Netflix has remained mum on the subject. Instead, Blonde director Andrew Dominik and star de Armas have dropped hints to the media about the film’s provocative and sensationalist aspects, while, at the same time, expressing incredulity at the film’s NC-17 rating.
“I was surprised,” Dominik told Vulture. “I thought we’d coloured inside the lines.”
De Armas said largely the same in an interview for French fashion magazine L’Officiel. “I didn’t understand why [the rating] happened.”
Nearly in the same proverbial breath, both director and star have also teased the salaciousness of the subject matter.
“It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right?” Dominik told Screen Daily. “I want to go and see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story.”
De Armas, meanwhile, supports Dominik’s unfiltered look at Monroe’s life, declaring it “the most daring, unapologetic, and feminist take on her story that I had ever seen.”
‘A little steam to keep the stream’
I wonder, though: Is Blonde’s NC-17 really much of a selling point, given what viewers are regularly exposed to in their living rooms?
In a streaming landscape littered with sexually explicit TV-MA television series like HBO’s Euphoria and House of the Dragon, Hulu’s Minx and Pam & Tommy” and even Netflix’s own Sex/Life and How to Build a Sex Room, it shouldn’t be.
Dominik indirectly, but perhaps correctly, undercut his own film’s luridness, telling Screen Daily, “If I look at an episode of Euphoria, it’s far more graphic than anything going on in Blonde.”
De Armas echoed the same talking points later in her L’Officiel interview: “I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than Blonde.”
This new wave of sexually frank and progressive series, according to Variety television writer Joe Otterson, may be one strategy that streaming companies are using to keep subscribers enthralled in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
“It might take a little steam to keep the stream,” Otterson writes.
Blonde – NC-17, TV-MA or unrated – is just another provocative addition to this pot.
(Kevin Sandler is an author and an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, at Arizona State University)