Searching For Decent Films (Part 2): Using The Rating System Appropriately

(Continuing from Part 1)

The movie rating system gets a lot of criticism – most of it deserved.  However, it also gets prematurely dismissed as unhelpful and irrelevant.

It’s not irrelevant.  A movie’s rating – even if it is just a highly subjective label from a panel of people you’ve never met – still presents information about that movie.

There is a big difference between a PG movie and a NC-17 movie, for example, even when the boundaries of each individual rating may be a little vague.  Border-cases where people say “that should (or should not) have gotten an R” miss the fact that those are still the exceptions, not the rule.  Movie ratings still provide some basic information about content that would be missed if the rating system didn’t exist.

However, smart viewers know that movie ratings’ usefulness has limits.  Some things to keep in mind when considering movie ratings:

The rating system differs by decade, and by country

Conventional wisdom suggests that the rating system has gotten more lenient over time.   In this case, conventional wisdom is wrong.  Outside of some border cases, the rating system in reality is actually stricter now than in previous decades — an important consideration when looking to find ‘decent’ film candidates among older movies.

The PG-13 rating, for example, was created in 1984 as a subset of PG movies. This means that a PG movie from 1981 will be very different in content than a PG movie in 2010 — ironically, with the latter of the two being the ‘cleaner’ one.

Today, a single ‘damn’ automatically moves a movie from G to PG.  Not so in previous decades, where “Gone With The Wind” and “Planet of the Apes” – containing arguably the first and second most famous “damns” in movie history, respectively – cheerfully received G-ratings.

While the research that suggests that ‘objectionable’ content in movies has increased in recent decades may be compelling, one cannot automatically depend on older movies being ‘cleaner’ than modern movies with equivalent ratings.  Often it is the opposite.

While I’m a full supporter of foreign films — viewers with an aversion to subtitles are missing out on some great movie experiences — movie ratings will also differ by country, as different cultures have different views on what counts as ‘objectionable’ content.

In Europe, for example, nudity and sex are tolerated to a far greater extent than violence (it tends to be the reverse in the US).  Therefore, a “European PG” is far more likely to contain nudity than an American PG (and less likely to be violent).   In Asia, there is a greater cultural tolerance for “violence-as-slapstick-comedy” than in the West, which Western viewers may not find as funny.

The rating system is inexact in terms of content categories

The current rating system judges levels of the standard “PSV” categories: profanity, sex, and violence.  However, the rating system treats all three categories as being equivalent.  A movie with an “R-rated” amount of violence (however that’s defined) but no nudity or profanity receives the same rating as another movie with the same amount of violence and “R-rated” amounts of nudity and profanity added on top, despite the content of the latter film ostensibly being three times as worse as the first.

(If you’re the producer of a violent R-rated action film, why *not* add in lots of profanity and nudity as well?  You’re going to get the same rating either way…)

The rating system is designed under the pretense that all viewers who watch movies have equally strong feelings (for or against) each of the PSV categories — that someone who happily tolerates R-rated profanity in movies will also happily tolerate R-rated violence in the same way.

This assumption completely ignores the possibility that many female viewers, for example, may genuinely not be offended by “R-rated” female nudity, but repulsed by even low levels of blood and gore.  Or that foreigners who have no cultural connection or experience with English swear words may not be offended by “R-rated” levels of American profanity at all (in the same fashion that American viewers aren’t generally offended by hearing British or Australian profanity).

The rating system does not allow for a movie viewer to judge one category of PSV movie content higher or lower than another from the rating, even though it is inevitable that viewers are going to have differing levels of tolerance and acceptance per category.  An “R-for-violence” looks exactly the same as an “R-for-language” from the outside.

What this means in practice is that movie viewers will have to take their own individual preferences into account when they do personal research.  And that means augmenting knowledge about movie content from sources other than the MPAA.

Parental-watch sites like “Kids-In-Mind” take content analysis a step further by rating movies with more specific criteria:  determining individual values for Profanity/Sex/Violence content, rated on a 0 to 10 scale.

Instead of four or five very broad movie ratings, this system creates close to 15,000 specific and detailed ratings which will assist viewers who may care about one area of PSV content over the others.  Such a system can especially help differentiate between the wide range of PG-13 movies released today.

Some examples:  On the PSV scale, KIM rates “Twilight: New Moon” as 5-7-3, with the second Transformers movie judged a 6-7-5.  “The Blind Side”, by comparison, is a more moderate 4-4-4.

Latter-Day Saints who (defensibly) stay away from anything rated PG-13 on principle may miss some good ‘decent’ film candidates such as “Lars and the Real Girl” (2-1-3), or “Two Weeks Notice” (3-1-3), both of which received the same PG-13 rating as the other movies mentioned above, but whose KIM analysis reveals significant differences in content.

Are these numerical ratings just as arbitrary as an “R” or a “PG”?  Of course.  The only thing we know about a movie with a Violence rating of 6 is that it was judged to be slightly more violent than a movie rated with a 5.  And who knows if a 7 in Violence is really ‘equivalent’ to a 7 in Profanity since that’s obviously comparing apples and oranges.

But, again, the Kids-In-Mind ratings (and other similar systems) present information – and more information of any flavor helps movie consumers judge the relative content values versus other films they may have seen to help make their own personal choices.

Next:  Moral Content vs. Moral Context

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