Cinema’s NC-17 rating has been all but defunct for decades, but Blonde, the disturbing new movie starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, might finally fix that. Introduced by the Motion Picture Association in 1990, NC-17 took the place of the X-rating in an attempt to create a category for films aimed squarely at adult viewers that were also not pornographic. You might have noticed it didn’t work, because the NC-17 rating is all but unused these days. With a few rare exceptions, any film that initially receives an NC-17 rating from the MPAA is either released without a rating, trimmed to meet the standards of an R, or gets its rating changed on appeal. You barely need two hands to count the number of non-pornographic NC-17 movies released since 2010, and it only takes one finger to count the NC-17 films released between 2016 and 2021 (This One’s for the Ladies, a 2019 documentary about male strippers).
The NC-17 was created in part as an answer to the controversies surrounding high-profile, boundary-pushing ‘80s films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!; and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And, for a moment, it looked like Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June might exemplify the possibilities presented by the new rating. It was a film with decidedly adult content that played mainstream theaters accompanied by ads on television, which had previously balked at advertising X-rated films. The NC-17 rating seemed like an idea whose time had come.
The time didn’t last. From Henry & June on, films released with NC-17 ratings underperformed at the box office and high-profile releases that initially received the rating, like Basic Instinct, were reedited and resubmitted until they earned an R. Showgirls, the highest-profile NC-17 film of the ’90s, was more talked about than seen upon theatrical release, only becoming a cult classic when audiences could watch it in the privacy of their own homes. And even there, viewers had to put extra effort into seeking out the NC-17 cut because Blockbuster Video refused to stock NC-17 movies. The ’00s and ’10s saw only a handful of notable titles like Lust, Caution and Blue is the Warmest Color released with the rating.
But Blonde has brought the NC-17 back to the center of cultural conversation: Since director Andrew Dominik confirmed reports that the film, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel, would be NC-17 back in February, the rating has dominated talk of the film. Just how extreme is Blonde?
In short: pretty extreme. Though Dominik worked with Jennifer Lame, an editor hired by Netflix to, in his words, “curb the excesses” of the film, what remains is shocking in both its frankness and its brutality. Blonde’s contents include a graphic rape, unflinching depictions of abortion, and an extended fellatio scene that alone would disqualify it for an R rating. It’s destined to be divisive, opening itself up to criticism of reducing and simplifying Monroe to a victim who was defined by the abuse heaped upon her. But you don’t have to like the movie to respect Dominik’s vision, regardless of the disturbing content. We live in a cinematic moment largely defined by franchises and films as fodder for a bottomless content maw—it’s worth remembering that they’re also forms of artistic expression, even if that artistic expression sometimes takes unpleasant forms.
But the film is surely here in part because the stumbling blocks that hobbled the NC-17 no longer exist. Streaming services don’t rely on theatrical releases, television ads, or Blockbuster. In theory, the NC-17 rating could thrive on services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max and Blonde could be a sign of things to come, possibly serving as a cue for other filmmakers to push beyond the restrictions of the R rating.
Or maybe that moment is already here. Blonde’s NC-17 rating might make it something of a novelty, but streaming services are already filled with films that would earn an NC-17 if they played theaters. (Blonde got the rating because it’s being released in theaters, but television’s content ratings are assigned by networks and streaming services themselves.) In 2020, for instance, the Netflix success of the Polish film 365 Days — a feature-length study of sex and imprisonment filled with S&M that would make fans of 50 Shades of Grey blush — made it an international sensation. (Two sequels followed.) 365 Days might be one of the more obvious examples of edgy content on streaming services, but it’s hardly an outlier, particularly given the normalization of nudity and sex scenes created by cable series from The Sopranos to Shameless to Game of Thrones in the 21st century (much of which would never fit within the confines of an R rating).
So where does that leave Blonde? It’s likely to shock even viewers made jaded by years of watching TV-MA (television’s designation for content appropriate for mature audiences) films and shows without a second thought–and, whatever its artistic virtues, that might be its most lasting contribution. It’s a reminder that films can still be shocking. And that sometimes they have to be shocking to tell the story they want to tell in the way they want to tell it. Dominik treats Monroe’s life as a nexus of horrors, from child abuse to the dehumanizing effects of celebrity. It’s a nightmarish fever dream of a movie that’s defined by the absence of soft edges, a grueling watch that’s also a bracing contrast to how safe most movies are content to be. Blonde’s rating feels like the vestige of an outdated set of rules. It’s also a reminder that, in the streaming world, those rules don’t really have to apply anymore.