PG, PG-13, or R?

How should the MPAA distinguish between PG, PG-13, or R ratings?

I find it’s very easy to point out when they’ve done it wrong, but tough to lay out a plan for how to do it right.

As I watched Revenge of the Sith, I realized I was very uncomfortable about the fact that the theatre was full of little kids… kids who were horrified at some of the things they were seeing. Did Sith actually deserve an R-rating, perhaps?

A friend just informed me that Bewitched, the upcoming comedy with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, has been rated “PG-13 (for some language, including sex and drug references, and partial nudity).”

It’s hard to believe that anything with foul language, sex and drug references, and partial nudity could get a PG-13. But at the same time, this is a Will Ferrell movie, so it’s more than likely that “partial nudity” simply refers to a visual punchline– a brief glimpse of Will Ferrell standing bare-assed in the middle of the street somewhere.

The PG/PG-13 problem has existed since the rating was invented. I’ll never forget being completely bewildered that Top Gun, with all of its harsh language and sex, could get a PG while Ladyhawke could earn a PG-13 merely because you see a bishop get impaled upon a spear.

How would you advise the MPAA to make these tricky decisions? What films would set up as representing the “threshhold” for a PG-13 film or an R film?

Having said all of that, let me share something from the blog of my friend Jason Bortz: He writes about taking his seven-year-old son to see Revenge of the Sith, and the boy’s reaction is a great illustration of how a child’s perception is often far more penetrating and true than our own. While I’m going on and on about how much I loved the special effects, young Bortz gets to the heart of the matter.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Adam Walter

    It’s funny, about the same time I got interested in Whedon’s “Firefly” I picked up the first season of the Wonder Woman tv show at the library. The pilot is amazing–self-conscious cheese at its best, almost a marriage of the old Batman show humor and Mel Brooks. Later in the series, it’s amazing to see Debra Winger (her first big acting gig!) as Wonder Girl, Lynda Carter’s small, slightly chubby, less-coordinated sidekick.

  • Anonymous

    I downloaded “Takk” a few weeks ago and it has been blowing my mind ever since. I still prefer “()” over all Sigur Ros albums however. I used to fall asleep to that album every night.

    I do plan someday, by the way, to purchase on CD all the music I download. I love music, but I’m too poor right now.

  • Foolish Knight

    The album link isn’t working on my computer, do you have to sign in or something to hear the album?

  • The Cubicle Reverend

    That has to be one of the worst casting calls I have ever heard in my life!!!!! He cannot play roosevelt. He can’t. Roosevelt was a larger than life, robust man in more ways than one. He wasn’t a pretty boy. this sucks. It really does.

  • boyinabubble

    “NC” stands for “No Children” — that is what distinguishes an NC-17 from an R

    Yea, that was careless of me.

    Eep. Joint committee? Impossible.

    The joint committee idea was just a throwaway comment really, of course it would never happen. It’s just these various systems are fairly similar, in that two ratings boards will mostly agree on what the potentially offensive content is, but not always what final rating results.

    So for instance the rating in every region for Revenge of the Sith is, say, 2.7.0. (This could be agreed on fairly easily no matter how large the commitee since it’d be following some previous agreed upon rules, it doesn’t matter the exact numbers anyway.) Then it’s up to the separate regions to decide individually how this is interpretted into entry. The rules might be, for instance:

    US: “Any single value above 5 then children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult” (like PG-13 now)

    Ontario: “A sum-total between 5 and 10 then any child must be accompanied by an adult” (like PG now)

    & so on for different regions. It’d be up to the regions themselves (however many or few there were) to decide on these rules, which could be different for DVDs than the theatrical release, but the rating itself would be 2.7.0. for them all.

    Of course, this is all terribly scientific and not really practical. I think a more practical solution would be to just tweak the current system with a couple of extra ratings such at PG-15 in US, or PG-11 etc. Just thought I’d descibe my preferred idea first!

  • Peter T Chattaway

    The first is so as to be informative to the (potential) viewer. E.g. “If this film is NC-17, I don’t think my child/ daughter should watch it.”

    Well, if the film is NC-17, it doesn’t matter what you think, because children won’t be allowed in the theatre anyway! (“NC” stands for “No Children” — that is what distinguishes an NC-17 from an R, whereby children over 17 are allowed to see a film if they are accompanied by a parent or similar adult.)

    I’d also like to see a joint US-UK-Canada-Ireland (maybe more) rating system such as above, as they currently all do pretty much the same thing. The 3-number values would be the same (fixed by joint commitee) for every country but the entry rating could be different in each.

    Eep. Joint committee? Impossible.

    One obvious problem is that, unlike those other nations whose ratings systems are owned and operated by the state, the American ratings system is owned and operated by the movie industry itself, and there is, technically speaking, no legal requirement for any film to be rated — hence a number of films are released “unrated”, even in theatres. Requiem for a Dream was such a film.

    Another problem, from the Canadian vantage point at least, could be the fact that each province rates movies separately, and until very recently the provinces weren’t even using the same rating system. (In Ontario, for example, Saving Private Ryan was rated AA for its 1998 theatrical release and its 2001 video release, but its 2004 DVD release received the new 14-A rating instead. In British Columbia, meanwhile, the film has an 18-A rating. But B.C. is not always stricter than Ontario; the latter province banned Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl outright for a while, whereas B.C. released it with a Restricted rating without any trouble.) So, if there are several Canadian ratings systems, the committee referred to here might have to include representatives from each and every province, which could be a little ungainly.

  • boyinabubble

    I’d like to see a complete overhaul of the system. First, we should identify what the purpose of a rating is. I think it breaks down in to 2 parts:

    1. The first is so as to be informative to the (potential) viewer. E.g. “If this film is NC-17, I don’t think my child/ daughter should watch it.” Or, “if this film is NC-17, I don’t think I should watch it”. And of course, less extreme examples, such as “I know my son is uncomfortable with sexual references so I don’t think he should see Bewitched“.

    2. The second reason is for the cinema/ government/ country to impose a restriction on entry/ purchase of the movie, which must be followed.

    The first item depends solely on the content of the movie, there should be some way of briefly informing the viewer of the content. In contrast, the second aspect depends very much upon the opinions/beliefs/personality of the viewers and country, and I expect opinions of how to do this part would very widely between people.

    So, how to do this? Well, I’m a fan of the kids-in-mind.com system of rating, where a movie is given 3 numbers out of 10 for the various contentious elements. e.g. Revenge of the Sith – 2.7.0. I don’t think the detailed write up is necessary at all, but those 3 numbers do give so much more information across than simply PG-13. Of course I’m not saying that there should be just 3 numbers representing sex/violence/language necessarily, but they could include such things as disrespectful attitude etc. as long as the scale of each part was based solely on content and not on any particular opinion of a viewer.

    So now how to decide about entry/purchase. This could be specified based on the 3-number rating to give the age limit. e.g. any value over 4 then at least (PG-)13. Or, the sum of value about 27 gives NC-17. Etc. The main advantage of this is that this can be changed over time (as society becomes more liberal, or as sensitivity to some particular issue increases) whilst the 3-number value stays fixed permanently. This part sounds complicated but I think it’d be gotten used to fairly quickly. It would also allow for more entry ratings.. the jump from PG-13 to R has always seemed huge. I also think a fairly liberal aspect with this part of the rating wouldn’t be so unpopular as other attempts to liberalize the ratings system.

    To sum up, more information to the viewer but less entry restrictions. & a system which’ll adapt over time.

    Disadvantages: Too much of a change to ever be implemented Unpopular as much more complex than a single letter rating – too ambitious!. Probably many more I’ve not thought of..

    I’d also like to see a joint US-UK-Canada-Ireland (maybe more) rating system such as above, as they currently all do pretty much the same thing. The 3-number values would be the same (fixed by joint commitee) for every country but the entry rating could be different in each.


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