Watch Smarter is Slate’s series that teaches you to spot hidden tropes in pop culture and beyond. Watch all episodes.
Why do two movies with nearly identical sex scenes get different ratings for sexual content? And why does the same thing happen with violence, drugs, and swearing? Is our ratings system totally arbitrary?
Not quite. You can argue with the Motion Picture Association of America’s justifications for its ratings, but they have their own particular logic. In this episode of Watch Smarter, we explore how the subject shown on screen matters to the MPAA less than how that subject is shown—and the impression the MPAA believes a certain depiction leaves on the audience. Our journey begins with the F-word.