When I consider whether to plunk down hard-earned cash to see a film in the movie theater, there are a few things that I invariably do:
- If I can find a movie trailer online, I’ll watch it.
- I’ll glance at a few movie reviews (just a few, so as to not spoil the film).
- If the film has been out for a week or so, I’ll see what friends thought of it.
Surprisingly, I never check what a film is rated (G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17) by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Why is this the case?
It comes down to one word: inconsistency.
Before I explain, it would be wise to provide you with a brief history of how the movie ratings we know came to be. It all started in the early 1920s, when film directors decided to see how far they could push against moral and ethical boundaries in the US. A few scandals featuring Hollywood stars didn’t help matters a bit. So to solve the problem, movie studios enlisted Will Hays to change the culture of moviedom. His response, over time, was the creation of a code to define what was and wasn’t allowed in films (eventually, this came to be known as the Hays Code). For thirty years, this set of instructions (you can read them here) was the basis of what people saw—and heard—on the silver screen. There was to be no nudity, swearing, childbirth scenes, making fun of the Clergy (Hays himself was a Presbyterian elder), or illegal use of drugs in films. At first, the Hays Code was enforced so strictly that Betty Boop was resigned to wearing a long skirt and the movie Casablanca couldn’t make explicit reference about Rick and Ilsa sleeping together in Paris. Eventually, the standards were relaxed more and more (especially with the advent of television) until the Hays Code was abandoned in the late 1960s.
At this time, Jack Valenti, the current president of the MPAA, set up what would eventually become our current ratings system, along with a group called NATO (National Association of Theater Owners). Using only the classifications G (General), M (Mature), R (Restricted), and X (well, you know), these designations were attached to movies beginning in 1968. Since then, few modifications have been made outside of changing the M rating to GP in 1970, changing GP to PG in 1972, adding PG-13 in 1984, and changing the X to NC-17 in 1996. A committee oversees the ratings, while an appeals board is there for those times when a different rating is requested.
As for inconsistency, the MPAA has given films odd ratings that don’t seem to fly with their own standards. The King’s Speech, for example, received an R rating due to having 17 f-bombs implanted in the film. Yet The Big Lebowski had 281 f-bombs (in addition to lots of drug use) and also garnered an R rating. The same can be said for violence in PG and PG-13 films becoming more common and more gratuitous. What makes a movie an R film? Eleven acts of violence instead of ten?
Or something like this, perhaps?
It’s time for changes. But what kind of changes?
The first is transparency from those in the MPAA for their decisions. It’s easy to make a call if there’s no true accountability from others outside of the theater industry—and yet this is the way it’s been since 1968.
The second is a revamping of the current ratings system. I attempted to give this a try, and here’s what I came up with:
- G — All Audiences
- P — Parental Guidance
- T — Teen
- PT — Parental Teen (basically a lower-level version of R)
- R — Restricted (a higher-level version of R)
- A — Adult (no one under 18; contains material that would earn higher than a R)
- X — Explicit
- There would be no more promotion of films (in any form of media) using the phrase, “This film is not yet rated” and no NR ratings given.
- All trailers would receive one of the ratings above that would correlate to the actual film (i.e. a trailer of Saving Private Ryan would get a R rating, even if all the killing was removed, since the film was receiving that rating).
- Ratings would be based on agreed-upon standards for violence, profanity, nudity, drug use, and thematic elements that would be revisited once a year and shared with the general public.
Now it’s your turn.
- What needs to be done to make the MPAA ratings more relevant? Are they doing the best that they can with what they have to work with?
- If you could develop a new rating system for all US films, what would it look like?