Parents’ Beef with the MPAA Rating System: Is It Time for an Update?

PG-13 Turns 30 - But YOU are Still the ParentI was 9 years old when I saw my first PG-13 movie. There was a mediocre cinema in town, and my mother and I were regulars. When the MPAA added in the new film rating late in 1984, it didn’t really factor much into deciding which movie to go see. The old standby of “PG” (Parental Guidance) had been working out pretty great for us for years.

In 1983 and 1984 we watched Twilight Zone, Trading Places, War Games, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Jaws. All of these films were (and still are) rated PG. Yes, Jaws is rated PG, the same rating as the animated film Frozen.

Also rated PG is the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom is, hands down, the most tense and violent of the Indiana Jones films. George Lucas who was a writer and producer of the film admits he and Steven Spielburg were working through some, uh, personal issues during the film.

“Part of it was I was going through a divorce, Steven had just broken up, and we were not in a good mood. It ended up darker than we thought it would be. Once we got out of our bad moods … we kind of looked at it and went, ‘Mmmmm, we certainly took it to the extreme.’”

Thoughts on PG-13After the release of Temple of Doom parents complained that the film didn’t warrant a PG rating. However, we actually have director Spielberg to thank for the adjustment in the MPAA ratings. In an interview, Spielberg explained, “I created the problem and I also supplied the solution … I invented the rating.” Spielberg proposed to the MPAA that adjustments be made to the rating system but didn’t get far with his suggestion. A few weeks later Gremlins, a film Speilberg produced that was also rated PG, was released and parental outrage was epic. Suddenly the MPAA was ready to talk.

The director of Gremlins, Joe Dante, felt everything about how the film was marketed was wrong.

“So the idea of taking a 4-year-old to see Gremlins, thinking it’s going to be a cuddly, funny animal movie and then seeing that it turns into a horror picture, I think people were upset. They felt like they had been sold something family-friendly and it wasn’t entirely family-friendly.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the PG-13 rating. I’m fascinated that the roots of PG-13 are grounded in helping parents be aware of movies with violence, as PG-13 films have become increasingly more violent every decade. A 2013 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed, “Gun violence in PG-13–rated films has more than tripled since 1985.” It also shares the scary news that, “Since 2009, PG-13–rated films have contained as much or more violence as R-rated (age 17+) films.”

Are all R-rated films bad for kids? For many movies it comes down to violence vs. language.

Entertainment Weekly discovered the quickest way for a film to get an R rating is for it to include the F-word. The Academy Award®-nominated film Philomena is a sweet and beautiful story about a woman in search of her birth son. There are no guns, no weapons, no sci-fi moments. It achieved an R rating because a character used the F-word twice. The film’s creators challenged the R rating and were shot down by the MPAA. Joan Graves, who is the head of the MPAA, defended the rating explaining, “This is not a namby-pamby rating. We’ve done a lot of research, and it came back overwhelmingly that parents don’t want even one F-word in PG-13 films.”

(Aside: PG-13 films may have one F-word, and there are are several recent films that have garnered PG-13 ratings with multiple uses of the F-word.)

While the MPAA has made some recent steps towards helping parents understand the rating system better, some movie goers and parents feel like it’s time for a review and update of the system. Alexandra Rosas from Good Day, Regular People just recently turned on a PG-13 film to watch with her son and within minutes turned it off. She told me her son was “uncomfortable with the inappropriateness of PG-13.” He explained to his mom, “There should be more ratings. G, PG, PG10, and PG13, and then PG18, then R. That would make it safer for kids. They should just say if you’re in [elementary] school, don’t watch.”

Not all parents think the system needs to be changed. Kymberli, a teacher who writes at The Smartness, says, “The ‘PG’ in PG-13 clearly indicates that the movie MAY be suitable for children 13+, but it is still up to the PARENTS to view the film first and make the decision. At the very least, parents should view the film WITH their children.” She also suggested some parents may wish to see the film before their kids do. When I said that sounds expensive, seeing a movie twice, she was quick to remind me, “Well, that’s a price that needs to be paid if parents are going to get all up in arms over their kids seeing or hearing things they might not otherwise want them to.”

Perhaps that is what we all need to get back to. The MPAA rating system is a guideline established to help us. It can’t be perfect because it doesn’t know us or our kids.

Would the MPAA know if your 13-year-old was ready to see an R-rated film? That’s a parent’s call. It’s a call recently made by Vikki from Up Popped a Fox. She recently took her 13-year-old son to see Jon Favreau’s film Chef. The film is about a chef who gets a second chance at life by setting up a food truck. Vikki and her wife know what their son is capable of viewing. That’s why she says taking their son “was a conscious decision based on our understanding of the content of the film.”

When it comes to what films my son can see, I follow my mother’s lead from our movie dates in the ’80s. I haven’t leaned on the MPAA rating system to make the choice. Instead I have watched films in advance or asked friends who have taken their kids to a particular movie for input. None of us should be parenting in a void of information and it is up to us to seek out and educate ourselves about the content of films we take our kids to. If a film we’re watching suddenly becomes questionable or problematic, there is a solution: Walk out of the cinema.

Often I have written about the ratings of a film I am discussing on this site. My number one suggestion is to be the P in the PG. If your child is moving toward wanting to see PG-13 movies, you still need to be the P in the PG. Be the parent. That isn’t the MPAA’s job.

Image Credits: Logopedia, Flickr user Inti

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