When Nashville flooded in 2010, few people unrelated to the area knew about it for days, largely because the aid providers and the media were too focused elsewhere to respond to a very real crisis that, in the words of Newsweek‘s Andrew Romano, “could wind up being one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.” In fact, his article, Why the Media Ignored the Nashville Flood, pops up as the first organic result in a Google search for “Nashville flood.” If it wasn’t for the overwhelmingly positive reaction of local celebrities and the community, as a whole, the Nashville flood may have received more publicity about the lack of publicity than it did about the actual damages incurred by the flood, the needs it created, and relief required to meet those needs. For the most part, however, the conversation was, disappointingly, about the conversation.

Recently, controversy has sparked surrounding the MPAA rating classifications of The Hunger Games, a dystopian blockbuster pitting teenagers against each other in a death match, as PG-13, and BULLY, a stark awareness vehicle for social betterment, as R. By the book, the MPAA (which, by the way, is comprised of a panel of parents) has assigned the correct rating to each work, but the juxtaposition of the two films – and their relative takes on teenage conflict – present too rich a lesson to ignore. While the ratings delivered to these movies have created their share of outcry, the opportunity to seize upon each of them as a tool for coaching teens is drowned out to a whimper, at most.

BULLY is a documentary detailing the real-life stories of five victimized children in an effort to bring awareness to the prevalence and significance of bullying among youth. It is also clearly meant to serve as a call to action, so much so that the Weinstein Company chose to disregard the official, MPAA-recommended R-rating and release BULLY to theaters without an official rating, risking backlash from the MPAA and rejection from the theaters. In a press release regarding the decision to release the movie with a rating, director Lee Hirsch replied, “The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days. All of our supporters see that, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received across the board. I know the kids will come, so it’s up to the theaters to let them in.”

Facing History and Ourselves, the organization that commissioned the film, also created a fantastic viewing guide for BULLY that provides resources and examples on how to use the film as a teaching tool. It also explicitly states that, “the necessity of adults previewing the full film before using it with young people cannot be overemphasized.” To me, that very statement is an admission that the film should be rated R; the MPAA definition of which states, “Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children.” Does no one else see the direct match here?

The Hunger Games is a fictional work where the preselected heroes vow to stand up against the totalitarian bullying of the Capitol. It’s an entertainment piece, but the lesson is the same, and clocked in at PG-13 thanks to the omission of several “splashes of blood” shots during editing. In her book Mommy, I’m Scared!, Dr. Joanne Cantor, an internationally-recognized expert on the psychology of media and communications (as well as the key researcher for V-Chip legislation), explains that children find different things scary as they age. For example, her research showed that, when viewing episodes of the superhero TV show The Incredible Hulk, young children were frightened most by the appearance and transformation of the Hulk because he was scary-looking, even though he was the hero. Older children, on the other hand, understood that the Hulk was the hero and were more frightened during scenes where Bruce Banner, as a mere mortal, was put in dangerous situations. The Hunger Games is PG-13 because by that age, most children fear situations more than graphic images. Since BULLY documents reality, it would be more disturbing to older children than The Hunger Games, which is known fiction. (Children under 13, however, have not reached that level of comprehension, and the MPAA suitably recommends they not see it.)

While the outrage expressed over the official classifications of the two films may shed light on a need to reassess the guidelines and standards of our ratings system (and provides an eerily ironic illustration for the argument against the blanket implementation and enforcement of generalized zero-tolerance policies), it also distracts us from the intended issue. Hand-wringing over youths’ access to chancy content is a time-tested issue with no pending resolution; in the end, kids will see what they want to see, the racier the better. The real battle, and the real opportunity, is in setting the table for when and how our children are exposed this kind of content and the most beneficial ways to help them process it afterward.

Once again, consider the Facing History and Ourselves viewing guide, an excellent resource that has merely been offered as suggested reading before seeing BULLY. Truthfully, if it were my film to distribute, only adults would be allowed to see BULLY in the theaters and they would be required to read the viewing guide in order to gain admission (or, better yet, the information could be built into the film somehow so it couldn’t be missed). Then, upon exiting the theater, the adult viewers would receive a DVD copy or digital streaming code so that they could watch it together with their children at home.

In the same way, viewing The Hunger Games without some coaching on context poses problems. Most children may not realize the lessons and themes presented in The Hunger Games on their own, especially given that it is dressed up as entertainment rather than education. On that merit alone, far more children are bound to see The Hunger Games than BULLY, if you’ll permit the world’s most obvious observation. Further, parents will more than likely accept or reject The Hunger Games based solely on its entertainment factor as proven by rating and box office take, instead of the teachable moments within its story. While BULLY requires a far more meticulous viewing experience, The Hunger Games runs the risk of being rubber stamped in the name of big-budget entertainment.

Fighting over ratings only diverts attention from the real issue at hand. Which battle is more important to spend our time and energy on, debating the merits of a “voluntary film rating system [created to give] creative and artistic freedoms to filmmakers while fulfilling its core purpose of informing parents about the content of films so they can determine what movies are appropriate for their kids,” or providing our children with the means to define, recognize, acknowledge, and defend themselves against being bullied, allowing others to be bullied, or even becoming bullies, themselves? As long as we wring our hands over the qualitative process of rating movies, we make the conversation about the conversation, not about the content. As I see it, BULLY and The Hunger Games are two movies that provide perfect opportunities for collaborating with teens on tactics for conflict. That the bulk of the attention has stopped at their rating misses the point entirely.