This year’s dark horse Oscar contender “Shame” has caused some people to question the purpose and validity of the NC-17 rating. It was no surprise when the MPAA slapped the film with the potentially restrictive scarlet letter as a result of frequent nudity and explicit (depressing) sex. Of course the emotional nature (or lack thereof) of the intercourse depicted is not listed as an official cause for the rating, but it is likely that it played a role (consciously or not) in the association’s decision.

It's easy enough to name a multitude of R-rated films that treat the human body with little to no dignity (topless water skiing was a fun addition to 2009’s “Friday the 13th” – topless water skiing), and though no one is surprised by the decision, “Shame’s” NC-17 does raise questions about the ratings system.

“I mean, it’s sex,” director Steve McQueen said at a recent press conference for the film. “I think it’s what most of the people in this room have done, if not all of us have done. I mean I’ve never held a gun in my hand in my life. So, it’s this whole weird thing where what we do in our daily lives should be censored. It’s very odd. And things that we have no idea of, or have no capability of doing, should be viewed on the masses.”

For McQueen, the preponderance of nudity in the film is just part and parcel of capturing a sense of realism. “Maybe in 1951 he would have had pajamas on but in 2011 often people do not wear pajamas,” he said of his character’s frequent state of undress in the film. “I mean that’s it -- normality. So there’s no big deal for me about nudity. There’s nothing graphic about it. It’s sex. There’s nothing in it which is harmful to anyone.”

In a not entirely surprising, yet still interesting turn of events, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian encouraged filmmakers to take risks that would result in an NC-17 rating in a recent interview with The Wrap.

"It would have destroyed this film to cut it down to an R rating," he said of McQueen’s effort. "Too many filmmakers and too many studios do that, and I applaud Steve McQueen and Fox Searchlight for sticking to their guns. This is the kind of film that the NC-17 is designed for, and I think we need more bold filmmakers and distributors to make content appropriate for the rating and release it that way. We've had conversations with other companies encouraging them to take this kind of chance.”

Fithian attests that the stigma surrounding the rating is due to a misperception on the part of cinema-goers about its meaning and intent. “The MPAA and NATO screwed up,” he said. “We didn't get the X rating copyrighted, and the pornographers stole it. That shadow lingers, and so do myths about the NC-17."

What are the aforementioned myths? Well, first and foremost there is the belief that theatre chains will not screen NC-17 rated films. Fithian says that a survey of 100 of NATO’s members revealed that only three would never play an NC-17 film as a personal choice. He also tries to snuff out the perception that NC-17 films can’t be advertised.

So what is the purpose of the rating?

Despite Fithian’s claims, an NC-17 rating will in many cases harm both the box office and awards potential of a film. As The Guardian pointed out last year in an article asking “Is the NC-17 rating ruining the Oscars?,” there has never been an NC-17 rated film that was awarded an Academy Award in a major category (though the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” took home three, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).

Harvey Weinstein waged a campaign to get an R rating for “Blue Valentine” last year in the hopes that the film would make a strong showing come Oscar night. So whether it’s really fact or fiction, the perception that an NC-17 rating equals an inescapable stigma creates an inescapable stigma.

If we look at the definitions for the ratings according to the MPAA we see there is an inherent level of censorship in the NC-17 rating:

R Rating

“R ratings require a parent or adult guardian to be present in order to view the film. An R-rated film may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously."

NC-17 Rating

“No one under the age of 17 is permitted in a theater to watch a film with this rating. The MPAA gives a film an NC-17 rating based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children."

The question of what does, or does not, constitute “aberrational behavior” aside, an NC-17 rating means that parents are no longer encouraged to investigate a film’s suitability; they are forbidden from allowing their children to see it in a theatre. Which brings us to our central question: Is it really an outside organization’s place to decide what artistic material is suitable for a parent to share with his or her child? Do we not trust ourselves as adults to make those choices for our children and ourselves?