In the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, a filmmaker explores the mysterious and frustrating work of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. Its members are the ones who assign films a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 based on their suitability for minors. The film itself was just OK. My favorite parts involved analyzing and comparing clips from various films and hearing from directors who fought with the MPAA over ratings. While he made some valid points about several different aspects of the rating system and process, the filmmaker focused too heavily on the anonymity of the board, devoting a large chunk of the movie to the private investigators he hired to follow and identify its members. To me, the more interesting questions involve the actual content that produces each rating and what the ratings system says about American values and culture.
If you’ve seen many movies, you probably have a decent idea of how the ratings work even if you haven’t thought much about it. The MPAA claims that its ratings board is made of ordinary parents who make decisions based on how they think a majority of American parents would rate each film. The MPAA website offers a decent explanation of the standards it claims to apply when rating a film. Here’s a brief summary:
- G – Nothing offensive, safe for all ages
- PG – Mild language, violence, maternal or tribal nudity, situations that might produce some awkward questions from children
- PG-13 – More colorful language (including one F-bomb in a certain context), non-gory violence, more extensive nudity in a nonsexual context, some sexual situations, some alcohol and drug use
- R – More than 1 F-bomb, pervasive profanity, extensive and/or bloody violence, sexual nudity, any full-frontal nudity, hardcore drug use
- NC-17 – Anything “appropriate only for an adult audience”, but in practice, mainly extreme violence or explicit sex
The higher a film is rated, the smaller its potential audience becomes. Obviously, an R-rated film severely limits the under-17 audience, although it might also attract a somewhat larger adult audience who finds the adult content appealing. On the other hand, an NC-17 is the kiss of death from a revenue perspective. Very few theaters, rental companies, or retailers are willing to carry such films, so an NC-17 must be low-budget or is almost guaranteed to lose money. Filmmakers seeking to reach their audience must walk a difficult line between expressing themselves and paying the bills.
What Does It Mean?!?
Although the ratings system does give parents a general idea of a film’s content, I’m sure you can see from the descriptions how subjective the ratings must be. For instance, how much blood and gore does it take to push a film from PG-13 to R, or from R to NC-17? Is there a body count threshold? Does a character smoking a joint demand an R for the film, or would a PG-13 suffice if the scene is short? What about a line of cocaine? How many curse words that don’t start with F can the director include while maintaining a PG-13? How explicit can a sex scene be in an R-rated film?
The documentary featured interviews with several directors whose films had been slapped with NC-17 ratings initially. Some edited their films down to an R rating, while others refused and released their films with the NC-17 or unrated. This segment made some fascinating points about how the ratings board treats certain types of sex, nudity, and violence differently from others. I won’t explore those in detail here. (you’re welcome, Lisa!) They were highly frustrated with the lack of firm standards and clear guidance from the ratings board, subjectivity of the rating, and seemingly unfair treatment their films received compared to other films.
I wholeheartedly agree with the directors on these issues. As someone who considered screenwriting as a profession, I think filmmakers need much clearer standards for what constitutes each rating so they’ll know what to expect. As a parent, I want more specific information regarding what’s in a PG film or an R film. In recent years, we’ve seen details included with the rating box, which is helpful. But we’re still a long way from having clear standards regarding content.
American vs. European Ratings
For me, the most interesting point involved the differences between the American perspective and the European perspective on film content. In America, we tolerate huge amounts of violence and gore and hardly blink an eye. They are in our movies, video games, TV shows, and music. Primetime hit show CSI regularly shows graphic crime scenes and re-enactments. The documentary pointed out that James Bond, through his dozens of movies, had killed countless people, yet no Bond film had ever exceeded a PG-13 rating. Killing people is OK from a ratings perspective as long as the deaths aren’t too bloody. Except in very extreme cases, even gory death, dismemberment, war, torture, and other horrible sights only warrant an R in America. Even in many PG movies, violence is perfectly acceptable in film, even though in reality most of us rarely experience violence. However, sex and nudity quickly escalate a film’s rating even though both are completely normal and natural parts of life. A killer can hack people apart with a machete and spray blood over the camera in an R-rated horror film, but show too many private parts or a too-steamy sex scene and the film will get the dreaded NC-17 and go straight to video unless it’s edited.
In Europe and Australia, the perspective is flipped, according to the documentary. Sex and nudity in films and TV are considered less offensive and less “scary” for children because they are seen as normal parts of life. It’s graphic violence that gets their raters worked up because they seen it as harmful to society. They consider us prudes regarding sex and the human body and uncivilized brutes regarding violence. I haven’t been able to verify the filmmaker’s claims on the topic, but they seem reasonable to me given my understanding of the cultures involved. I’m also not surprised to find a greater incidence of violence in an American culture that glorifies violence, nor a greater incidence of teenage pregnancy, STDs, and body image disorders in an American culture that both stigmatizes and obsesses over sex and nudity.
Parenting After Sesame Street
As a parent of young boys, I don’t need to think about film ratings much…yet, but I can certainly see their value. I don’t necessarily want to screen everything they watch before they can see it, so a rating gives me a decent place to start when deciding whether something is appropriate. However, I don’t want to blindly trust the ratings board, either, as I don’t agree with all of its decisions. Receiving a PG or PG-13 doesn’t guarantee that my kids are ready to handle the content of a given film or that it sends the messages that I want them to hear. I’m not advocating censorship by any means, merely wanting to make an informed decision. Plus, I have an annoying little voice that reminds me how much I whined to my mom as a kid when she sometimes limited what I could watch or listen to. (how dare she!!) The voice says I’m a hypocrite for planning to limit what my kids can see. The voice is right, and I’m not very comfortable playing the role of censor for my kids. Bottom line, I’m happy to postpone those types of decisions because I’m not sure how to make them quite yet. When I am forced to make them, I’ll seek out better information than what we find from the MPAA ratings board.
What are your thoughts on our current film rating system? If you’re a parent, how much do you rely on content ratings when deciding what films, TV shows, and video games your children can see?