It’s been almost 20 years since the MPAA last amended their ratings system. In 1996, “NC-17” was amended from “No children under 17 admitted” to “No one 17 and under admitted”, which meant you now had to be at least 18 to see full-frontal nudity in a theater. Since 1996, we’ve been stuck with these ratings:
- Rated G: General audiences – all ages admitted
- Rated PG: Parental guidance suggested – some material may not be suitable for children
- Rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned – some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
- Rated R: Restricted – under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
- Rated NC-17: No one 17 and under admitted.
You have to go back to July 1984 for the last major addition, which is when Steven Spielberg suggested that his new movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom needed a rating between “PG” and “R”, and so “PG-13” was invented.
It’s good for parents to have tools to make informed decisions about what their kids see in movie theaters. While I don’t necessary believe that seeing R-rated films before 17 will mentally scar a child, parents should at least have some guidelines to know what to expect.
Of course, it’s not like the studios created the MPAA rating system out of the goodness of their collective heart. Hollywood has always moved to police itself rather than let outsiders do it. They did it with the Hays Code starting in the 1930s, and when that died out during the 1960s, the MPAA instituted a ratings system. That way when someone in government says “Won’t someone think of the children?”, the MPAA can point to the system, say they’re being responsible, and keep the government and other outside entities from meddling.
It’s a system that—in theory—should benefit both Hollywood and moviegoers, but the stagnation of the rating system has led to it being hijacked by the major studios as a marketing tool rather than evaluating if the content is appropriate for a particular audience. The ratings now have less meaning because there are really only four (major theater chains usually won’t even show “NC-17” movies): “G”, “PG”, “PG-13”, and “R”. And for blockbusters, studios almost always want a “PG-13” regardless of content.
The ratings system as it currently stands creates a two-pronged problem. The first is the issue of how the MPAA treats indies, which is to disproportionately deal them an R-rating. For example, Boyhood gets denied to teenage viewers who could have appreciated the film and have almost certainly heard the swear words that earned the movie its R-rating. The MPAA doling out an “R” for cursing is a separate article, but it’s definitely something that gets weighted too heavily and ends up almost ensuring that indie films—films that are likely to reflect our reality—are withheld from anyone under the age of 17 who’s unwilling to go to the film with their parent or guardian (because what teenager doesn’t want to go to the movies with their parents instead of their friends?).
The other problem is the overuse of “PG-13” in mainstream films has created a watered-down, creatively stifled blockbuster where the MPAA shows it has absolutely no problem with gratuitous amounts of violence (as long as it’s largely bloodless) as long as curse words and sex are kept at a minimum. Homogenization becomes inevitable as storytellers try to work within the confines of Hollywood’s self-censorship, and while some movies shouldn’t have a problem with “PG-13”, others are going to feel confined.
We recently spoke to producer Charles Roven, and he says right now Warner Bros. plans to make the whole DC Cinematic Universe “PG-13”, including Suicide Squad, the film that will follow Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the DCCU, and focuses on supervillains doing black ops for the government in exchange for pardons:
“The intention of the film is definitely to be PG-13… We really want to make these films tonally consistent so that, as I said because this is a shared universe, at least our current thinking—and again, we’re not dealing in absolutes because while this is business it’s also a creative endeavor, so you want to leave yourself open to changing your mind, doing something different, being inspired, that’s the whole process of filmmaking is you have to allow for inspiration as well as having a road map for what you’re gonna do. So our plan right now is to make all these films PG-13. In some cases, you know, right there on the edge of PG-13, but still PG-13.”
Suicide Squad is a movie led by villains—characters who do terrible things that should be repulsive—and yet their story is deemed as audience-friendly as one led by heroes. When a film like Suicide Squad crops up, it ultimately hurts both the storyteller and the consumer. The story can’t get as dark as it needs to, but it’s going to be viewed by the same kids who went to see Captain America: Civil War earlier in the year.
So we have a system where if an indie movie says “fuck” one too many times, it gets an R-rating, but a studio blockbuster can show torture and as long as there’s not too much blood, it gets a “PG-13”. The ratings no longer inform parents; it merely serves as a designation: “G” and “PG” are kids movies, “PG-13” for action movies, and R for indie films and prestige movies.
So something that should benefit both parents and the studios ends up misinforming parents and limiting filmmakers all so that “PG-13” becomes a magical goal where everything is okay. The rules of violence and character behavior are loosened so that as long as a movie fits a blockbuster mold and can sell toys, it gets a “PG-13” and really has no ceiling on how much money it can gross. No one is restricted from seeing the film, but if the Joker (Jared Leto) ends up torturing people, maybe little kids shouldn’t be allowed to buy tickets. Maybe a film ratings system should do what it’s actually supposed to do.
That’s why I propose a new rating, which for clarity I’ll call “T-14”. For “T-14”, no one under the age of 14 is admitted without a parent or guardian. This would be between a “PG-13”, where technically everyone can be admitted as long as they have the money and a way to get to the theater, and an R, which requires a parent accompany someone who is under the age of 17. “T-14” functions kind of like a soft “R” that keeps kids out of a harder content, but allows teenagers to see what they can and already see on television, their day-to-day lives, and the Internet.
The problem with the current ratings system is that it’s simply outdated, and doesn’t recognize the deluge in content that has become available outside of movie theaters, the maturity of its audience, and how Hollywood has co-opted the current ratings into yet another weapon in its marketing arsenal. The ratings system doesn’t need a total overhaul; but it’s been 25 years since any significant change (“X” was changed to “NC-17” was added in 1990) and even longer since “PG-13” was added.
“T-14” would acknowledge that there’s some content that young children absolutely shouldn’t be able to see without parental permission while also recognizing that people 14 and older probably hear the word “fuck” more than once in their daily lives, and it’s okay if they hear it more than once in a movie without their parents around. “T-14” would also help out indies like Where to Invade Next and Bully, films that received “R” ratings because of language, but their filmmakers contend these documentaries would be informative to a younger audience (it would also remove tedious “ratings battles” as a piece of a marketing campaign).
Finally, “T-14” removes “hard PG-13”, which is a farce and makes the entire ratings system look like a joke. “T-14” gives us a new class of blockbusters; the more “mature” kind that can explore darker topics in a way that’s (hopefully) not exploitative but also has the creative freedom to pursue more aggressive content that has at least slightly better parameters than what we have now. A new rating isn’t going to solve the entire MPAA ratings system, but it’s a step in the right direction because right now “PG-13” is simply too broad.
A film like The Matrix would have perfectly fit inside the “T-14” model. It’s got plenty of violence, but it’s not a gory film. There’s some swearing, but it’s not cursing with every breath. And it’s not sexually explicit. If you want to go more recent but keep with Keanu Reeves, John Wick would also be a solid “T-14” film rather than rated “R”. On the “PG-13” side of the spectrum, movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, a film where scores of innocent people are gunned down by an oppressive government, would be boosted to “T-14” (it’s harder to pick out examples from released films because what would have made them “T-14” was likely edited out before they ever went in front of cameras or they landed on the cutting room floor during the MPAA submission process).
Of course, studios, which run the MPAA, probably don’t want that delineation. Anything that could be a cap on box office returns isn’t worth having, and it’s not their concern if little kids buy tickets to Suicide Squad. But maybe instead of trying to hack away at the script or throw around vague terms like “hard PG-13”, a little specificity is in order. There’s still more than enough money to be made on superhero films, and if it means giving parents a little more information and providing a new rating, that seems like an awfully small price to pay for patching up an outdated system.