Friday, August 13, 2004

Movie 'ratings creep' means PG-13 isn't what it used to be.

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune
Published August 13, 2004


Pop quiz


PARENTAL GUIDANCE SUGGESTED: Some material may not be suitable for children


PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED: Some material may be inappropriate for children
under 13


RESTRICTED: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian


No one 17 and under admitted

Pretend you are on the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings

What rating would you assign to the following movie plotlines?

1. Recent middle school graduates make a date with a stranger they meet
on the Internet and then dress to appear older, sneak out of the house and
into a club to meet him at the bar. There, the movie's heroine, on the advice
of a friend, orders a drink called "Sex on the Beach."

2. A man experiences obvious and exaggerated sexual arousal and a woman
comments on it. Later she has sex with him.

3. Characters use various euphemisms for sex ("boinking," "doing it" and
"hitting,") and for body parts (boobs, etc.) as well as a clinical term.
A character says she wants clothes that don't make her look like a whore
but don't make her look like a virgin, either. An extended scene features
a character sitting on a toilet, experiencing severe digestive distress.

4. A man attempts to rape a woman. A woman slits a man's throat.

5. A character holds up a muddy garden implement and jokes that it's a "dirty


The plots came from these films and here's how the MPAA rated them.

1. PG "Sleepover"

2. PG-13 "Anchorman"

3. PG-13 "White Chicks"

4. PG-13 "King Arthur"

5. PG "Cat in the Hat"

A study released on July 12 by Harvard University documented the "ratings
creep" that has, in effect, ratcheted down the MPAA ratings so that material
once considered a PG-13 now gets a PG and what once was an R is now a PG-13.

The report covered all movies released from 1992 to 2003 and found that
"movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and
types of potentially objectionable content . . . and the criteria for rating
movies became less stringent over the past decade."

Part of this trend reflects loosening standards in all categories. These
days, broadcast television sitcoms regularly contain jokes about threesomes
and impotence and "reality" shows bring us people who are little more than
strangers climbing into hot tubs together. The vice president of the United
States uses the f-word on the floor of the Senate and some newspapers print
the word, both unthinkable just a few years ago.

But in the case of the movie ratings, there's a sense of bait-and-switch
as parents who think they have understood what the cutoff is between a PG
and a PG-13 or a PG-13 and an R find themselves -- and their children --
surprised by material they consider inappropriate.

Jane Horwitz writes the syndicated Family Filmgoer column to provide parents
with more information about the content of movies they should consider before
deciding whether a movie is right for their families. Her reviews since
2000 frequently feature assessments like "awfully R-ish for a PG-13," "awfully
profane for a PG-13," "awfully sexualized for a PG-13." This "bracket creep"
is especially true of comedies. The MPAA will allow material in a PG-13
comedy that would earn an R in a drama, as in the "White Chicks" and "Anchorman"
examples above.

The MPAA is also very formulaic. It will allow one or two uses of the f-word
in a PG-13 movie, as long as the word is used as an expletive -- not as
a reference to a sexual act. Rigid adherence to this entirely arbitrary
rule produces absurd consequences. Movies like those in the Austin Powers
series, known for constantly raunchy humor that includes jokes about oral
sex and genital size, avoid triggering an R rating for language because
they use the made-up word "frickin'."

Indeed, the movie studios understand and cynically manipulate the MPAA ratings
system. The lovely "Fly Away Home" was about to receive a G rating, despite
a harrowing car crash that kills the main character's mother. The distributor
thought school-age children would think the movie was babyish unless it
got a PG. So the studio inserted one four-letter word, said off-screen by
a bad guy, to ensure a PG rating -- further proof of the absurdity of a
rating system that relies on counting specific words and body parts rather
than examining content and context.

The producers of the raunchy "South Park Bigger, Longer & Uncut" bragged
that they intentionally loaded in more offensive material than they planned
to include in the final cut so that they could bargain with the MPAA. The
result was a movie released with more explicit material than had ever before
been permitted in an R film.

Detailed descriptions

Jim Judy's detailed descriptions of movies in the Web site
he created for parents provided much of the data for the Harvard study.
Judy said in an interview there is no way parents can learn what they need
to know from a description of a movie's content that is brief enough for
use on a poster or ad.

The MPAA's attempts to explain the basis for the ratings it gives movies
are ambiguous to the point of being Delphic. Who can explain the difference
between the MPAA's description of the PG-13 version of the horrible "My
Boss's Daughter" ("crude and sex-related humor, drug content and language")
released in theaters and the R-rated version released on video ("crude humor,
sexual content and language")? The PG-13 version of that movie included
a character's apparent seizure after ingesting alcohol and pills; a rape
joke; racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic epithets; a character who urinates
on other people to intimidate them; a blind quadriplegic character who falls
out of his wheelchair; and a gaping and oozing head wound -- all supposed
to be funny.

The MPAA gave the magnificent documentary "Heart and Soul of America," ideal
for family viewing, a PG rating for "mild thematic elements" -- perhaps
a reflection of the movie's brief references to alcoholism and divorce.
But MPAA gave the same "mild thematic elements" explanation for the PG rating
it gave "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," which features a high school
girl who wears skimpy clothing, lies to her parents and best friend and
sneaks off to crash a party so she can meet a rock star. Parents would need
a degree in semiotics to figure out what "mild thematic elements" means
in relation to either film.

The anonymous members of the MPAA board hold these credentials: They live
in the Los Angeles area and they have had children. They are selected by
MPAA CEO Jack Valenti, who created the system in 1968.

Jim Steyer is the founder of the non-partisan, non-profit Common Sense Media,
an organization formed to promote family friendly media content. On its
Web site, the group publishes reviews of books, games, music, television
programs and movie reviews -- my own among them.

Steyer notes that the different standards and ratings systems applied to
movies, television, music and computer games -- each conducted by its own
industry -- make it just about impossible for parents understand the basis
for any of the ratings or age recommendations. He calls for one rating system
across all media, independent of industry, based on research about developmental
issues and how violence, sex, language, substance abuse and product placement
affect children, with selection procedures and criteria to ensure that ratings
board members are qualified and accountable.

Overhaul needed

Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who will take over from Valenti
on Sept. 1, should put an overhaul of the MPAA rating system at the top
of his priority list.

Until then, the rating that best reflects the current system is one that
everyone understands: F.

Nell Minow reviews movies for radio stations across the U.S. every week
and on