Skip Navigation

Family Room

Who Rates the Movies...and How?

Arbitrary. Subjective. Inconsistent. Both the family-values crowd and Hollywood liberals have used those terms to describe the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA’s) inveterate system for rating movies. Despite such shortcomings, many parents still rely solely on the MPAA’s branding of a film (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17) to determine its age-appropriateness for their children. But where did this system come from? Exactly who rates the movies? What criteria do they use? And can parents trust the results? Hold onto your popcorn …

From Hays to Valenti
During the tumultuous 1960s, Hollywood grew weary of the strict moral yoke imposed by the Hays Production Code, which controlled film content from the 1930s through the 1950s. The industry wanted to roll with changing cultural mores—without the threat of censorship.

Enter Jack Valenti. A former political consultant and assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, Valenti was hired to head the MPAA in 1966. He quickly set out to defend artistic freedom and limit the potential for congressional meddling by creating a self-governed system for rating movies. It took root in 1968 and has evolved into the labeling instrument millions of families now trust when setting standards for entertainment.

Hollywood’s Supreme Court
Parents who accept movie ratings at face value essentially hand their children over to a board of 12 anonymous adults (as of this writing, five men and seven women who reside in Southern California). Those reviewers range in age from 28 to 54, hail from diverse backgrounds and, combined, have 32 children between the ages of 5 and 29. Half are college graduates. Their professions range from cabinetmaker and postal worker to freelance manicurist. Four are homemakers. Their common bond? As part of a tour of duty averaging four years (for which they are paid an undisclosed sum), these individuals sit in a private screening room, watch movies, scribble notes and discuss their findings. Each intuitively decides the age-appropriateness of a given film and casts a written vote for a particular rating. Majority rules. That’s it.

Filmmakers dissatisfied with the rating they’re assigned can appeal it. They never talk to the reviewers directly, but instead to mediating MPAA executives who explain the reason for the ruling and what must be changed to earn the desired rating. Extreme disagreements go before a Ratings Appeal Board of studio reps and exhibitors (which typically upholds two-thirds of the lower board’s rulings). Then it’s time for surgery.

The lewd teen sex romp American Pie required four trips to the editing room before it shed its NC-17 in favor of a more marketable R. The creators of the obscene, feature-length cartoon South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had to tinker with content six times, but finally wore the board down and received an R. That’s one case of leniency Valenti has publically regretted. He admitted to the Los Angeles Times, "I disagree with a number of ratings that come out. Those are errors of subjective judgment." Valenti then called his own system "crazy, weird and mixed-up." Apparently, Times film critic Kenneth Turan agrees. "Stuff that should be NC-17 has gotten shoehorned into R," he complained, "so the R … covers territory it was never intended to cover."

PG-13: A Trojan Horse
Indeed, with few standards to help them categorize movies, judges rely on personal feelings. That allows them amazing latitude with little or no accountability. The results can be puzzling to say the least. For example, the delightful Drew Barrymore fairy tale Ever After landed the same PG-13 rating in theaters (it was re-rated PG for home video) as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a raunchy comedy that drew the ire of many viewers convinced that the board blew it. "There are so many reasons this should’ve been an R-rated film," critic Jan Wahl told an equally flummoxed Roger Ebert during a televised dialogue. From obscene gestures and scatological sight gags to a man drinking feces, the Austin Powers sequel pushes the limits of PG-13 with gross-out and sexual humor (it did earn an R at first, but later passed inspection after director Jay Roach cut one scene showing two men in bed together).

"Austin Powers is a good example of what a Trojan horse the PG-13 rating is," film critic and author Michael Medved told Plugged In. "Parents see PG-13 and think maybe it’s a little bit naughty, but it’s okay for kids. Generally, the PG-13 is much closer to an R than to a PG." How would Medved change things if he ran the MPAA? "My suggestion would be to call it M-13 for a mature 13, or an R-13. But get the PG out of it. That immediately attaches it to the lower end of the scale in the mind of the parent."

Despite the subjective incongruity of the system, which was used to evaluate 662 motion pictures in 1998, Valenti stands behind it. "It was designed to give parents advance cautionary warnings so they can make judgements about what movies their children should see," the grandfatherly Texan explained on NBC’s Today. "Parents of America like this system very much, as our polls show every year. We are trying to help parents, not producers, studios or critics."

Families Must Look Out for Themselves
While Valenti may be sincere in his desire to inform parents, that’s not his office’s primary responsibility. He was hired to protect the interests of Hollywood at home and abroad. Valenti is a paid Washington lobbyist and worldwide ambassador for the motion picture industry. A brief tour of the official MPAA Web site reveals the organization’s greatest passions, from antipiracy legislation and intellectual property battles, to the government’s laissez-faire treatment of studios and filmmakers.

Ultimately, families must look out for their own best interests. MPAA ratings provide a helpful starting point, but parents would do well to gather as much information as possible before dropping teens at the local multiplex. Christian movie-review websites, including Plugged In Online, can help.


MPAA Establishes Few Guidelines, No Accountability
Despite fervent attempts to avoid hard-and-fast rules for evaluating movie content, MPAA reviewers have admitted a few loose, generally unpublicized standards:

• Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating.

• If nudity is sexually oriented, or if violence is too rough or persistent, the film should be rated R.

• A single use of the f-word as an expletive merits at least a PG-13 rating. Two uses as an expletive requires an R rating as does a single use of the word in a sexual manner.

How loose are those guidelines? Very. For example, in Brokedown Palace, Claire Danes blurts the f-word as a synonym for intercourse. The romantic comedy Notting Hill uses the expression twice, once as an expletive and once on an obscene T-shirt. And the courtroom drama A Civil Action features three f-words. Yet each of those films managed to snag a PG-13. Such arbitrary rulings make it obvious why the MPAA wishes to avoid strict, objective standards: It’s much harder to hold the board accountable for subjective, "gut-level" decisions.

Digesting Valenti’s Alphabet Soup
In 1968, Jack Valenti [who passed away in 2007] created a labeling system for motion picture content that, over the decades, has undergone only minor changes. But what do those letters really mean? According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the ratings and their definitions are as follows:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (Introduced in 1984)

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted. (In 1990, it replaced the stigmatized X. Many theaters still refuse to show NC-17 films, and media outlets often refuse to advertise them.)

Published August 1999