Does Hollywood Have A Bias Against Films Portraying Disability?

Sex, violence, bad language and drugs. These are things the MPAA film rating system is designed to protect young moviegoers against. So, imagine my dismay when So B. It, a feature film based on a novel of mine by the same name, was given a PG-13 rating.

There’s no sex, violence, bad language or drug use in the film. True, a few sad things happen along the way, including the death of a loved one, but the overall message is uplifting. So B. It is a celebration of family – in this case, a family that includes a number of people with disabilities.

I’ve been writing books for young readers for almost 30 years and So B. It is one of my most popular novels. The book, which is for ages ten and up, won the 2004 Parent’s Gold Choice Award.  In a nutshell, it’s a story about Heidi, a 12-year-old girl with a mentally challenged mother who only says 23 words.  One of those words is the mysterious “soof.” Determined to find out what it means, Heidi embarks on a cross-country journey, leaving behind her mother and Bernadette, the agoraphobic neighbor who takes care of them.

The reason given for the PG-13 rating was “thematic elements.” What I find curious is that most of the scenes the panel cited focus on characters dealing with their disabilities. For instance, Bernadette, the agoraphobic neighbor played by Alfre Woodard, has a meltdown when she attempts to go outside. Heidi’s sweet-natured Mama becomes frightened and causes a commotion in public. These scenes are very emotional, but do we need to protect young viewers from emotion?

Could Hollywood have a hidden bias against movies that realistically portray people with disabilities expressing their emotions?

Diversity is a hot topic in the industry, but few think that it extends to those with disabilities. It is of paramount importance that we continue to showcase other ideas of family and give voices to people not only of different races and backgrounds, but also of different capabilities. Showing people with disabilities on screen, especially directed towards younger audiences, will lead to a greater understanding of these conditions ― an understanding that will also encourage acceptance.

Although steadfast with their rating system, the MPAA does offer a chance to appeal rating decisions. If the producers of the film disagree with the designation, they can file an appeal with the Classification and Rating Appeals board (CARA). I was asked to deliver the opening statement at the appeal for So B. It and jumped at the chance to state our case. However, the battle was over before it began. “We loved the movie,” one of them told me before they were even seated, “and we’re completely comfortable with the PG-13 rating.” I delivered my speech anyway, but it was only a formality. Their minds were already made up.

Throughout my career, I have spoken about this book in-person to thousands of kids in grades four and up at hundreds of schools across the country and have had zero issues or complaints about the subject matter. The movie, which is faithful to the book, has been endorsed by the Dove Foundation, which promotes wholesome films suitable for family audiences.  With these family-friendly endorsements in mind, how on earth did So B. It end up with the same rating as Drag Me To Hell and The Hunger Games?  It’s a head scratcher.

So B. It is a family film in the truest sense. It’s not just for kids to enjoy and adults to grin and bear. It’s a movie for families to watch together and discuss afterwards. In my opinion, our rating system isn’t working properly if it discourages young people from seeing movies that carry positive messages about tolerance and acceptance of differences. We can only hope that Hollywood will be more accepting of these themes in the future.

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