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Pop Off: Dissecting the MPAA ratings

By Brendon Field
On February 17, 2014

In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America enacted the first version of the film ratings system. The original ratings were: G - General Audience; M - Mature Audiences; R - Restricted; and X - Adults Only. This eventually evolved into the system we have today of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. While it can be argued, and may be true, the entire rating system is arbitrary and pointless, there is one rating that is actively harming the industry, PG-13.
The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984 at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, whose recent projects ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins") had come under fire for being too violent and graphic for a PG rating. In the past thirty years, the scale of determining what's appropriate for what ages has shifted dramatically; not just in the movie industry. Children's television has pushed and broken the envelope time and time again with shows like "Batman: The Animated Series," and the innuendo loaded "Rocko's Modern Life." The MPAA seems to have acknowledged this shift by tagging films with similar levels of violence as the original PG-13 movies, such as the first two "Harry Potter" films.
But if the MPAA is willing to accept for children can handle more violence, why not teenagers. A majority of action movies coming today are hit with a PG-13 rating. As evidenced by "Fast and Furious" or "Pacific Rim," there is clearly no cap for violence. Explosions and bodies are countless, nations can go to war, etc. The separating characteristic between PG-13 and R is how the violence is shown. If too much blood hits the screen, if methods of dismemberment get too creative, or if more than one F-bomb is dropped, an R rating is applied. Because studios are looking to draw teenagers, they will edit their films until the MPAA is satisfied to downgrade the rating. Signs of PG-13 edited violence include cutaway, off-screen deaths ("The Hunger Games") and an over the top, almost cartoony effect when someone suffers a gunshot wound. The farther the editing crew strays from the director's rough cut, the less coherent and fluid the movie becomes. When dialogue has to be watered down to omit "naughty" words, the story becomes less genuine.
The gap between PG-13 and R only pertains to people between the ages of 13 and 16, four ages that are hardly sheltered from what was traditionally seen as adult content. We live in the age of "Grand Theft Auto" and "Mortal Kombat," incredibly violent video games with a rating system even more publically ignored that the MPAA's. Netflix doesn't ask its users to enter their age before it begins streaming "American Psycho," and I've seen "Family Guy" clothing in children's sizes. Concealing mature content from children and adolescents has not only become nearly impossible, but how many parents even give the effort anymore? The PG-13 rating is archaic and pointless.
It's time for MPAA to update its rating system (or abandon it, either works), so studios don't have to dissect their films to make a profit. Because the G rating basically doesn't exist anymore, PG should just replace it, which it already kind of has. PG-13 should either vanish or merge with R to represent film with content and themes suitable for those beyond puberty, and then NC-17 for exclusively adult films. If the MPAA really feels the need to tell parents how old their children should be before watching a movie, they can at least adhere to the habits of the public.

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