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Hey, Where Did the Plugs Go?

If you’ve checked out any of Plugged In’s movie reviews today, you probably noticed that something’s changed: Our family-friendly movie rating, represented by those familiar green “plugs,” is no longer at the top of our reviews.

So what happened to it?

The fact is, our team has been debating the possibility of removing the rating system for quite some time. Years, actually—almost from the moment we incorporated it into our written reviews, matching what we had been doing on the radio up to that point. And the reasons for that debate essentially revolve around four separate (but overlapping) issues: subjectivity, consistency, credibility and discernment.

Let me talk about each of those things.

The family-friendly rating has always been our attempt to provide a quick snapshot of how appropriate a given film is for families. And for some families, it’s really helpful.

But every family is different. Every member within that family is different. Some kids might be really sensitive to one thing but not another. Some parents might recoil at one bad word but feel another is navigable. And guess what? Every reviewer watching these movies is different, too.

Arriving at any kind of rating is inherently subjective, because even among our team of reviewers, we’re not always completely in agreement. A certain issue might seem worthy of a bigger “deduction” to one of us than it does to another. The fact that our team sometimes has prolonged, intense conversations to reach a rating we can all live with speaks to how difficult it can be to quantify a film’s problematic content on a scale of 0 to 5.

Related to this concern is the fact that some otherwise fine films may have one or two really problematic moments that force us to wrestle with how to rate them. The remake of Beauty and the Beast last year is a good example. Before the film’s release, director Bill Condon talked about the film’s “exclusively gay moment” involving the character of LeFou. How much did we need to lower the family-friendly rating because of his same-sex attraction?

In the end, we settled on 2.5—a score that managed to produce angry letters from both sides. Some felt strongly that the inclusion of such content required an automatic zero. Others believed that the scenes in question would have been easy to miss altogether had the director not made such a big deal of them, and they felt that our rating blasted the film unnecessarily.

Thus, we’ve found that a simple movie rating is really limited in its ability to deal with these nuanced worldview concerns.

The issue of subjectivity is directly related to the second issue: consistency. Again, we’ve worked very hard to apply a consistent content grid when it comes to the ratings we’ve given each film. But that can be a difficult task.

For example, late last year we gave The Star, an animated story about the animals surrounding Jesus’ birth, a rating of 4.0, while we gave the Christmas Carol origin story The Man Who Invented Christmas a 4.5. One reader wrote in and asked, “How could you give a movie full of ghosts a higher rating than a biblically sound movie about the birth of Jesus?”

We rated The Star lower because we felt the presence of bathroom humor in a movie about Jesus at certain points felt really inappropriate, even if the gags in question were relatively minor. But not everyone would necessarily agree with the way we chose to apply our rating system in these two cases.

Some have suggested that we should simply change the ratings if we feel we’ve made a mistake. But the problem is that many who’ve already relied upon our initial rating to make a decision could very well feel that our ratings can’t be trusted if we’re going to alter them after the fact.

And that leads to the next issue.

Ever since we’ve included ratings on the site, we’ve heard from readers—via email, in comments on our blogs, on social media—responding critically to something that they felt we rated either too high or too low. Occasionally, people tell us that they’re never going to read another review because they’re so angry with our assessment.

Essentially, then, the rating becomes a lightning rod, something that causes readers to lose trust in us and in Focus on the Family. And we place an incredibly high premium on your trust.

And that brings me to the final issue, which is perhaps the most important one of all.

Plugged In exists to help you and your family to navigate the world of popular culture. We do our very best to accurately document what’s in a given film, then give you that information so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s appropriate for your family or not.

But we also worry the rating system can actually work against helping you think critically and discerningly. How? Because it can potentially short-circuit thinking deeply about a particular film’s content concerns.

Here’s what I mean. We’ve regularly received feedback from readers who essentially tell us, “I love your rating system because it means I don’t have to read your review.” Others might say, “I can’t believe you gave a film this rating! It has this, this, and this in it!” And yet, we’ve listed those very concerns in our review—indicating that someone has made a decision to see a film based on our rating alone.

But the rating was never intended to be the final word on a film. Instead, it was meant to be a catalyst to explore a movie’s ideas and content more deeply: a starting point, not an ending point.

For all of those reasons, we’ve decided that the best response is to remove the family-friendly rating system. For now, we’re keeping our red/yellow/green Content Caution warnings, which you’ll find at the bottom of the metadata about each film. But even this more general assessment is intended as a jumping-off point—a complement to the full review, not a replacement for it. And going forward, we’ll be examining some new ways to communicate the core issues and concerns of a given film quickly without relying on rating, as well as reevaluating how the rating system is used in our Plugged In Movie Reviews on the radio, too.

We realize that the family-friendly plugs have been a tool that many of you have utilized to help you make decisions. But because of our commitment to help encourage discernment, critical thinking and attention to the specifics of your family’s sensitivities, we’ve decided to make this significant change.

Thank you for your loyalty and commitment to Plugged In. We remain dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and informative movie reviews (as well as reviews of TV, music, video games and books) that we possibly can.