In an age when any ten-year-old kid can download midget porn in three clicks, movie ratings seem increasingly quaint—a relic of a bygone era when parents had the luxury of choosing what their children could and couldn’t see. With that in mind, it’s hard to pretend that the latest study done on the ratings system—which found that PG-13 movies actually contain, on average, more gun violence than their R counterparts—was really all that surprising. I actually have some sympathy for the individuals tasked with issuing film ratings, but even the most generous reading of the situation could lead to the conclusion that the ratings system is thoroughly broken, for several reasons.

The Commercial Aspect.

Officially, there are five ratings in the present system—G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17—but even that would be news to the casual observer. Out of those five, there are two that almost never get used. If you’re familiar with the official meaning of the ratings you might take that to mean that movie studios simply no longer make films intended for “general audiences,” or for “adults over 17”—but that’s clearly not the case.

When the ratings system began, films that were rated G (e.g., Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes) or NC-17’s predecessor, X (e.g. Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange) weren’t all that different from what’s being produced now. Studios still produce big action epics and gritty dystopian dramas, and some of the latter are even more explicit than the X-rated films referenced above. It’s just that they don’t use those ratings for them anymore.

So what changed? In a word: marketing.

The ratings were initially intended to be nothing more than a means of telling parents what potentially objectionable content they might find in a film, but it only took producers a few years to notice that certain ratings resulted in bigger box office returns than others. G was quickly stigmatized as a rating for “children’s” movies, and X was even more quickly stigmatized as a rating for inherently immoral films (such as pornography), even though neither connotation was intended. The result was that audiences other than parents of young children stayed away from G movies and most theaters refused to show X and NC-17 movies at all, leaving only ‘PG’ and ‘R’ as financially viable (PG-13 didn’t even exist till 1984).

PG was the obvious choice, since it was accessible to more potential viewers than R, so most producers aimed at a PG rating for their movies. This resulted in some bizarre moments, such as a completely gratuitous shout of “Oh, shit!” in Popeyeadded to ensure that a film based on a children’s cartoon wouldn’t receive a deadly G rating.

Considering the fact that the MPAA is owned and paid for by the same studios who depend on the movies to turn a profit, it should surprise no one that the ratings that films actually received ended up being squeezed heavily toward the most profitable rating. PG-13 was introduced as a compromise to parents outraged that movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (in which a man’s still-beating heart is ripped out of his chest) and Poltergeist (in which a man tears his own face off of his skull) had received a PG rating. Even the MPAA’s original language in describing the new rating heavily implies as much:

A PG-13 film is one which, in the view of the Rating Board, leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category. (emphasis mine)

While the language has since been edited, even the most generous reading of that sounds an awful lot like, “We just really want to market R-rated content to children.”

The Cultural Aspect.

Not that I want to be too hard on the MPAA. For good or for ill, they’ve set themselves up with an essentially impossible task: to advise every parent in the U.S. about which films they can or should let their children see.

The United States, as it happens, is a vast realm that encompasses everyone from lesbian vegans to fundamentalist Mormons. We have very little here as far as “shared values” go. There are parents among us who freak out at the sight of a single nipple but take their kids to a shooting range every weekend, and there are other parents who will talk freely with their children about every facet of sexuality but will shield their eyes at the sight of a lone cigarette. (Compare this to the job of film ratings boards in European countries, most of which are about the size of a postage stamp and about as diverse as a Neil Diamond concert.)

The fact that they’re fighting a losing battle to begin with no doubt contributes to their approach to rating the films themselves, which mostly consists of analyzing their gut reaction to whatever occurs onscreen. (They have few to no hard-and-fast rules about what’s acceptable for what rating, and even the ones they do have—such as the famous “Only one ‘f**k’ in a ‘PG-13’ flick rule”—they frequently violate.)

Among other things, this has resulted in a film world where showing violence is okay as long as you don’t show its consequences. If you show a gun going off and a body falling to the ground, you’re making a PG-13 film; if you show a gun going off and then a man dying in a pool of blood as he regrets his mistakes, it’s an R movie.

The weird thing about gun violence, though is it just doesn’t feel violent—not on a gut level, anyway. There’s something visceral about a knife being jammed into a chest, or an arm being ripped off, or a head being slammed repeatedly in a door—but watching a finger pull a trigger and a body slump to the floor just doesn’t have the same involuntary effect on the viewer. And if you show it a dozen times, its impact lessens with each occurrence—there’s something inherently distancing about it. (As that line apocryphally attributed to Stalin tells us, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”)

The Practical Aspect.

There’s a practical aspect at play here as well, which is that it’s just much easier to draw lines in the sand with language and sexuality than it is with violence.

It’s easy to say “Any damns or hells automatically raise the rating,” or “Any frontal nudity is an automatic R.” The MPAA doesn’t explicitly employ either of those “rules,” but culturally, it’s pretty clear when a line has been crossed. Most people have a mental hierarchy of swear words and sexual depictions, and it’s more or less the same hierarchy for everyone. (Everyone can tell the difference between a Hollywood love scene and hardcore porn, and everyone seems to agree that dropping “the f-bomb” is worse than an utterance of hell.)

Violence doesn’t lend itself to such clear gradations easily. Even the Hays Code, which censored American movies prior to the introduction of the rating system, says very little about violence beyond “Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail”—leaving the definition of “brutal” and “detail” entirely up to writers and directors. One common rule of thumb that studios followed was that a discharging gun and its victim could never be shown in the same frame, but one wonders exactly what such a rule accomplished in terms of protecting the virgin eyes of moviegoers.

Further, even in a system with firm lines drawn, it’s much easier to creep up to them with violence. “No blood” quickly turns into a trickle; a trickle quickly turns into a splash; and so forth. If you’re a film producer counting box office receipts, you’ll likely notice two things: (1) violence sells; (2) PG-13 movies sell. From there, it’s nothing more than an arms race (bad pun intended) to see who can get away with more violence in a PG-13 movie.

Meanwhile, R ends up reserved for movies that will appeal to a crowd of actual adults—who generally require a bit more than a bunch of flashing muzzles to stay entertained.

When the rating system first emerged, it had two primary purposes: to avoid censorship on the one hand, and to advise parents of a film’s content on the other. One could, if so inclined, make the case that it’s failed on both counts. By pushing producers away from the NC-17—and even the R—rating, it acts as a de facto means of censorship; further, in an era when nearly everything gets rated PG or PG-13 irrespective of content, it’s of little use to parents, either. Is it any wonder that a cottage industry of independent panels who review the content of movies for parents has sprung up?

Does the movie rating system even serve a purpose in the modern world? If all a G or PG rating really means is, “Hey, this movie’s for kids!” and a ‘PG-13’ rating really just means, “Adult content, but too infantile for actual adults,” what’s the point? Isn’t that information already fully present in the film’s marketing? Of course, one could make the case that the R rating still keeps kids from viewing adult content.

For about three months, anyway… until it comes out on Netflix.


  1. Luke,

    This is a good article. I’d love to share it, but your spelling out of the f-word violates a lot of the linking policies at places I work for. Any chance you’d be willing to change that?

  2. “Everyone can tell the difference between a Hollywood love scene and hardcore porn…”

    Hmmm. Are you referring only to production values? If so, you may be right, but I’m not so sure. What clear and obvious differences are you talking about? And by “love scene,” I’m assuming you’re referring to actors who are pretending to have sex with each other for the camera, right? Most Hollywood “love” scenes depict characters copulating in an unmarried or adulterous relationship.

    Even if a sex scene involves two married characters, the truth remains that the actors themselves are likely not married. Hence, they have absolutely zero rights to the other person’s body. Is pretending to have sex with your neighbor’s wife for the camera any better than just fantasizing about having sex with your neighbor’s wife? Was Jesus painting with too broad a brush when condemning sex acts that weren’t actually sex?

    Scripture commands the avoidance of any hint of sexually immoral behavior. Does that mean God has a clear distinction in His mind between two (or more) people pretending to have sex for the camera and two (or more) people actually having sex for the camera? Those kinds of distinctions smell suspiciously antinomian and Pharisaic all at once.

  3. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, Mr. Harrington. But are not the explicitness and the morality inseparable? If, in the eyes of God, there is not much difference between two actors publicly faking sex and two actors publicly engaged in sex (from a content standpoint), is there not also little difference between their morality (or lack therefore)? What are the obvious differences between porn and Hollywood sex scenes? I don’t want to be pornographic with the question itself, but is the only difference the fact that one involves actual intercourse, whereas the other involves everything else but? What about the Hollywood sex scenes where it’s rumored that the actors actually did have sex for the camera (such as in “Lust, Caution”)?

    I know this wasn’t anywhere close to your main point, and I don’t want to come across as hypercritical or antagonistic. I just think it’s problematic for the Christian community to treat pornography and Hollywood sex scenes as completely different animals.

    1. Well, sin is sin, and you could easily say that, contrary to what the article says, in the eyes of God, saying the h-word is, in fact, no better than saying the f-word. And you’d be right. But the key is, if I understand him correctly, he’s talking about these from a cultural standpoint. Hence, just before this he says “but culturally, it’s pretty clear when a line has been crossed.” Looking at it from the secular standpoint of the MPAA, he’s right. And again, you’d be right to disagree with that viewpoint from a Christian perspective, but it’s important to talk establish and explain the MPAA’s perspective for the purposes of this article. And I believe that’s all he’s doing here, not trying to justify or establish this as the “right” way to approach sexuality in film-making.

  4. I’m just delighted to know you think all Europeans are the same and we have no diversity. Perhaps, instead, it’s because we have a less capital driven society, or because of who setup the rating boards and when, or even because the majority of movies are not produced within our countries that the rating systems are more effective. Please don’t make glib remarks about entire continents as though they are all unimportant. It added nothing to your argument and was basically just offensive.

    Otherwise, this was quite an interesting post.

  5. I guess the upshot of this article is that parents can’t really rely on ratings to tell them whether their kid should watch a movie. I wholeheartedly agree. But there are several other throwaway comments in the article that seem contrary to that overall message of meaningful and thoughtful parental involvement, and indicative of a fatalistic view of parents putting up age-appropriate screens for their children. For example, the first paragraph’s comment about a “bygone era” when parents had the luxury of choosing what their children could and could not see… Parents still very much have the ability to choose what their children do and do not see. It just takes hard work and choices. And the last comment about Netflix, implying that parents can’t control what their kids watch in Netflix. Being a parent is, to a certain degree, all about control. You control when the baby gets fed, when the diaper gets changed, when the vaccinations are given, when and what they eat, etc. That control also extends to what enters their mind. Sure, you don’t have total control, and sure your level of control wanes as they grow older. But Proverbs assumes that Godly, wise parenting when they are young generally leads to visible results as they age. I don’t want to accuse you of saying something you aren’t, but it seems somewhat en vogue to adopt a fatalistic stance about parenting, or even an antinomian one in which the idea of screening out sin is quaint and foolish. And while there is wisdom of a sort in this – sin does, after all come from the heart, rather than the outside world – that doesn’t mean we should just abandon the screening process altogether. Your points about the ratings system are good insofar as they support a model of meaningful, wise parental involvement in our children’s lives. But not so much if they are intended as support for the viewpoint of “well, they’ll see it regardless so I’ll just provide some context for what they’re seeing and explain the redemptive aspects of it,” as if you can redeem graphic violence or sexual content for the mind of a tweener or younger.

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