Rate the MPAA: Are Movie Ratings Useful? Accurate? Fair?

Remember the big brouhaha over the scary violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? You may thank Steven Spielberg for the subsequent implementation of the PG-13 film rating—first applied to the here-come-the-Commies action flick Red Dawn, which was promptly assigned the dubiously impressive status of being the most violent film of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records.

So…how exactly does the most violent film of all time not earn an R rating?

The last major adjustment to the MPAA’s oft-discussed, oft-derided ratings system (no, rejiggering the layout of the ratings box this past year doesn’t count) was the addition of the NC-17, a replacement for the never-trademarked X. Intended to spare films with more serious, adult content the stigma of being “pornographic” and therefore marginalized from mainstream appreciation, the practical impact of the new rating has been to…

…assign movies with more serious, adult content the stigma of being pornographic, and therefore marginalize them from mainstream appreciation. Well, how ’bout that.

A long time ago, in What’s Taboo in the Movies Today?, I invoked the memorable Jack Nicholson quote: If you hack off a woman’s breast with an axe, it’s a PG; if you kiss it, it’s an R. This seems as true today as ever. Are these separate issues? Is it possible to “fix” the MPAA ratings system without an overhaul of our own values and priorities? Is it working just fine for you? Would you agree with Irv that it’s desirable (or even possible) to repopulate the MPAA board with more “objective” members? Who gets to be in charge of that? To what extent should politicians be involved, if at all?

 And if you’re still hungry to explore ratings-related writings, click on over to share your thoughts about seeing your first R-rated movie. And then see which X-rated film I’m actually recommending you watch.


  • Gord Jackson

    Well made, serious, adult-themed pictures like ROOM AT THE TOP, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINNIA WOOLF? and MIDNIGHT COWBOY break taboos and then the quick-buck-boys with their expoitationist schlock come along and trivialize everything.

  • Wayne P.

    Instead of ‘rejiggering’ the layout box why dont they just flat-out take Jack N’s prescient advice to the wise above and make a check-off categorization both the industry and union can approve: If it jiggles its an R film…If it can be cut off at the (attach appropriate appendage;) then its PG-13, etc…and, last but certainly not least, if it has to do with obscenity in language and/or visual cinematic arts, its really more like Potter Stewart’s, former Supreme Court Justice, adage: “I may not know what it means, but I know it when I see it (or hear it).” In other words, how do you apply standards of moral decency in a representative republic? I dont know either but we can be sure some, not always competent, authority will figure it out for us, good or bad!

  • ganderson

    I think the MPAA system is pretty well broken. I’d favor a process, like many of the parent-friendly advisory systems use: five or six main categories – like violence, profanity, sex, nudity, frightening, and the ever-popular ‘adult themes’ – then just rate each category from one to ten using a relatively objective scale. It would give more accurate information, be kinda objective, and would seem more like friendly advice to someone who wants to know and less like censorship or imposing values.

  • Cara

    I believe strongly that violence is given a free pass in today’s cinema (as it always has been) while sexual explicitness brings out the puritanism in the raters (as it always has.) I can’t watch many of the CGI gross out movies because the violence is constant and loud. I might know that it’s all CGI, but I feel deadened and deaf by the end of the movie. I would go along with a rating system somewhat like Ganderson’s response discussed. Rate the sex, violence, gore and adult themes separately and have the courage to put adult ratings on gore fests and gratuitous explosions.

  • Butch Knouse

    Then there’s the problem of the idiots who think everything G rated is a children’s movie. The phrase G** Dammit to be added to Star Trek V and Driving Miss Daisy to get the rating up to PG, so that these sort of fools wouldn’t think that they were kiddie movies. Some nuts even think that PG movies are for kids only. Movies should be able to appeal for a higher rating to get away from the G rating without having to add unecessary swear words. And the public needs to be educated as to what the letters REALLY mean. But the video was correct and I agree with are of the ideas on it.

  • Sally Stark

    I was assigned to see the 1968 ROMEO AND JULIET, and couldn’t get in without an “adult”. I was 17 at the time, and even brought a note from my teacher on school note paper. No dice. I had to corral my 23 year old brother to escort me, and “protect” me from approximately 30 seconds of Leonard Whiting’s bare butt!! A Pox on Jack Valenti for such Draconian IDIOCY.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Sorry to say you might have to blame your local theater (at that time) for employing their own overzealous “community standards” over the guidelines actually set by the MPAA (via Jack Valenti.) if indeed you were denied entrance to the screening. Contrary to what you’d indicated on the “Rated R” post (and thanks for stopping over, by the way!), Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” was not then, nor was it ever, rated R by the MPAA.

      While the MPAA can rightly be lambasted for being far too prudish about sex and far too lenient about violence, and Valenti might share a big part of the blame for setting up that culture, it’s a badly kept secret that then, and now, theater owners have been known to play fast and loose with “the rules” by either making them stricter than they actually are, or turning a blind eye by letting the young-uns into adult fare so they can enjoy greater ticket receipts.

      No doubt some boys your age were similarly “protected” from the nearly subliminal glimpse of Olivia Hussey’s chest. In this, however, it must be said Valenti would have been blameless.

    • jan

      I have never really understood the theory that a man’s bare butt and woman’s full frontal show is only rated R while a man’s full frontal is rated X. I don’t care for either, but it seems a little discriminatory to me. I would watch either of those however, if writers didn’t have such a limited knowledge of the English language. Seems to me like they only know a couple of dozen words and the ones they don’t know they fill in with f*&^.

  • Jeffry Heise

    First R-rated film was M*A*S*H, which was on a double-bill at the drive-in with PATTON, which was shown first, then my dad told me to go to sleep and I happened to wake up just in time to hear John Schuck tell someone “OK, boy-your f***in’ head is coming right off!” The first R-rated film I saw with someone other than my parents was LENNY, which I saw with a friend, and the first I saw all by my lonesome was CHINATOWN.

  • billgrove57

    I remember back when they started the ratings system, there were a lot of westerns with established stars like Wayne, Ford, Peck and others would be rated G. They would have cussing and bloody scenes in them. Later, some would be rereleased with stronger ratings. I hope that I’m making sense. Thank you.

  • Movie Fan

    Ratings are a waste of time. Considering how easy it is to access all ratings of movies – either at the movie theaters or from home – maybe studios or distributors should count all the cuss words, nude scenes, simulated dismemberments, depictions of sexual acts and simulated drug/alcohol use, then provide an actual count instead of ratings. “This movie contains four hundred cuss words, six depictions of nudity, fourteen dismemberments, seventy acts of bloody violence, six scenes depicting rape, fifteen depictions of sexual acts, four depictions of vomiting and zero scenes showing cigarette or drug use.” It ought to be easy, considering how advanced technology has become. The above example is a bit extreme, but at least it’s honest and detailed enough for a moviegoer to know what to expect. What offends one person is another person’s idea of fun.

  • Bruce Reber

    The MPAA should adopt a ratings systems similar to the one now used by TV networks –
    G – General Audiences (for all ages)
    PG – Parental Guidance (some material may not be suitable for children)
    14 – Material may not be suitable for children ages 14 and under
    M – Material for mature audiences only (age 18 and older)
    With the following warnings -
    D – Adult Dialogue
    P – Profanity
    S- Sexual situtations
    V – Violence
    IMO this would be a little simpler and clearer than the present system.

  • Jeffry Heise

    Two examples-one where it worked and one where it was used. Warner Bros. told Mel Brooks that BLAZING SADDLES would be able to go out with a PG rating, but he insisted on the R due to the multiple uses of the word “shit,” a lot of the sexual situations and the widespread use of the “n-word,” even though it is almost exclusively used by the bad guys. He felt that it would not be a good idea for youngsters to see the film and pick up on the words without an adult to explain its uses to them.

    Where the MPAA was used: when STAR WARS went before them to get its rating, they were going to bestow a G for general audiences, but producer Gary Kurtz and the studio insisted that due to the showing of the burned corpses of Luke’s relatives, a PG would be more fitting. They also knew that if the film got a G instead of PG it would be thought of as a kiddie film and the audience they were trying for would stay away. This is probably the reason why the WIZARD OF OZ 3D version got the same rating, even though it is exactly the same film and has done well in reissues under the G rating ever since it got that rating years ago.