Today In Pop Culture: The Movie Ratings System and Why We Should Kill It

Published on January 27th, 2016 in: Culture Shock, Movies, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


The way we rate movies in America is confusing and arbitrary at best. The stranglehold the Motion Picture Association of America has over artists and the way they present their art is unconscionable. It is an outdated, lopsided system which falls apart when you apply even the least amount of thought to it.

On this date in 1970, the MPAA’s ratings division, known as CARA (The Classification and Rating Administration), changed their rating “M,” for Mature, to “PG” for Parental Guidance Suggested. This was the second ratings¬†system adjustment in two years. The ratings wouldn’t be changed again until 1984.

The practice of rating movies began in 1930 with Will Hays, a Presbyterian who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. He was worried about how motion pictures were viewed, especially in the light of Hollywood stars being involved in off-screen scandals during the 1920s. The Supreme Court decided in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, so Hays and his band of merry men took the opportunity to create a list of recommendations for film creators. You know, a few guidelines here and there. Filmmakers also had to describe the plots of their films before being allowed to make them.

So much for the land of the free.

Over time, the MPAA rose from the ashes of the MPPDA, and it seems like everyone had a hand in submitting ideas for what could and what could not be seen. The Catholics had their say, the studio heads, the filmmakers themselves; everyone chimed in. They ended up with The Code.

You can guess how this went. No profanity, no nudity, no drugs. These things were also in the list: no white slavery, no interracial sex, no mention of social diseases, no ridicule of the clergy, no showing the sexual organs of children and no mention of homosexuality or any other sexual “perversion.”

None of these things have anything to do with real life, and The Code effectively muffled any attempt by filmmakers to mirror the society they existed in. [And before you go off on me about the children’s sexual organs thing, go back and watch the 1978 Superman.]

By the time the Sixties ended, The Code was horribly outdated. Something had to change. The man who initiated that change was Jack Valenti, the president of the MPAA. In 1968, the ratings were installed.

G = General Audiences. This has not changed.
M = Mature Audiences. This was the equivalent of the PG rating.
R = Restricted. No one under 16 was admitted without an adult with them.
X = It stands for nothing but itself. No one under 16 allowed in.

Those stood until 1970, when two things happened. The “M” rating was changed to the “GP” rating. “GP” stood for “General Audiences, Parental Guidance Suggested.” They also raised the ages for admittance on the “X” and “R” ratings to 17. One whole year. Good thinking.

In 1972, “GP” became “PG,” because “GP” was stupid.

Filmmakers still wanted to push the boundaries. Artists do that. Perhaps surprisingly, it was Steven Spielberg who helped break the Code. As director of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its infamous scene of ripping a man’s heart from his chest, and as the executive producer of Gremlins, which terrified children with its intense scenes of creature violence, Spielberg suggested a “PG-13” rating. This made sense to the MPAA, and it certainly made sense to Spielberg, who couldn’t imagine an R-rated Indiana Jones movie bringing in any money.

Soon after that, the “X” rating was replaced with “NC-17,” meaning no children under the age of 17 would be allowed.

So that’s where we sit now, but how much sense does it make? As an adolescent, who didn’t sneak into an R-rated movie? If the ratings aren’t enforced at a theater level, then why should we pay any attention to them?

It’s also important to note that the MPAA is stiffer on some film elements than others. They tend to let violence slide, but are overly harsh on sexual aspects. The documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, shows examples of films including gay sex scenes receiving “NC-17” ratings, while similar scenes with heterosexual sexual activity received an “R.”

In a society where children are forced to grow up quickly, and live in a world filled with sex, violence, Internet pornography, bullying, and all the other horrors modern life has wrought upon us, how can we legitimately say, “You can’t see this movie, even it could possibly resonate with you on a personal level, and maybe help you deal with the difficulties of your life?”

The ratings system is broken. It needs to be fixed.

Here’s my idea.

Drop the letter ratings completely. Continue to list which elements of the film could be considered offensive, and let the parents decide what their children can or can’t see. As kids grow older and more mature, let them decide for themselves. That’s part of growing up anyway, isn’t it?

Stop censoring the filmmakers. Quit shackling audiences. It’s time to revamp the ratings system, and if that happens, that would be the greatest impact the MPAA could have on popular culture of all time.

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