The rocky world of Movie Ratings


What's up with that PG--13? by Susy Schultz

It's summer and the perfect time for a movie. Especially if you are parenting a tween or teen—the movies are the place to meet. Whether they are sitting with their friends in the row in front of you or at an age where they can navigate comings and goings on their own, you still want a good idea of what they are watching.

This is an influential age and the big screen has a big effect on kids.

Just recently, a two--year study funded by the National Cancer Institute found kids were more likely to start smoking if they watched movies where the actors smoked. Movie smoking had a stronger influence on this group of 2,600 children ages 10--14 in the study than did the influence of their peers.

So, the stakes are high. But it's a bumpy road determining which films meet your personal standards and also fit your child's maturity level. If you look to movie ratings for guidance, you are taking a big chance.

The Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) voluntary rating system was created as a way for the industry to self--regulate and to stave off legislation that would have made the ratings mandatory. The ratings were never intended to be a stamp of approval or quality. They are a tip sheet for parents to offer some advance information and allow them to make better informed choices for their children.

They are just a tool—a very broad tool. The rating is no guarantee that the movie will fit your standards and practices as a parent. Profanity, violence and brief nudity can be seen in PG--rated movies.

There is also another problem when you go to the theatre: What about the trailers?

The MPAA also has a rating system for trailers, the commercials for upcoming movies. The"all audience" trailers have a green background and contain no scenes that caused the feature to be rated PG, PG--13, R or NC--17.

The"restricted audience" trailers have a red background to warn the projectionists and are shown only before feature films rated R or NC--17.

Still, there are problems. If you took your child to the G--rated"Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," the all--age trailer for"Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" was shown. The trailer may have contained scenes fitting the Board's general parameters, but it was dark and dramatic. Just the right stuff to cause nightmares among some of the little people waiting for Neutron.

The rating basics The Rating Board is part of the Classifications and Rating Administration, which—and the MPAA spokesperson takes great pains to point this out--is not affiliated with the MPAA. But if you go to the MPAA's Web site at, an article by Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the group, explains how he orchestrated the plan. And the site also includes definitions, explanations, a history of the Rating Board and a search tool to find a movie's rating.

The Classifications and Rating Administration Web site,, explains that the board is"sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners." The chairman and board are chosen by Valenti and the administration is funded by rating fees paid by producers and distributors. The board is comprised of eight to 13 full--time members who rate a film based on the following criteria: theme, violence, language, nudity, sensuality, drug abuse and other elements. Each movie is categorized according to the broadly defined guidelines.

The MPAA does not release the names of board members and explains only that the members serve varying terms and are chosen with the idea that"members must have a shared parenthood experience, must be possessed of an intelligent maturity, and most of all, have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents so they can view a film and apply a rating that most parents would find suitable and helpful in aiding their decisions about their children's movie going."

The members view the film, decide what most parents would rate it, discuss and then vote, letting the majority rule. They also must put in writing their reasons for the rating.

The producer or distributor can recut the film and resubmit for another review to the same board or, if they disagree with the reasons for the original rating, they can appeal to the Rating Appeals Board, the final arbiter.

The appeals board has 14 to 18 members"who serve terms of varying length" and are"men and women from the industry organizations that govern the rating system," according to the MPAA Web site.

That board views the film and acts like a court, hearing the arguments from the producer or distributor, then the logic behind the rating from the chairman followed by a rebuttal from the producer or distributor. Then they take a secret vote and require a two--thirds majority to overturn the rating.

The current ratings have been in place since 1990 but evolved from a system started in 1968.

Some help please? The MPAA ratings serve as a traffic light for parents, but the ultimate policing of children's viewing is a parent's responsibility. Still, considering the many other responsibilities parents have, watching every film a child views just isn't practical, word of mouth is often too slow and many mainstream movie reviewers do not look at films through a parent's eyes.

Therefore, many parents have turned to the Internet to help make more informed movie decisions.

The MPAA has a place on its site where you can plug in the movie's name, get the rating and the reason. But that is bare--bones information. There are numerous sites such as,, and available to help parents sort through just how PG--13 they want their child to go. Some of the sites, such as or bring distinctive beliefs--Christian in these cases--to the ratings.

Many provide detailed descriptions of the plot as well as what they think is right or wrong about the movie. Some even go into extreme detail, giving the counts on certain swear words.

ScreenIt offers reviews, ratings and examples within these 15 categories: alcohol/drugs; blood/gore; disrespectful/bad attitude; frightening/tense scenes; guns/weapons; imitative behavior--which includes words and actions kids may copycat--jump scenes that may startle a child; music (scary/tense); music (inappropriate); profanity; sex/nudity; smoking; tense family scenes; topics to talk about and violence.

For example,"The Italian Job" with Mark Wahlberg is rated PG--13 but you may not know the plot glorifies robbery, contains at least one"f" word, seven"s" words" and various other profanities.

Also, ScreenIt tells us,"Several characters have tattoos, while one of them has a pierced eyebrow."

The sites that just lay out the information and let you be the judge are extremely helpful. Others that rely on parents' opinions can be less helpful.

The bottom line is movies can have a huge influence on your kid and MPAA ratings provide only limited help in determining what's appropriate. The Internet can at least offer some additional guidance on this complicated parenting decision.

Know your ratings Here is our interpretation of MPAA guidelines on the ratings system. G: General Audiences--All Ages Admitted. A G--rated film isn't necessarily a children's movie and it can show minimum violence. A film with a G rating may contain snippets of language that go beyond polite conversation, but are common expressions. The G rating generally gets a green light from parents. PG: Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children. PG is a yellow light—parents need to be alert. It warns parents not to let their children see a film until they have determined it is appropriate. The theme of the film may be of a questionable nature for children. There is no drug use in PG--rated movies, but there may be profanity, violence and brief nudity. PG--13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13. Parents, particularly those with children who aren't teenagers, need to hit the brakes and examine the content of PG--13 films. PG--13 "leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating … but does not quite fit within the restricted R category," according to the MPAA. Drug use in movies receives a PG--13 rating. Nudity may be allowed, if it is not sexually oriented. Persistent or rough violence will move a film to the R rating. Even a one--time use of harsher sexually--derived words requires the Rating Board to issue at least a PG--13 rating. More than one such expletive will give a film an R rating, even if one of these words is used in a sexual context. However, films can be rated less severely by a special vote if the Rating Board"feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents."

Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent.



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