When Ratings Creep

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taken.JPGThink films are getting more violent? If so, you’re not alone. Some researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center think so, too, and they have a whole bunch of sciency stuff to back it up.

The folks at Annenberg (part of the University of Pennsylvania) studied films from 1950 to 2006 and discovered that, since 1984, the level of explicit violence in film has gone up dramatically—particularly in movies deemed at least semi-suitable for children. That’s significant, because 1984 was the year the Motion Picture Association of America introduced the PG-13 rating to the world—a rating that the MPAA hoped would better shield kids from excessive violence.

I was a mere lad back in 1984, but I remember the controversy. From what I recall, the impetus really involved two Steven Spielberg films—Gremlins, in which a critter gets fried in a microwave oven, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which an evil priest pulls a still-beating heart from someone’s chest cavity. The MPAA branded both as PG despite the violence in these scenes, but the ratings board knew there was growing demand for something between PG and R—a rating that the Gremlins of the world could inhabit in peace.

Great in theory. But the result, according to Annenberg, has been what they call “ratings creep.” A PG-13 film like Mission Impossible 2, researchers say, has about the same level of violence as 1974’s R-rated Magnum Force, and far more than 1982’s R-rated 48 Hours. A film like 2008’s Taken would’ve been unquestionably an R-rated flick in 1983. Not exactly what we’d assume the MPAA had in mind.

“The finding that PG-13 movies are becoming increasingly violent is worrisome given the fact that PG-13 movies now account for more than half of top-grossing film sales,” said Annenberg’s Patrick E. Jamieson in a recent press release. “Adolescents are more likely to engage in violent behavior as a result of viewing media models of violence, and films may reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable solution to people’s problems.”

Interestingly, Annenberg didn’t find the same sort of ratings creep when it came to sexuality. Which, I guess, makes sense. Americans are generally more squeamish about sex on screen than violence.

Do we get a little schizophrenic when it comes to sex and violence in film? Does one bother you more than another? And, just so we don’t stray way off point here, do you think PG-13 films have gotten bloodier?