Marveling at a One-Rating World

31


“Is the PG-13 rating helping or hurting families?” That’s the question I posed in an article published in Plugged In magazine in the summer of 2001. The answer seemed pretty obvious even then. But after watching two recent movies featuring heroes from the Marvel Comics universe, I’m more convinced than ever that this baffling rating serves Hollywood a lot better than it serves the rest of us.

MarvelUniverse-blog.jpg

For one thing, the vast majority of PG-13 movies are totally inappropriate for the average seventh grader. Why use 13 as the cutoff for features whose content strays perilously close to an R? Many of these films test boundaries. They look for loopholes. They play the ratings game with the Motion Picture Association of America in order to be as racy as possible without getting the R and limiting their profitability.

Take the superhero mutant prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s quite violent in places and racks up a significant body count, but the fatalities are shot strategically in order to comply with the MPAA’s acceptable limits. Similarly, frontal female nudity and a scene in which a man gropes the barely dressed woman straddling him on a bed would normally cost a film its PG-13. Not here. The makers of X-Men have found creative ways to be provocative without sacrificing their desired rating. They also get maximum pop out of an f-word, as permitted by the MPAA in a PG-13. In short, this otherwise compelling film gets torpedoed by gratuitous content.

For the most part, this is what the PG-13 has become.

On the other hand, did you see Thor? Although there are a few intense battles against computer-generated aliens, that superhero flick is surprisingly accessible. Noble. Dare I say wholesome? When it comes to the ladies, Thor’s a gentleman. In fact, the film’s most sensual moment is a passionate smooch planted on him after he gently kisses a woman’s hand. And as far as language, we get a handful of mild profanities, but a far cry from what the MPAA allows in a PG-13. Same rating as X-Men: First Class. Very different movie. In fact, Thor shows enough restraint that it could’ve received a PG. So why didn’t it? Again, I blame marketing.

Since audiences are conditioned to expect seasonal blockbusters and superhero movies in general to score a PG-13, the studio had to be a little concerned that a PG rating might actually hurt ticket sales. In 2011, a PG implies that a movie is soft. It’s a “family film.” And while that might be fine for Pixar, DreamWorks and the Judy Moodys of the world, that’s not a message Marvel or other studios angling for the 16-40 crowd want to send to their broad fan base. Indeed, ratings these days seem to be less about informing the public than positioning a movie for the biggest possible opening weekend.

I find this trend disappointing. Not just because the PG-13 has caused confusion by blurring expectations at the “edgy” end of the spectrum. And not simply because it’s alienating families that might otherwise enjoy a film like Thor. As a movie lover, I’m also saddened because this phenomenon has changed the look and feel of summer blockbusters (Transformers, anyone?). If PG classics of summers past, such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and E.T. The Extraterrestrial were released today, they’d no doubt look a little different, just to land a more lucrative PG-13 rating.

Who wrote this?

Senior Editor for PLUGGEDIN.COM. In addition to hosting the weekly "Official Plugged In Podcast," Bob also writes reviews, articles and Movie Nights discussion guides, and manages areas of this website. He has served at Focus on the Family for more than 20 years. Since 1995, Bob has penned "High Voltage," a monthly column that answers children's entertainment questions in Clubhouse magazine. He has co-authored several books, including Chart Watch, Movie Nights, Movie Nights for Teens and, most recently, The One Year Father-Daughter Devotions. Bob is also co-host of "The Official Adventures in Odyssey Podcast."

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Latricia Vaughn More than 1 year ago

--Big news for families concerned about movie content.  Plugged In is a good movie review that gives the good, the bad, & the ugly on a movie.  www.pluggedin.com/movies.aspx

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lisbeth:

I'm the kind of film nerd who looks at the ten biggest-grossing movies of the year at the end of every year and one thing I've noticed is that PG-13 movies are the majority on this list.  There are almost always no G-rated movies and, if there are any children's movies that make the cut, they are rated PG. Also, if you look at the list of movies that come out every year, most of them are PG-13 and many of the children's movie are rated PG.  I've kept a movie diary for the last two years, and one thing I've noticed is that the majority of the movies I see and connect to the most are rated PG-13.  I rarely see children's movies and, if I do, they're usually rated PG. 

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  YetAnotherTeen:

I'm 17 and have only ever seen Passion of the Christ. There are people out there who haven't seen R-rated movies, they're just overlooked for popularity's sake.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

I don't think you are, but I'm surprised that you're 19 and have never seen an R-rated movie. I remember I saw Pretty Woman when I was nine, which was totally inappropriate. But that was because my parents weren't really plugged in (pun intended) to pop culture back then. I mean, they didn't think they needed to. We were a good christian family and this was before the internet and media technology.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  The Reviewer:

I'll admit I was pretty sheltered growing up even in a broken home lacking of Christian values. But why are we talking about PG-13 when PG movies push the envelope (for me at least)? When I read reviews of PG movies that contain the B-word I'm thinking 'how is that even possible?'. I though PG was for movies like Bridge to Terabithia or Over the Hedge. You know things with some thematic elements, toilet/ crude humor, maybe a little sly innuendo, and/or mild action. And the old PG (before PG-13)--don't even get me started. My dad's friend always brings over some old PG "gems" to watch. I leave the room before the movies start, but I think as my younger siblings view my Dad remembers how inapropriate they really are.

In a perfect rating system, The Last Song (which I liked) should have been rated PG-13. How are those long make-out sessions appropriate for my 12 year old sister who is a Hannah Montana fan? I feel like a rebel myself watching that movie or even watching something like the The Blind Side (which is what PG-13 should look like). So now that leaves me, a 19 year old who gets made fun of because the "worst" movies I have ever seen are part of the Spiderman and Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or some war movies from history class. And some of my favs right now are Up, Ramona and Beezus, and good old Disney/ Disney Channel movies like the High School Musical series. Am I too modest for my own good?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kaz:

:^) and even the "profanity" you mention in P & P wouldn't have been considered one in his day; I would say he meant the Shakespearian-language "donkey" version of the word, not the "rear end" version of the present day (which is spelled differently).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  andy3193:

Actually yes it can and there were no sex scenes. Optimus Prime does have very many christ qualities and Sam's love for his parents is very much on display throughout this story. I loved it but i guess we'll just agree to disagree.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  YetAnotherTeen:

First off, comparing Optimus Prime to Jesus is not something I'd do, especially if he's coming back from the dead. Second, no amount of undying and explosions can overshadow the profanity, human sexual content, sex scenes (seriously?), and pure mindlessness of the story.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  andy3193:

Transformers 2 was excellent. I'm sorry but I just never understood why people didnt like this movie. The morality? What about Optimus Prime dieing for the ones he loves and then coming back to life (like Jesus)? The special effects were excellent and the story was intriguing. Fantastic movie

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  YetAnotherTeen:

It'd take a lot to make me "forgive" him for said movie, it was appalling both in quality and morality.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

So true...that's what summer blockbusters are about! Can't wait to see Transformers 3 (if I can forgive Michael Bay for the disaster that was Transformers 2).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  andy3193:

I'm sorry but PG action movies just simply don't work. They are as you said soft and usually lack any sort of intensity what so ever. This is why pretty much all summer blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, and all the superhero movies) are PG-13. Now grant it, they could leave out some of the unneeded sexual content, but the action scenes are intense and violent in those movies and would give the movies PG-13 regardless. If you "tamed that down" the movies would not be very good at all and would be as you said "soft".

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kristin:

I think the ratings system is completely messed up and very unreliable for families.

I'm 20 years old and I don't feel comfortable watching about 90% of the PG-13 movies out there. I cringe at the idea of 13 year olds watching them! About the only PG-13 movies I will watch are fantasy-type series that are mostly rated that for action and some violence: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Carribean.

Even PG movies have such a wide range that it's hard to judge. Profanity is a big pet peeve of mine in films. My favorite movie, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, is rated PG. There's one "profanity," which I don't really consider swearing given the setting and era (the character refers to himself as acting foolish). Then there are other PG romantic comedies that contain a handful of profanities. Mild ones, but still.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

I agree. Its a very fine line parents have to walk between protecting their kids from inappopriate stuff and being overbearing about it; because nowadays, with the internet and everything, if a kid really wants to watch an R-rated movie they can do so quite easily (and without their parents' knowledge).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Eh:

Prehaps the rating could be changed. But really it comes down to parents just being smart and discussing with their kids the content afterwards. I was born in 1990 and my parents took me to see all the good movies of that time Toy Story, James Bond (I saw Goldeneye and Toy Story the same night), Starship Troopers, Patriot, and others. I saw movies that were "damaging for my young eyes" or "not suitable" and I turned out fine. I never got nightmares from any of them and I think I'm a well adjusted adult. Believe it or not the majority of kids don't want to be treated like kids and CAN handle a lot of content that's shown now (provided they have good parental guided discussions afterward. Part of the reason most kids take what they see from "comedies" like Zohan and use it wrong is that there's no parental guidence after viewing the movie. Mine never had deep conversations with me but maybe I was an exceptional child). I have no national evidence to back me up but a lot of the kids I knew that actively sought out porn and sleezy R movies (Showgirls) were kids who's parents tried to shelter them from anything above PG.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  CaptainMommy:

I recently watched The King''s Speech, so famously rated R for the language. It was a fabulous movie, a wonderful story about a courageous man, and with a clever use of the mute button, I would gladly show it to my (mature for her age) 10-year old daughter. She needs to miss the bad words, of course, but the story is one from which she could benefit. The MPAA rating system is an interesting guide, but I prefer the one on TV which shows not only what the movie is rated (F for family, M for mature, etc) but also why (MV is mature because of violence). A ratings system, no matter how it is set up, is no substitute for the discretion of the parents.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Z:

I think the PG-13 rating has become blurrier and blurrier every single year. On one end, some movies (like Thor) get a PG-13 rating to get the money and publicity when it could've been a PG. But on the other end, some superhero movies (like The Dark Knight) really push the envelope. That movie could've easily been an R for violence, but it wasn't. I think the MPAA needs to be honest about a movie and rate it for its content, not for doing well at the box office.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  lupinskitten:

I think another aspect of the problem is many movie theaters not reinforcing R-ratings... when coming out of the last Pirates movie, I passed two teenage boys (clearly NOT 17) coming out of Hangover II. I have to wonder if their parents knew they were there -- or cared?

PG-13 has a wide spectrem, I agree. Les Miserables is PG-13 for its themes of prostitution and violence yet nothing much is ever shown on screen; it's also one of the greates movies I have ever seen. Everyone talks aboaut how violent The Dark Knight was but you never saw most of the violence -- it was your mind completing the violence that left such a huge impact on people. I personally don't think Emma Frost projecting her image onto a man's lap is worthy of an R-rating. Apart from all the skimpy outfits, I thought the X-Men movie was fairly tame in content (it could have been much worse without putting a dent in the rating), and I'm not soft on content, either. Is it a family movie? No, it isn't. But anyone who has seen the previous installments and noticed the fact that Mystique is practically naked knows that.

You cannot trust ratings. You never could and never will be able to. I've seen some PG movies that should have been PG13, PG13 movies that should have been R, PG13 that should have been PG, and R that should have been PG13. Almost no PG rated romantic comedies come out anymore and I think that's a shame, because most of them aren't as sweet as The Wedding Planner.

For adults, this ratings fiasco isn't much of a problem -- you can just check out what the content is like online and then make your decision based on if it fits your personal standards. But a lot of parents don't bother paying attention to ratings at all -- I remember seeing X2 quite a few years ago in a theater and being horrified that there was a six year old in the audience with his dad. Really? Sensuality aside, does a kid really need to see Wolverine stabbing people with his claws?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Andrew:

Up here in Canada, THOR is rated PG.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Dr. Ambiguous:

I agree, the PG-13 rating isn't very helpful, and it does seem to do  more for marketing than for actually helping movie viewers. The rating  system needs a lot of work, the MPAA has very few set standards, of  which every single one has been broken at one time or another. It  doesn't help that the raters vote on the rating of a movie which is  based more on their subjective opinions as opposed to an objective  standard. This is part of the reason why their is such a double standard  (plus if the violence or sexual content is historical the movie receives a more lenient rating).

I read somewhere on  the web (it may have been here on Plugged In, I can't remember) that it  was suggested that PG-13 be changed to M-13 (or MA-13), since this would  help communicate better the idea that it is a more mature movie that's  closer to R, as opposed to a movie that is closer to PG. Personally, I'm  in favor of this idea, as well as a middle-ground rating between PG-13  and R, (i.e. PG-15, or better yet M-15).

I also feel  that the MPAA simply needs to be stricter with their ratings as I feel  that they aren't hard enough on movies in general, for any area of  content.

Sadly, I don't think that any of this is going  to happen. Movie ratings are in a comfortable spot where the MPAA gets  their money by rating movies, theaters use the ratings to advertise the  movies to the targeted audience (which is rarely what it should be),  which allows both the theaters and movie makers to earn money from  ticket sales for PG-13 movies -many of which should be rated higher-  since many parents let their kids see these movies without checking on  anything about them except the rating. All the while those who object to  the way things are done are a small enough minority that it doesn't  significantly affect ticket sales.

But it's not just  movies that have a problem with the ratings, TV shows can get away with  too much (Family Guy is only TV-14), and the PA label is only applied to  a handful of albums that actually deserve it, since their is no  governing body for music ratings and it is up to the record label if  they want to include the PA label on an album.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  JuliChristine:

I seem to be agreeing with everyone else here that the rating doesn't actually offer all that much information. I remember discussing movies with my parents when I was a teenager and talking about how different things matter to different families. There were (and still are, come to think of it) only a handful of PG-13 movies that are worthwile, as it seems to me that the ratings almost always applies to stupid romcoms or sex comedies full of sleaze. However, the R rating, which is supposedly worse and for over-17s, is the rating for numerous excellent movies with noble themes (and which were, in my opinion, usually better made). The Patriot was always my example of this; I first watched it when I was 12 and was impacted in good ways. I grew up with (and still have) a very low tolerance for anything sexual in entertainment (it's just not worth it) while I think violence, particularly in war movies, can be well-used (and even when it's not, it's not a problem for me). Obviously different families are different (though I'd suggest that believers have no business dallying with sexual themes just for entertainment; Ephesians 5) which is why the detailed breakdown of content is so helpful. I join the others in saying thank you, PluggedIn, for providing this information to allow us all to make informed choices and not be subject to Hollywood's marketing and skewed opinions of what's appropriate when, but to submit our entertainment choices to the loving parameters of what is fitting and beneficial for God's children.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  jmn15:

This is precisely why I don't even care what the rating is. I just look at the content descriptors too know what to expect.

P.S. Raiders? Really?? That was about as bad as Temple of Doom. After watching The Dark Knight (Which I loved) I thought that is the limit for PG-13. Then I watched the Indiana Jones series. guess which one I thought was more deserving of the PG-13 rating?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Sean_the_Highlander:

I comletely agree with your sentiments Bob. However, I might point out that even the PG classics weren't quite as classy as they could have been. Raiders and Future included colorful language and some unnecessary sexual tension. Star Wars was fairly clean, and I've never seen E.T. but I just want to point out that even before the PG-13 rating, movie makers were pushing the PG barrier.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  katie:

I actally have been thinking about this alot myslef lately, and  relizing just how far the PG-13 envolpe has been pushed. Haven't seen  the formentioned movies (YET!) but they're not the only ones I've been  shocked by.I also stumbled across an article titled "Is PG-13 Safe for Kids? Hmm?" on the Fandango website that talked about much of the same thing, and offered what I think is an ingenious soulution.

THank you PluggedIn for offering reviews. You've saved me, and my family from wasting our time and money at the box office.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  katie:

Jeff, I stumbled across an article on the Fandango site that suggested another level. The title is "Is PG-13 Safe for Kids?  Hmm?" if you wanna check it out.