Know Your Movie Ratings

A few words on Movie Ratings…

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) selects the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings for motion pictures.

It is important to fully understand these ratings and their drawbacks, however, before relying too heavily on them.

First of all, it is useful to read the official definitions on the MPAA site.

From the MPAA website:

Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of films, so they can determine what movies are appropriate for their young children to see. Movie ratings do not determine whether a film is “good” or “bad.” They simply provide basic information to parents about the level of various elements in the film, such as sex, violence and language so that parents can decide what their children can and cannot see. By providing clear, concise information, movie ratings provide timely, relevant information to parents, and they help protect the freedom of expression of filmmakers and this dynamic American art form.

Who decides the ratings? Parents. Ratings are assigned by an independent board of parents with no past affiliation to the movie business. Their job is to rate each film as they believe a majority of American parents would rate it, considering relevant themes and content.

(To look up a specific film go here.)

Okay, so that’s the official line, but there are a few other things to keep in mind before trusting the ratings too far. First of all, for older films you need to know when the movie was released…

Old Movies (released prior to 1968)

The current rating system was introduced in 1968. Movies released prior to 1968 are unrated, unless the producers/studio applied for retroactive rating for video release (which is optional). Most producers however, would rather not apply for a rating if they don’t have to, preferring vagueness to any restrictions on their prospective audiences.

On the MPAA rating site unrated films are not even listed, ie. The Wizard of Oz (1939).

1968 to 1984

In the system begun in 1968 there was no PG-13 rating, just PG. The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984. One source I read said it came about as a result of lobbying by Steven Spielberg (Nichols, Children’s Movies: a critic’s guide…), but it was certainly also as a result of complaints from parents about the more intense PG movies. The new PG-13 was to designate films which were not ‘offensive’, but had a higher level of violence and frightening scenes.

As a result, there are a few films released in this period, 1968-1984, which are rated PG but which definitely would have received PG-13 ratings if they were released today. Ie. Bad News Bears (for profanity), Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Jaws… Yes, Jaws has a PG designation, since they don’t backdate ratings.

since 1995

The MPAA now supplies more information on content for all movies rated PG or higher for movies released since 1995. For example:

Tangled is “Rated PG for brief mild violence.”
Up is “Rated PG for some peril and action.”

This information doesn’t appear in every movie ad unfortunately, but usually appears in movie reviews and can be accessed at the MPAA site.

Beyond this, there are other concerns with the MPAA system…

How ‘G’ is ‘G’?

The amount of violence that is deemed acceptable in G films might surprise you. A ‘G’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is suitable for all ages, just that there is no apparent nudity, no ‘strong’ language, and the violence is “at a minimum”, in MPAA president Jack Valenti’s words. (Cantor, “Mommy I’m Scared…, p. 178)

Unfortunately parents can’t trust that a G movie is totally benign, as violence that occurs in animated movies seems to get a bit of a free pass in this system. Here’s my previous post about an interesting study on violence in G rated films.

Most animated features get almost an automatic G since they are aimed at children. Researcher Joanne Cantor writes:

Animated fairy tale and adventure films seem to be rated on the basis of their target market – children – rather than the effects they have on children. A G rating is not an indication of content. And it is not very helpful to parents. (Cantor, Ibid., p. 179)

She comes to the conclusion that many animated features are too scary for many children below the age of six.

MPAA ratings reflect what a committee of parents think would be offensive to other parents. They do not reflect any expertise in the field of child psychology or knowledge of the impact of the media on children. These ratings are not helpful in predicting the effects a movie will have on your child.  … What would help us make viewing decisions for our children? The answer is, an honest indication of what is in the movie. (Cantor, Ibid., p. 179)

Aha! Exactly what I’m aiming to do with this site.

How ‘PG’ is ‘PG’?

Another complicating factor is the fairly common situation in which a producer wants to avoid a G rating on his film, fearing that only small children and their parents will come to see it. Older children and adults may avoid a film if they think it’s just for little kids. If a producer is gunning for a wider audience, and a higher rating, the easiest way to get bumped up into PG-land is to add a ‘mild epithet’ strong enough to be considered as ‘strong language’ but not bad enough to deter the parents of younger children. (Most commonly a quick line of dialogue is added to the soundtrack at a point where the character speaking it is not seen on-screen. Pickup lines that don’t have to sync with onscreen visuals are very easy and cheap to add at any point in post production.)

For example, the musical Annie (1982) was made a PG by adding a couple “goddamn’s”.

This unfortunately serves to ‘cheapen’ the whole PG rating. There are so many PG movies like Annie, that seem pretty innocuous, that people are more willing to take a chance on PG movies for their kids. And in films made before 1995, it was impossible to find out if a film was rated PG for violence, for sex or just for mild language concerns.

A few statistics from Cantor:

In the year 1995/96, of the 1400 movies that were released: 67% were rated R, 16% were PG-13, 14% were PG, and only 3% were rated G.

Of the PG movies, 26% had bad language only.  (Cantor, Ibid., pp. 175, 176)

As time goes on, the increasing tolerance for violence and gore seems to be skewing PG-13 ever upwards. Critic Ty Burr writes of:

“an escalating sensationalism that dulls the brain. … The studios and MPAA ratings board collude in helping films that feature rotting zombies avoid the R of death (just as long as there’s no nudity, because we know how that warps kids), and parents often take the smallest children to see terrifying PG-13 thrill rides like Van Helsing or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest because the rating somehow absolves them of having to think for themselves.” (Burr, The Best Old Movies for Families, p. 7)

His antidote to this is to increase your viewing of old movies, which I agree with wholeheartedly. (I will definitely be writing more about that in the future.)


My sources:

Burr, Ty. The Best Old Movies for Families. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, 2007.

Cantor, Joanne. “Mommy, I’m Scared”: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We can Do to Protect Them. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Nichols, Peter M. The New York Times Essential Library : Children’s Movies: a critic’s guide to the best films available on video and DVD. New York: Times Books, 2003.

Yokota, F. and Thompson, K. M. “Violence in G-rated Animated Films” Journal of the American Medical Association 283 (May 24-31, 2000): 2716-20.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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