PG-13 Movie Ratings: A Brief History

Movie Ratings
Where do we draw the line between something being too graphic for kids’ eyes but not quite ‘adult only’? Apparently a literally heart-wrenching movie scene depicting human sacrifice helped define that line back in the 1980s.  Many critics cite Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as being the weakest film in the original Indiana Jones trilogy. Nevertheless, it plays an important part in the history of the film industry with regard to how Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system operates.

A Quick and Dirty History of American Movie Ratings

In 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (later known as the MPAA). This code dictated a number of topics that were completely unacceptable to be depicted or talked about in movies – including things such as profanity, racial miscegenation, nudity, and drug use. This code was adopted in response to a few different things – some of which had nothing to do with film content itself. Hollywood had been embroiled in a number of sex scandals involving famous actors and the Supreme Court was dealing with a few cases related to censorship. Major players in the film industry decided that there needed to be a general standard of content in order to avoid the wrath of the government. Once the code was drafted and adopted, a small group of powerful MPAA members would review each film to make sure it met the content standards before being distributed to theaters.

The Motion Picture Production Code ensured that most films could be shown to most audiences without causing major offense or containing illegal content. As public standards changed over the decades, so did the code. In the 1950s, topics such as miscegenation and prostitution were removed from the banned list. By the early 1960s, American filmmakers were eager to broach more controversial subjects, especially after seeing the less-censored films coming out of the European film industry. By the mid 1960s, the MPAA Production Code committee began slowly easing the standards by allowing films to be distributed despite containing blatant profanities and broaching indecent topics. In 1966, after realizing that the Production Code was almost entirely unenforced in its current state, the president of the MPAA proposed that Code be scrapped and a new ratings system be imposed in its stead. The ratings system would allow films to continue to push social boundaries within certain standards.

There were only four ratings in the initial system enacted by the MPAA in 1968: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences/parental guidance suggested, R for restricted/no one under 16 allowed without a guardian, and X for no one under 16 allowed at all. Over the next decade, the ratings and system shifted slightly. The R and X age restriction increased to 17 years and M became PG (but the “parent guidance suggested” remained the same). This system remained in place until the 1980s, when a few films caused people to consider the wide chasm between what was considered appropriate for children and what was only viewable by adults.

The Temple of Doom and…Gremlins?

In the early 1980s, two Steven Spielberg movies caused minor controversies over their ratings. Both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (released in 1984) received a PG rating. Many viewers of these films raised concerns over the questionable content in these films. Even though there was nothing hugely explicit or extraordinarily violent about either movie, parents and critics felt that they might be too disturbing or graphic for little children. In the middle of 1984, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating to close the wide gap between PG and R-rated films.

However, the PG-13 rating did little to stop controversies over film ratings. While it allowed more nuance in the rating of movies, it has arguably lead to more disputes over just what qualifies for Restricted rating. Film production companies generally prefer to produce films that will have a PG or PG-13 rating because it makes more money. A lower rating means the prospective audience of a film may be larger and thus earn far more money at the box office. The major downside of the MPAA rating system is that there are no hard and fast rules for what constitutes earning which rating. For that reason, many filmmakers and critics have argued that the MPAA rating system is inherently unfair. A company can intend to produce a film for a wide audience but if the MPAA gives it an R, little can be done. Films can be re-cut with the intention of removing the offending content, but sometimes the edits required would completely change the film’s plot and theme. And even re-cuts do not guarantee a different rating.

Despite the MPAA ratings system remaining the same since the introduction of PG-13, the standards for each rating has slowly changed over the past few decades. Dark and fairly violent films such as World War Z and The Dark Knight both earned PG-13 ratings while The King’s Speech got an R for a few f-bombs. Numerous books and documentaries have chronicled the inconsistency of the MPAA rating system over the past few decades, but few have been able to challenge or change the current system. While introducing the PG-13 rating solved some issues within the film industry, it may have inadvertently created others.