The MPAA Rating System

In the early days of film there was a fear that the US government would pass laws to govern the appropriateness of the content in the movies Hollywood was producing. To prevent the government from interfering in filmmaking, the industry volunteered to self regulate.

In 1922 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was born headed by William Hays. A self-censorship system, known as the Hays Code, was developed to assure absence of "offensive material." Movies that followed the Code were "Approved." The Code was long on "don'ts" and "be carefuls" but here is a sampling:
• No profanity
• No Drug use
• No Nudity
• No Suggestive Dancing
• No Lustful Kissing
• No Mocking of Religion
• etc.
In short, no picture should ever "lower the moral standards of those who see it" and that "the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."

In 1968, the MPAA finally shifted from restricting filmmakers to alerting audiences, using the film-ratings system we know today. Unfortunately, the ratings will shift as the community standards of "decency" do. A film that was rated X in 1969 (Midnight Cowboy) is now downgraded to rated R.

How a film's rating is determined by the MPAA committee is not transparent but there are currently some general guidelines that are used.

First the ratings:
PG (replaced M (Mature) and GP in 1972)
PG-13 (Introduced in December 1984. Flamingo Kid was the first movie with this rating)

NC-17 (replaced X in 1990)

So, pertinent to this blog, what is the current standard for PG rated movies as of the newest update from the MPAA in 2010.

Content like nudity, language and violence are allowed at varying degrees but the MPAA also seeks to judge the intention. For example, is the nudity sexual? Is the language explicit, gratuitous or appropriate for the scene?

Official guidelines for PG movies are as follows:
"The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in PG-rated motion pictures." - Classifications and Ratings Rules

Remember that, prior to December, 1984, PG-rated movies may have included content that would be considered PG-13 today. For a list of the current guidelines for PG-13 ratings, check out the official Classifications and Ratings Rules.

Also note that these are not hard and fast rules. There are exceptions. One example is the film, Big (reviewed here). Although rated in 1988 (with the option of a PG-13 rating), it was given a PG rating despite the use of an F-word by a 12 year old and some mature thematic elements around sexuality. The vulgarity alone should have mandated a PG-13 rating... but it's PG.

So, it's not a perfect system, but it's what we have and I think it has merit.

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