A film’s fulfillment of various viewing acceptability requirements, based on content and theme, is the primary concern of the Motion Picture Association of America. Its unique film rating system, subscribed to in the United States as well as its territories, identify the movies that are worthy of passing rigid requirements to be suitable for the viewing of children, adolescents, and adults, respectively.
Offensive content in films is prevalent and is the prime issue of the MPAA, and its rating system is the standard used to classify each film according to the degree of potentially distasteful material. Non-disclosure of processes and reasons for decisions made have long been controversial subjects associated with the MPAA, as well as the organization’s alleged double standard in censoring films more for sex than violence. The standard MPAA ratings and their publicly-used symbols are as follows:
- “G (General Audiences) – All ages admitted.
- PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) – Some material may not be suitable for children.
- PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
- R (Restricted) – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
- NC-17 (No Children 17 or Under Admitted) – No one 17 and under admitted.”
- (The Classification and Ratings Administration, 2000)
- NR (Not Rated) – Film has not been submitted for rating, but is required. Not an official classification of the MPAA.
This paper will discuss the events and rationales behind the MPAA film ratings system as it is now.
With many countries al over the world having established their own film ratings system, the United States joined the picture relatively late in November 1, 1968—with the official institution of the MPAA-issued film ratings. This was a reaction to the clamor of many religious groups for the restriction or removal of film content that may be plainly classified as profane, sexual, or violent. coming from the revision by the MPAA of the Production Code of America in 1966. Arguably adopting a more lenient manner with films of offensive content, said revision resulted in the creation of the Suggested for Mature Audiences (SMA) advisory that covered violence and mature themes in movies.
Also, this revision affected the cultural and moral integrity of the Production Code; the development triggered the release of a host of violently- and sexually-explicit or implicit movies—at least for the standards of the time—operating along artistic lines, such as the slasher scene in Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960), the use of various unmentionable words, such as “hump” and “fuck” in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), and Ulysses (1967), respectively. The public demanded the MPAA to revisit the film code and bring back the stricter self-censorship guidelines, and, through a joint decision with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the outcome was a standard and identical ratings system to be enforced on every film (Valenti, 2005).
Unfortunately, issues regarding free speech rendered the new ratings system practically unenforceable; allowing film producers who were not MPAA members to continue with the old system, largely on the basis of the interpreted allowances granted by the US Constitution’s First Amendment for profanity, sex, and violence in media.
The ratings system used between 1967 and 1970 were as follows:
- Rated G – For general audiences. Admitting all ages.
- Rated M – For mature audiences. Parental discretion advised.
- Rated R – Restricted. Under 16 not admitted unless with parent or adult.
- Rated X – Under 17 not admitted.
Originally, this system was designed to only include the first three ratings; however, church-based action and lawsuits prompted theatre owners to pressure MPAA to add the “X: rating for overtly adult content.
The “M” rating later caused confusion among parents, who could not identify the degrees of mature content between M- and R-rated movies. Understandably so, for many films shown between 1965 and 1968 that were M-rated contained adult content and violent scenes. In 1970, the M rating was replaced by GP, which allowed entry for audiences of any age, albeit with the implied expectation of parental discretion. During this time, with questions raised on the minimum age requirement for R- and X-rated films, the MPAA decided to adopt the NC-17 rating (MPAA, 2005).
The unclear interpretations of the GP rating prodded parents to question the actual content of films classified under this category, even as the MPAA alternatively added a qualifier that indicated that the film contains material that may not be suitable for pre-teens. This was done by adding an asterisk after GP, which was in truth an early version of the current PG-13 rating. But as the GP* films started to outnumber GP, the MPAA trashed both ratings in favor of the PG rating—used from 1972 to 1984. From 1984 to 1990, a new rating was added, the current PG-13, which specified that “parents are strongly cautioned to provide special guidance for children under 13”.
At this time, with the emphasis on ratings evidenced by the inclusion of the MPAA logo and the respective advisory warning on content, some adult-classified films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and Tora! Tora! Tora!, among others, were given PG ratings, instead of the expected G. This was because the G-rating often implied children-specific content, and other “safe” films outside of that category were soon given PG or PG-13 ratings (Yahoo! Canada Answers, 2008).
There is also the controversy of the basis of ratings, being closely reflective of the censors’ own personal values and biases. While other countries rated some films X or banned them altogether, some of the MPAA used doubtful ratings standards and were noted in the tolerance for a specific type of violence—e.g., the graphic horror film It’s Alive received a PG rating, notwithstanding its portrayal of a killer mutant baby. Other films that contained explicit violence as well as cursing were even rated G, while subtle sexual references in films like The Thomas Crown Affair won an R rating for the film (Joystiq, 2008).
The implementation of the PG-13 rating was an answer to more calls of parents and religious groups regarding the still-existent violence in many PG-rated films. The highly popular Indiana Jones series launch and the quirky horror movie Gremlins, both released in 1984, prompted MPAA president Jack Valenti to officially create a new rating that would restrict entry for children below 13 years of age without the company of a parent or adult (Home Theater Info, 1999-2008). The Flamingo Kid, completed in the same year, was the first film to receive the PG-13 rating (IMDb, 1990-2008).
The 1980s saw an increase in the production of films deemed by the MPAA as suited for an X rating, particularly of art films such as 1989’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover because of explicit sexual content and violence (The Buffalo Film Seminars, 2000). Because of the smaller chances such films had of commercial success, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating, which was officially worded as “No Children Under 17 Admitted”. Five years later, the rating was given stricter parameters by changing the qualifier include 17-year-olds as well. Because of these restrictions, many NC-17 films were re-edited so as to be qualified for release in theatres—with the prevalence of the “uncut” version entering the home video market (Valenti, 2005).
The MPAA Rating Process
Because the MPAA does not release an official ratings process, the guidelines followed by most filmmakers are but interpretations of decisions previously made by the MPAA.
- The use of sexually-explicit words once to thrice in a film will result in a PG-13 rating—only if such words are not used in a sexual context. Otherwise, it will get an R.
- Drug references gets a minimum PG-13 rating, while explicit drug use in scenes earns at least a PG-13—though showing drug use and its consequent sexual and violent behavior will give it an NC-17 rating.
- Sexual references and content can get the film anywhere from a G to an R rating, depending on the use, exposure, and context. It is interesting to note that male nudity almost always gets a lower rating versus its female version.
- Historical or factual violence, even if intrinsically NC-17, can get an R; those in other films, including mere showing of bloodshed, may give it a PG-13 or an R rating (Film Bug, 1998-2008).
- Valenti, Jack (2005). “How It All Began”. MPAA website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_HowItAllBegan.asp
- Motion Picture Association of America (2005). “Ratings History”. MPAA website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_history1.asp
- The Classification and Ratings Administration (2000). “Voluntary Movie Rating System”. Film Ratings website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://www.filmratings.com/
- Home Theater Info (1999-2008). “MPAA Ratings System”. Home Theater Info website, retrieved on 26 July 2008 from http://www.hometheaterinfo.com/mpaa.htm
- Internet Movie Database (1990-2008). “The Flamingo Kid (1984)”. IMDb website, retrieved on 26 July 2008 from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087265/trivia
- Film Bug (1998-2008). “MPAA Ratings”. Film Bug website, retrieved on 26 July 2008 from http://www.filmbug.com/dictionary/mpaa-ratings.php
- Buffalo Film Seminars, The (2000). “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”. The Center for Studies in American Culture website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://csac.buffalo.edu/cookthief.pdf
- Yahoo! Canada Answers (2008). “What’s the Story Behind the PG13 Rating?” Yahoo! Canada Answers website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://ca.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080407094637AAaq0CJ
- Joystiq (2008). “Does Smash Bros. Brawl merit a Teen rating?” Joystiq website, retrieved on 27 July 2008 from http://www.joystiq.com/2008/03/15/does-smash-bros-brawl-merit-a-teen-rating/