Rated “SA”? Jack Valenti and the Skirmish Over Movie Ratings in the Reagan Era

What is inspiring the relaxation of social mores regarding marijuana use? Today, theories abound. Perhaps anti-marijuana laws are too expensive to enforce. Or: a growing number of Americans have tried marijuana, and consequently, come to view its health effects as relatively benign. According to Nancy Reagan’s supporters in the mid-1980s, one driving force for pot permissiveness could be easily pinpointed: Cheech and Chong.

Reagan’s anti-drug campaign is well documented. Her campaign stops, speeches, and talking points are spread across more than three series in the Reagan Presidential Library (which was where I got the idea for this post). Likewise, many authors have covered the political debates about depictions of sex and violence in the 1980s, noting that media moguls almost always managed to outmaneuver their critics. Today’s post describes a forgotten episode in this moral epic: in 1985, Reagan’s anti-drug allies urged the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its ratings system and return the silver screen to its substance-free, pre-Sixties glory.

Cheech and Chong's Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (via Wikipedia)

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (image via Wikipedia)

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