Is an action film featuring frequent execution-style murders more appropriate for children than a comedy with some coarse language and weed? That’s the question director Mike Birbiglia raised last Wednesday when he asked why his new film, the independent dramedy Don’t Think Twice, had received an R rating, while DC Comics’ ultra-violent superhero adventure Suicide Squad got off with a mere PG-13. “Suicide Squad has machine gun killings and bombings and got a PG-13 rating,” Birbiglia wrote on Twitter. “@Dontthinkmovie gets an R because adults smoke pot. Confusing?”
The question was, of course, rhetorical, designed to induce scoffs and knowing nods: The Motion Pictures Association of America’s Film Rating System has long allowed a low-age threshold for intense violent content, while penalizing sexual content, language, and substance abuse with higher (R and NC-17) ratings. Critiques of this occasionally baffling double standard on violence can be traced as far back as 1990, when New York Times film critic Janet Maslin questioned why that year’s graphic hunting documentary In the Blood and cartoonishly violent adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were both rated PG, while Pedro Almodóvar’s dark romantic comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which Maslin called “sentimental, even quaint,” received an X rating (presumably for a sex scene, and some non-sexual bondage).
Critics have recently come down hard on PG-13 movies, a category where violence must be “generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent,” according to the MPAA’s own rules. Yet parents and psychologists have complained that dark content in Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises does not adhere to this standard; this year, at Vulture, Kyle Buchanan asked why X-Men: Apocalypse, which features decapitations and slit throats, was rated only PG-13. The title of his piece encapsulates the frustrations of those who find the MPAA’s inconsistent applications of its own rules infuriating: “When It Comes to Violence, Does a PG-13 Rating Mean Anything Anymore?”
A look at the history of research into the category shows that, if the PG-13 rating doesn’t mean anything anymore, its journey to the point of illegibility does. Social scientists who have tracked the upward creep of violence in PG-13 movies since the late 1980s have found that PG-13 films are increasingly violent, in ways that now equal or even exceed violent R-rated movies. At the same time, PG-13 flicks are featuring less other adult content—reflecting both the baffling preferences of American parents and a broad-reaching, extremely lucrative formula for Hollywood.
The PG-13 label was not, as concerned parents might hope, devised by an expert in childhood psychology, but rather by a commercial filmmaker who has profited immensely from it. In the summer of 1984, as disturbing content in PG-rated films like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was prompting parents to complain to theater managers, Indiana Jones director Steven Spielberg approached then-MPAA chief Jack Valenti about adding an extra category—one that might accommodate action-adventure films like his, but avoid the box office-limiting R rating.
Valenti met with Hollywood and religious organizations about the idea, and, in 1984, instituted the rating for the first PG-13 movie ever, John Milius’ Red Dawn. Filmmakers embraced the liberating potential in the new rating—it appealed to both teenage and children’s markets, and allowed their films to be more edgy. “Sometimes PG, unless it’s for an animated movie, it turns a lot of young people off,” Spielberg told the Associated Press in 2004. “They think it’s going to be too below their radar and they tend to want to say, ‘Well, PG-13 might have a little bit of hot sauce on it.’”
Some critics initially embraced the new rating’s cautious application of verve—in 1990, Maslin, who had criticized the hypocrisy of the PG-rating, called the PG-13 designation a “very helpful introduction.” That same decade, though, the violent content Maslin had decried grew 0nly more flagrant. Between 1992 and 2004, the era of high-grossing PG-13 movies like Batman Returns and Titanic, PG- and PG-13-rated films saw “significant” increases in violent content, according to a 2004 study published in Medscape General Medicine. (During this time, violent content did not increase in G- or R-rated films.) Of course, PG-13 movies proved to contain variable amounts of violence, as in all ratings categories: Ten years after PG-13 had been established, a Pediatrics study of the 100 highest-grossing movies in 1994 found that the “predicted level of violence”—the statistically forecast frequency of violence in a given movie—was the same for all films that noted violence in their ratings descriptions, regardless of rating. “The rating does not predict the frequency of violence that occurs in films,” the researchers concluded.
In the 2000s, an uptick in violence correlated with stagnant or decreasing levels of other kinds of violent content—such as language, sexual content, and substance abuse. Violence escalated in the 15 top-grossing PG-13 films in one measured year in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, respectively, according to one study in the Journal of Children and Media—and yet no similar so-called “ratings creep” was noted for any other category of adult content. In the era of action-adventure blockbusters like The Lord of The Rings and Spider-Man, artillery fire in PG-13 movies began to outstrip that in R-rated movies, tripling between 1985 and 2012; it’s been as high or higher than R-rated films since 2009. And yet use of tobacco and alcohol decreased not only in the PG-13 category during from the mid-’90s to the mid-’00s, but in all of MPAA’s categories, according to a 2010 survey.
Why is the MPAA so lax on violence, and so prudish about topics that are typically less deadly? The Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), which administers film ratings at the MPAA, claims to offer “parents the information they need to decide whether a film is appropriate for their family.” Composed of a group of eight to 10 parents who work outside the entertainment industry, members judge movies according to personal metrics, focus groups, and the findings of frequent surveys about American parents’ view of movie ratings. And when it comes to giving violent content a pass, CARA is, indeed,in line with the general populace. A 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of parents’ views on media found that the majority (55 percent) of American parents believe sexual content in the media contributes to children getting embroiled in sexual situations before they’re ready, while 12 percent fewer (43) believe violent media might contribute to real-life aggressive behavior. According to the MPAA’s own 2015 survey of American parents’ feelings about the PG-13 rating, more than half think there is “too much” use of the F-word and too-frequent graphic sex scenes.
“This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system,” MPAA vice president of corporate communications Chris Ortman wrote in a statement to Pacific Standard on Monday. “Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices.”
But it’s worth noting, too, that the trend of increasing amounts of violence in PG-13 films isn’t just a concession to parents— it protects Hollywood’s business and anti-regulation interests too. The current age-based Film Ratings System was implemented in the ’60s after two Supreme Court decisions seemed to threaten more-stringent state classifications of movies based on age—in 1968, Ginsberg v. New York ruled that states could legally limit the circulation of obscene materials to children; that same year Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas deemed a Dallas classification system prohibiting certain movies to children under 16 constitutional. PG-13 has since proved to be the system’s most lucrative category (movies with sexual content, meanwhile, are whining-parent liabilities and also don’t sell as well). While the members of CARA themselves are regular people who say they don’t pay attention to money, the MPAA is a Hollywood trade association comprising the six major film studios; its appeals board (which has previously downgraded the ratings of Philomena and American Psycho) is composed of industry representatives. Without parental pressure or new legislation, it seems unlikely the organization is going to do anything about violence very soon.
But there are signs that the public—and public officials—are beginning to push back against PG-13’s recent gory standard. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission called for the movie industry to cease advertising violent PG-13 movies to children under 13. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Vice President Joe Biden met with the MPAA to talk about gun violence in America. The resulting efforts—an MPAA initiative called “Check the Box” that made the font size of content descriptions larger and played a public-service announcement in theaters—were publicly rejected by Parents Television Council, who called for MPAA chief Chris Dodd to give regular people the opportunity to appeal ratings decisions. Meanwhile, parents who report using those decisions to make viewing choices have decreased 9 percent from 1998 to 2007, according to the 2007 Kaiser survey.
Researchers have previously suggested content-based ratings, which would provide more information to parents about the kinds and intensity of violence included in movies than age-based ratings, as a replacement solution for the age-based non-standard. (And if review sites like Kids in Mind or Common Sense Media are any indication, parents appreciate content-focused resources that identify explicit moments and allow them to tailor their media monitoring.) Meanwhile, parents themselves have expressed interest in a coding system that declares when a movie features excessive violence, sex, or profanity, according to one 1987 Los Angeles Times poll.
Perhaps the most innovative idea, however, was floated in 1990, six years after PG-13 was first implemented. Incorporating child developmental psychology, three researchers proposed three new age categories (for ages three to seven, eight to 12, and 13 to 17) and four revised categories of “problematic” film content: In place of theme, language, nudity, sex, drug use, and violence, they suggested judging films based on violence, sex, horror, and violence and sex. Horror films, they wrote, have been shown to produce severe fear responses; the combination of violence and sex in slasher films and depictions of rape has been linked to decreased sympathy for female rape victims and increased beliefs among men that women desire rape. Young children may be more affected by obvious visual threats such as those in The Hulk than unseen threats like in Jaws; unseen nemeses like the one in Poltergeist and adult conversations about life’s transitions—like those in, yes, Don’t Think Twice—may be thornier for older children.
Would broadcasting that Suicide Squad features a slo-mo scene of bullets hailing down from an automatic rifle, or a battered girlfriend falling into a vat of acid at her boyfriend’s request, have prevented the film from banking at least $145 million this weekend? Probably not; parents have their own moral standards, and when it comes to the allure of DC antiheroes, even poor Rotten Tomatoes ratings can’t slow fans’ steady march to the box office. Still, parents may appreciate knowing more up-front about what their kids are getting into—rather than hearing about Will Smith’s sick abilities with a sniper rifle over dinner.