The Downfalls of the Movie Rating System

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Since the beginning of the movie rating system, movie theaters and many parents have relied on the Motion Picture Association of America’s system to determine which movies are appropriate for children of different ages.  The system currently ranks movies anywhere from G, which admits all general audiences, to NC-17, which prohibits any viewer 17 and under from viewing the movie.  According to Jack Valenti, who created the system in 1968 while holding the chief executive officer position at the Motion Picture Association of America, the system was created to “offer parents some advance information about movies,” in order for parents to “decide what movies they want their children to see”.  However, the intentions have yet to prove reality, as the MPAA’s film rating system is not only heavily variable and hard to navigate, but also creates a costly deterrent to cinematic creativity while discriminating against non-mainstream ideas.

Because the system’s presentation has changed over time, many parents struggle to identify which movies fall in line with their values.  The original 1968 system consisted of the four following categories:

G; general audiences (all ages admitted)

M; mature audiences (all ages are admitted, parental guidance suggested)

R; restricted (children under sixteen must be accompanied by an adult)

X; no child under the age of 17 is admitted, with or without an adult

However, this rating system proved too confusing for the general public.  Because many parents did not know the entire meaning behind each rating, they often confused ratings and misplaced them in relation to others.  For instance, parents often mistook an “M” for being a far harsher rating than that of “R,” when in fact a restricted movie includes restriction whereas a mature audience movie only posits a suggestion.  In order to remedy this situation, the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, adjusted the system in 1984.

G; general audiences (all ages admitted)

PG; parental guidance (all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested)

PG-13; parental guidance strongly suggested (some material may be inappropriate for children under 13)

R; restricted (17 and under only admitted with a parent or adult guardian)

NC-17; no children under 17 (only 17 and older admitted)

The first three ratings followed a more understandable progression, so parents were better able to gauge the maturity level suggested for each movie.   However, although this shift was meant to bring clarity to the ratings, it still created some confusion.  While movies rated post-1984 followed the new rating system, previous movies still followed the original ratings.  In addition, new clarifications of the categories given in 1984 changed the way movies were rated.  According to Holly J.  Morris, this lead to inconsistencies in the way movies were rated.  She states: “Poltergeist and Jaws would surely be PG-13 today, but [they] slid by with a PG [rating] at video stores. ” Unless parents are conversant with the history of motion picture ratings, they likely would not think to check both the publication date and the date’s relationship to its given rating.

Yet it would take more than a clearly navigable system to solve the problems with the rating system.  Another element of the system’s confusion comes from its “few hard and fast rules,” and the fact that “most decisions on the appropriate rating for sex, violence, and language, [are left to] the discretion of the raters”.  The MPAA’s process ultimately relies heavily on personal preferences of various raters.  According to Valenti himself, at the beginning of the process, the intention was not to have any behavioral specialists determine ratings, but rather he just wanted “ordinary people” to be hired for the job.   Morris uses the example of an obscenity derived from a sexual act.  Only one of these obscenities can merit a PG-13 rating, unless it is used in a sexual context in which case raters might assign the movie an R rating.  However, such discretion is left completely to the raters.

Producers have to make investments even before their film can be rated and hit the big screens, which could potentially detract from the incentive to create unconventional movie scenes in fear that the rating system could limit their consumer pool.   In an interview, documentary filmmaker Kirby Dicks noted that NC-17 ratings can lead to screening rejections from movie theaters, sale rejections from video stores, and limited access to advertising.  The demand of consumer audiences is largely to blame, according to Markovitz.   He notes that teens are often eager to see nudity, but the MPAA often rates movies containing nudity out of their age range.  While this may relieve many parents, others argue that the ratings do not accurately reflect the maturity levels of certain ages.  What is so wrong with teens viewing nudity? According to Ron Leone, an assistant professor of media and film at Stonehill College, not as much as you may think.  According to a study he performed to “test the MPAA’s assertion of equal treatment of sexual and violent content when assigning a rating to a film,” as well as the effects of these two areas of content on adolescents, “Children have wider access to violent content, which may be more harmful to them than sexual material. ”Leone notes that movies with any sexual content or nudity received harsher ratings, more often than not receiving an NC-17 rating, were the raters were more lenient with harsh violence, which tended to receive R ratings.  This could possibly stem from the comfort level of raters.  While sexual content may make some raters more uncomfortable, raters might be more comfortable with seeing violent scenes despite their comparatively higher harmful impacts on children.

Although on face the movie rating system appears to be a standardized categorization of movies according to the appropriateness of their content, the system is far from standardized and far from perfect.  Because ratings are based heavily on the discretion of raters who were never meant to represent anything other than the average person, variability and discrimination are inevitable and alive and well.

Edited by Megan Nubel.

Works Cited

Leone, Ron. “Rated Sex: An Analysis If the MPAA’s Use of the R and Nc-17 Ratings.” Communication Research Reports (n.d.): 68-74. Academic Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Markovitz, Adam. “Where’s the LOVE?” Entertainment Weekly 22 Mar. 2013: 36-38. Academic Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Morris, Holly J., and Mark Silver. “G, Why R Ratings so Confusing?” U.S. News & World Report 20 Sept. 1999: 68. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 1994.

“MPAA Ratings, Black Holes, and My Film: An Interview with Kirby Dick.” Interview by Joan M. West, Dennis West, and Kirby Dick. Cineaste 2006: 14-19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Valenti, Jack. “Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).” Congressional Digest Feb. 2005: 50- 54. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
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