Features and Columns · Movies

The Brief and Scandalous History of the X Rating

What was its purpose and why was it so infamous? Let’s sneak a peek, shall we?
X Rating
By  · Published on February 19th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about what happened to the X rating.


You’d be forgiven for assuming that all “X” rated films are for perverts. After all, the rating’s accidental collision with the porn industry is, in part, what led to its demise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Motion Picture Association of America — now known simply as the Motion Picture Association, or MPA — was founded in 1922. It was primarily a public relations campaign, a muscle of the larger moral sweep overseen by its first president, William Hays. In 1966, then-MPAA president Jack Valenti replaced Hays’ infamously strict Production Code with a system of voluntary film ratings. The goal was to limit government censorship of Hollywood films while still protecting children and informing parents.

Introduced in 1968, the “X” rating designated films strictly for adults. And in its inception, films with an “X” rating were understood to be “not for kids” but unpornographic and suitable for the general public. As the video essay below explains, this allowed for a thriving creative space that complimented the tumultuous social shift of the late-’60s. X-rated films were even nominated for Oscars for goodness sakes!

So, what went wrong? Well, I’ll let the video essay explain. But suffice to say, the MPAA’s failure to trademark the “X” or officialize it with a seal was a big mistake. A stigmatizing kiss of death that still reverberates today in the “X” rating’s successor, the NC-17.

Watch “Whatever Happened to the X Rating“:

Who made this?

Entertain the Elk is a video essay channel that focuses on breaking down film, television, and everything in between. They are based in Pasadena, California. You can follow them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).