So, we as fandom and ficcers have gone around on the question of ratings quite a few times, and for quite a few reasons by now. The most peculiar and widespread round was probably triggered by the MPAA’s pissyness over archives using the NC-17 rating. Plenty of people in US fandoms still use G-PG-R-NC-17, of course, because it’s widely established and generally understood. Others, like ff.net, adopted the slightly altered version of K-T-M. Still others have come up with still more customized variations, and some people have argued that the written word should not have a rating system applied to it at all, and that it certainly isn’t to professional publications.
Ratings are pretty embedded in fandom practice by now, of course, and I doubt we’re getting rid of them. So we struggle on to find a system that says what we want it to say. One of the more recent contributions to the debate got me started thinking, though.
Ratings, as applied to fanfiction, work rather differently than ratings applied to other media, such as movies. For one thing, they’re self-applied and, for another, they don’t actually seem to be regulatory. I am not sure, though, that this fact calls for an alteration in the most commonly used ratings.
Let us start at the beginning. What do we use ratings to indicate?
One of the most common things seems to be sex. Among US fans at least, I believe this is inherited pretty directly from the MPAA, who place a completely disproportionate emphasis on sex as the primary gauge by which to restrict audiences.
This leads me off, though, to one of the major underlying questions: do we use ratings to restrict an audience? Or so we use them for another purpose?
Consider the use of the contested NC-17 rating in fanfiction. My impression in my own fandom sector, anime fandom, is that this rating is used more as advertising than for restriction. When an author wishes to warn off parts of the audience, for disturbing content let us say, such restriction is more often handled through the warning labels rather than the rating. The rating seems most frequently used to advertise the explicitness of the sexual and/or romantic content.
In some ways, then, it seems to me that we have taken in the MPAA focus on sex and subverted it. MPAA ratings are about restriction, and focus on the presence or absence of explicit sexual content disproportionate to the wide variety of other things that might justifiably restrict the audience. Fan use of those ratings is about audience selection and enlargement; we often use them to appeal to the audience that is looking for sexual content (at least in my corner and I think in others from what little I’ve seen of book/media/etc. practice).
There is, of course, another segment of fans that is interested specifically in restriction, or, as it’s most commonly expressed, keeping youngsters away from ideas they should not yet be exposed to. The actual content of those ideas, again, varies, but some of the frequently cited ones are sexuality, cruelty and/or violence, and bad language. Ratings, however, do not seem to come up in these discussions as much as mechanical restrictions, such as registration requirements for sites that contain variously defined mature material. This may be because this segment understands perfectly well that a rating never stopped any kid, especially from doing something as simple as clicking on a link.
So the actual utility of ratings for fandom texts seems to have very little to do with audience restriction. Rather, ratings seem to serve as a special-purpose label, one that can generally be counted on to address the sexual content unless the rest of the meta information specifically points in a different direction
The meta information can be reworked as a whole, so that the rating addresses something else and the sexual content is addressed in some other way. I do this in my own archive. But if a writer or reader desires greater precision or specificity, it is unlikely that a different rating system alone will deliver it. Ratings, by their nature, are very general and not comprehensive. Verbal labels seem far more likely to deliver, on that score.
Then, too, the MPAA scale has gained jargon meaning, among US fans. When I post to fandom forums and comms, I find myself swinging back to the MPAA scale in order to communicate with my potential audience in a way the community consensus understands. Considering this, it seems to me that, at least in my parts of fandom, our subversion of MPAA is already sufficient to its task. If the rating were the only meta information available, then it would not be, but meta information has become a form of composition all its own, and, looking at it, I think this may be a good thing after all. We are not making movies; we are not publishing novels; we are writing fic, and that is a medium of its own that calls for and evolves its own framework.
We might, in fact, think of our use of the G-PG-R-NC-17 scale as fic of MPAA, a notion that rather appeals to me.