Contributor: Storey Zimmerman
Since 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, has been rating movies. Jack Valenti, the longtime President of the MPAA, felt that there needed to be some organization of censoring instead of the mishmash of censorship boards that existed before. There were over 45 censorship boards when the ratings were set in place. Filmmakers were required by the states to send their movies to each of the boards and get approval before being able to release them. In an interview, Dan Glickman, CEO of the MPAA, said “Jack determined that we needed to put some order and structure to this system to give parents some predictability. He felt, rightly so, that the prime purpose of ratings were to give parents information about movies.”
The original ratings consisted of three ratings: G, M, and X. G was for general audiences and all ages were permitted. M was for mature audiences and warned parents to provide guidance. X was for no one under 17, and was only created for movies that could cause legal issues had children been allowed to see them. To relieve allegations of censorship, the MPAA made the system voluntary, but had an agreement with the National Association of Theater Owners that it would be enforced almost unanimously. Eventually, because of confusions between M and R ratings, M was eliminated and the PG rating was added. In 1984, to distinguish more fully between PG and R rated movies, PG-13 was created as a middle ground.
The MPAA defines PG-13 as, “Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.” The organization more fully explains this on their website as a stricter warning to parents that some content of the movie is not suitable for younger children. They further specify that PG-13 goes beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements. Any drug use immediately incurs a PG-13 rating, as well as nudity that is not sexually oriented. The single use of a harsh sexually derived word (such as the “F-word”) gets a movie to PG-13, but more than one use is guaranteed an R rating. The board, made up of motion picture and television producers and distributors, decides on PG-13 ratings by a two-thirds majority vote, which they feel reflects the opinions of many parents in America.
Many parents agree with these ratings and follow them strictly, like my parents. I remember, as a child, not being able to watch ANYTHING with a PG-13 rating. My mother trusted these ratings and did not give in. On one particular occasion when I was about 10 years old, at a birthday party, while we were deciding what movie to watch, there were two major opinions. One group wanted to watch “Hocus Pocus” (a PG movie, which I’d seen a million times on the Disney Channel) and the dissenters chose “Dr. Doolittle” (the PG-13, Eddie Murphy remake of a movie about a veterinarian who can talk to animals), so we split up. Of course, given the choice, I watched the movie which I wouldn’t normally have been able to watch at home. After the party, I made the mistake of telling my mother (stupidly) about the movie choices and which one I had chosen. I was subsequently grounded. Asking my mother, now, about her choice to prohibit me from watching PG-13 movies, she still stands by it. She said that she did not want me to be exposed to the mature situations expressed in PG-13 movies. She agreed so much with the ratings that when I was in 7th grade (at which point I was 12 years old), and my English teacher wanted to show “The Scorpion King” in class, my mother went to the principal to make sure that she didn’t make us watch it in class. She felt that it was inappropriate since most of the class was not 13 yet.
What I think my mother should have done was investigate some movies before making the statement that I couldn’t see any PG-13 movies at all. “Dr. Doolittle” was not a wildly inappropriate movie, I heard no more curse words in the movie, than I did at home, and it didn’t make me want to say them. A.O. Scott, a writer for the New York Times, suggests that instead of parents banning all PG-13 movies, they use them as learning opportunities. When speaking of “Juno,” he said, “The movie’s spirit is sweet and smart and youthful, and the relationships it depicts feel very tender and real. If it provokes you to have that long-dreaded talk with your son or daughter, so much the better. You might have needed to anyway.” I understand my mother’s decision, because she didn’t have the Internet resources then, that we do now. There were very few sites that could break down the reason for specific movies being rated what they are. IMDB didn’t exist…the Internet barely existed.
I think many parents’ panic over the PG-13 rating of films is a little unnecessary. There are some movies that deserve the rating whole-heartedly, but parents should look at the less serious offenses with a critical eye and decide on an individual basis whether their children should be allowed to watch them. I missed out on a bunch of pop culture references in my childhood because I was not allowed to see certain movies. To this day, I have still not seen “Jurassic Park,” because I couldn’t watch it when all of my friends were. I’m not saying that parents should just go throw the MPAA rulings out the window, but they should definitely form their own opinions on movies instead of just blindly following the MPAA.
 Gilbert Cruz, “Happy 40th Birthday, Movie Ratings,” Time (October 30, 2008), http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1854732,00.html.
 Mateo Zeske, “The History of Movie Ratings | eHow.com”, n.d., http://www.ehow.com/about_5381647_history-movie-ratings.html.
 “What Each Rating Means”, n.d., http://www.mpaa.org/ratings/what-each-rating-means.
 Betty Thomas, Doctor Dolittle, Comedy, Family, 1998.
 A. O. Scott, “Take the Kids, and Don’t Feel Guilty,” The New York Times, January 11, 2008, sec. Movies, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/11/movies/11scot.html.