Today’s MPAA Ratings Hold Little Value for Parents

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Image by Flickr user "bossco" used under CC licensing

Before letting their kids see a movie, there’s one thing that almost every parent does: check the rating – that ubiquitous box on nearly every movie poster that gives parents at-a-glance data that generally categorizes films. The ratings, which are assigned by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have been the de facto classification and guidance for nearly half a century.

As a parent, it is important to know about film content. This, according to MPAA ratings head, Joan Graves, is the primary purpose of the ratings board. “The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films,” she has said. Yet, when PG-13 films contain half a dictionary’s worth of profanity, nudity, and more violence than R-rated movies of the past, can you actually make an informed decision from a simple MPAA rating about which films are acceptable for your child to see?

Over the years the PG-13 rating has become a muddled landscape where movies include both acceptable family fare and films that could just as easily have been labeled R. Parents can generally tell if their kids are ready for R-rated movies and PG movies are generally OK, but PG-13 is where the grey area is.

As many parents have long suspected, there has been a movement of R-rated violence creeping into PG-13 movies for some time. A recent study published in the Journal of Children and Media confirms that PG-13 movies are significantly more violent than those a generation ago. And besides the shootouts and slugfests, PG-13 is also where the money is; most box office blockbusters are found in this category. In 2011, there was more box office money from PG-13 movies (roughly $5.5 billion) than all G, PG, and R movies combined.

Consider the recent hullabaloo regarding the documentary, Bully. At first, the movie was rated R, a rating that outraged many proponents who knew the rating would prevent what they considered an important film from being seen by the highly valued younger teenage audience. An intensive campaign followed by reportedly editing the sound from three words, which earned the movie a PG-13 rating. If three words are all that separates a PG-13 from an R rating, how much can parents really rely on the MPAA for guidance when selecting movies for their children?

The Importance of Ratings

Ratings are important.

For some parents, the rating is the only piece of information they consider when deciding if their children can watch a film. While this shortcoming is certainly the parents’ fault, it is understandable that some hurried parents simply refer to this easy indicator to decide which movies they let their kids watch.

Unfortunately, MPAA ratings don’t tell the whole story. A simple PG-13 or an R glosses over the true content of a film. This is an imperative distinction to make because, while this criticism does not advocate censorship in any way, it is important for parents to be aware of all of a film’s content. Children mature at different times and a dozen different twelve-year-olds may all be at a dozen different levels of maturity; some capable of dealing with the subject matter of a film while others are unprepared.

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The MPAA rating is important in other instances, as well. Community centers, day camps, and similar groups are reticent to show anything higher than PG to mixed crowds. The same rule of thumb applies to schools, who do what they can to shy away from controversy. One of the very few exceptions to this rule is the movie Schindler’s List, which is rated R, but has enjoyed many school viewings and even a network television broadcast.

The backlash against movies with higher ratings applies commercially, as well. Films that are unrated or saddled with an NC-17 can often find it difficult to be shown in many theaters. Many newspapers and television stations will refuse to advertise NC-17 and unrated movies, for fear of backlash from some of their audiences, who perceive these movies as not worth mentioning. Finally, after a movie’s theatrical run, movie studios look to the home market and DVD and Blu-ray sales. Unfortunately, there are some national retailers and renters who refuse to stock unrated and NC-17 disks. It can safely be said that a movie that falls outside one of the four accepted cryptic boxes (G, PG, PG-13, and R), faces some formidable challenges.

But the most important responsibility a MPAA rating has is to inform responsible parents about the content in a film. Most parents are responsible and are concerned about what their kids see. And, because we can’t preview every movie before our kids see them, the rating is vital in decision-making. Unfortunately, the MPAA rating is antiquated and doesn’t provide parents with enough information to make good decisions. Revisiting the Bully movie, we can see that the movie was originally rated R for “some language,” which could be seen in the rating’s descriptor text. But reviewing more detailed information, we learn that there are more than three dozen incidents of intensely threatening and or violent scenes in the movie. Depending on your child’s maturity and your family’s principles, the violence might be far more offensive than a handful of profane words, but you would never know about that content from the MPAA’s rating.

The issue extends beyond the theater, as well. Kids seem more mature. Maybe it’s that the 24-hour news cycle and the constant bombardment of media from television and the Internet have left them more seemingly calloused than previous generations. Hollywood – either because of this or as the cause of this, depending on your perspective – takes advantage of this situation by marketing PG-13 properties to children far younger than their own ratings recommend. Stroll down any toy aisle and you’ll see a slew of licensed toys based on PG-13 movies, yet marketed towards very young children. Lego has a Pirates of the Caribbean set called “The Cannibal’s Escape” with a recommended age of 6-12. Fisher-Price sells a Green Lantern Jet that’s aimed at toddlers as young as 36 months. Both of these movies are rated PG-13, yet the licensed toys are marketed at much younger children. Similar examples are seemingly endless.

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