Alphabet soup: Why movie ratings mislead us

 

In 1984, James Cameron unleashed "The Terminator" on the mean streets of Los Angeles. The film, starring future California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was unapologetically rated R for strong language and brutal violence.

"Terminator Salvation" was released in 2009 at the height of the summer movie season. This time, the fourth installment in the big box-office franchise was rated the more box-office friendly "PG-13" - making it accessible to children and teens without any parental accompaniment required.

Fans of previous "Terminator" pictures were outraged - how could Hollywood water down their favorite science-fiction series and make it acceptable for children to watch?

As it turns out, families and other moviegoers were also outraged, but for the opposite reason - how could Hollywood peddle a film chock-a-block full of gun battles and explosions to younger and more impressionable imaginations?

Thanks to a new report co-authored from researchers at Ohio State University, there is now strong evidence concluding gunplay has tripled within PG-13-rated films since 1985, the year the rating went into effect.

Last year, PG-13 films were actually more violent than films the Motion Picture Association of America - MPAA - rated R.

"We were stunned," Brad Bushman, one of the report's authors, told reporters. "The MPAA website clearly says that R-rated films contain more violence. But PG-13 films now contain significantly more violence than R-rated films."

Under guidelines established by the MPAA in 1968, any film that receives an R rating requires a parent or guardian to accompany any audience member under age 17.

R-rated films, according to the MPAA website, may contain rough and/or persistent violence and suggestive material, hard language, strong horror, action and peril, strong crude sexual content, alcohol, tobacco, thematic elements, hard crude situations, emotional intensity, disturbing/startling images, hard rude or unsophisticated behavior, discrimination/bullying, sexually oriented nudity, and/or hard drug use.

PG-13 was a rating established in the wake of parental protests over the level of violence in Steven Spielberg's 1984 "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The rating was first applied in the United States to "Red Dawn," a political war film that imagined a Soviet takeover of the land of the free.

PG-13 films, according to the MPAA website, urge parents and audiences to be cautious, as the motion picture contains some material parents might consider inappropriate for children under 13.

Such films may contain moderate to strong violence, horror, action and peril, strong coarse language, some suggestive material and partial or somewhat complete nudity, strong rude or unsophisticated behavior, discrimination/bullying, alcohol, smoking, intense sexual situations, crude situations, thematic elements, emotional intensity, disturbing/startling images, and/or soft drug use or references.

Researchers found that 94% of the highest-grossing films since 1985 had one or more sequences containing violence. Of those 396 films surveyed, gunplay has tripled within the PG-13 parameters while remaining flat or declining in films rated G, PG, and R.

The level of gun violence in PG-13 films by 2009 was statistically even with films that had the more adult R rating. PG-13 films were statistically bloodier than R-rated films by 2012.

Several recent box-office smashes - "Inception," Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" - were cited in the study as having excessively large rates of gun violence.

The biggest offender in the study was Christopher Nolan's 2008 sequel "The Dark Knight." Within its 152-minute running time, that film had 23 sequences of violence - 13 of which involved guns.

The MPAA has long been the subject of criticism for giving the more restrictive R rating to films with profane language and sexuality on-screen and awarding high-octane action films the PG-13 rating.

This past summer's Superman reboot "Man Of Steel" featured a climatic sequence in which thousands of innocent citizens of Metropolis were killed in a battle between hero and villains. That film was PG-13.

By contrast, "The King's Speech," a four-time Oscar winner in 2010, including Best Picture, was slapped with a restrictive R rating for "language." There were no scenes of violence or nudity in the inspirational tale of King George VI overcoming a stuttering problem to lead his nation during World War II. It was only a few repeated utterances of the all-purpose "F-word" that kept kids out of the theaters.

The MPAA is a watchdog group whose membership is not made public and which does not function as an independent organization. It is financed and controlled by the movie industry itself.

With the economics of their business buffeted by changing markets and global grosses, movie studios cannot afford to launch higher-budgeted sequels and productions that cannot be seen by the widest possible audiences. They lobby, trim and tuck their films to ensure they receive a favorable rating from the MPAA - even as the standards appear to be loosening.

"The American system of ratings is totally screwed up," Brad Bushman said.

He's right. Without enforcing the standards they have already set, Hollywood is doing families no favors in rating films as they do. When a PG-13 film has triple the amount of gunplay as an R film, we are left with nothing more than alphabet soup.

Maybe we can all stay home and watch television instead. There's a new episode of "The Walking Dead" Sunday.

 

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