First, the forthcoming Weinstein Company drama 3 Generations courted controversy by casting yet another cisgender actor in a transgender role—in this case, Elle Fanning as a transgender boy named Ray looking for acceptance in his family.
Now, the film is generating heated discussion for an entirely different reason: Some LGBT critics want the Motion Picture Association of America to downgrade the film’s rating from an R to a PG-13. They say that film’s story—about a mother (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) learning to support Ray’s transition from female to male—deserves to be seen by a larger audience.
And at the heart of this latest dust-up are three questions: Is the R-rating unfair? Or is the MPAA simply operating by its usual standards? And if the latter, should they make an exception for 3 Generations to encourage support for transgender children and their families in a critical moment?
The MPAA gave 3 Generations an R-rating for language, including sexual references.
On Tuesday, Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of the LGBT media advocacy organization GLAAD, sent a letter to the MPAA writing, “Your decision to designate 3 Generations a restrictive ‘R’ rating sends a dangerous message to this already marginalized community.” According to Ellis, the rating should be reconsidered because “Hollywood desperately needs to share stories of transgender youth that foster acceptance.”
“The film does not include graphic violence, drug use, or nudity—it merely portrays a modern family,” added Ellis.
Ellis’s letter came twelve days after The Weinstein Company announced its own protest of the R-rating, with co-chairman Harvey Weinstein arguing in an accompanying press release that it “would truly be a travesty” if the MPAA effectively “prevent[ed] high school students from seeing this film.”
TWC’s protest of that rating did not come as a surprise. The production company has a long history of contesting restrictive MPAA ratings for its films—a practice that Variety editor Brent Lang noted has the “added benefit” of generating “press for smaller films” like 3 Generations. As Buzzfeed reported, too, GLAAD gave some notes on the film’s script, conducted an on-set training, and held a post-filming discussion with some of the cast and crew.
When asked by The Daily Beast whether GLAAD believed the film’s inclusion of a transgender character was responsible for the R-rating, chief communications officer Rich Ferraro wrote, “There are five instances of strong language in the film and there has never been a transgender character in a G, PG or PG-13 film—with the exception of a handful of PG-13 films that have used trans women as punchlines.”
He added: “It appears that the film’s focus on a trans teen played into the restricted R rating.”
The MPAA does not generally comment on individual film ratings. In response to the GLAAD letter, an MPAA spokesperson provided The Daily Beast with a general statement including the following: “The goal of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), the voluntary film rating system administered by the MPAA, is to provide parents with credible and consistent information about the level of content in movies to help them determine what is appropriate for their children. None of the ratings indicate whether a film is good, bad, or otherwise, nor is it CARA’s purpose to prescribe social policy.”
The Weinstein Company did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the reasoning behind the rating. A press release provided to The Daily Beast earlier this month, however, did not explicitly claim that the R-rating was given out because the film has a transgender character; instead, it included comments from the director and lead actors, all of whom made a bid for the story’s social importance.
“3 Generations doesn’t have a bad bone in its body, it’s an expression of love, acceptance, strength, and honesty, values that could not be more necessary right now,” said Watts.
Sarandon called it “an important movie for everyone to see, especially transgender youth who are feeling isolated or fearful and their families.”
And the film’s director and co-writer Gaby Dellal said, “I hope the MPAA will reconsider this R rating and encourage children to see this story and feel connected.”
It was Dellal who drew criticism from the transgender community after she defended her decision to cast Fanning instead of a transgender actor as Ray—and used female pronouns to refer to him—during an August 2015 Refinery29 interview.
“The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy,” Dellal said. “She’s not pretending to have a deeper voice. She’s just a girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about.”
Dellal also told Refinery29 that the decision was partially financial, saying that “unfortunately we have to have some people that mean a certain amount of money.”
The transgender community, however, has heard similar excuses before—around trans-themed TV shows like Transparent or films like The Danish Girl—and were none too pleased with their repetition. Wrote Teresa Jusino for The Mary Sue, Dellal “bust[ed] out all the old chestnuts” about transgender casting in the Refinery29 interview and “show[ed] how little she gets it, and why she probably shouldn’t have told this story in the first place.”
Casting controversy aside, however, the question of the film’s R-rating remains. It is true, as Ellis noted in the GLAAD letter, that the “film industry has a shockingly awful history when it comes to telling the stories of transgender people”—and that trans youth are in dire need of acceptance. Research published in Pediatrics shows that familial support of transgender youth—the theme of 3 Generations—can help prevent mental health problems.
It would not be unprecedented if that argument held water with the MPAA. In 2012, the Weinstein Company campaigned to have the MPAA lower their rating of the childhood bullying documentary Bully from an R to a PG-13 base—and succeeded.
“The MPAA and I were able to come to an agreement on Bully and I am confident that we will be able to do so again,” Harvey Weinstein noted in the press release.A key difference between that campaign and this one, however, is the level of public interest: A Change.org petition asking the MPAA to adjust Bully’s rating attracted 521,340 signatures; a Change.org petition shared by GLAAD on Twitter Wednesday has about 70 signatures as of this writing. The film has received mixed reviews and will receive a limited release on May 5th after originally being scheduled for release in 2015.
So perhaps there’s a fourth question to be asked of this rating controversy: How much of a splash will 3 Generations make anyway?