In our opinion: Movie ratings are an imperfect system

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Parents and others need to gather more information about a movie’s appropriateness beyond the rating assigned to it.

Associated Press

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Many in Hollywood are outspoken opponents of gun violence, yet they seem curiously uninterested in the fact that, according to a study in the journal “Pediatrics,” gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since it was first instigated nearly three decades ago. The study also found that the use of guns in PG-13 films even exceeds that of R-rated films, calling into question the efficacy of the entire ratings system.

A bit of history might be helpful here.

The PG-13 rating was first given to the film “Red Dawn” in 1984. It was created in response to outrage over two blockbusters released earlier that same year — “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” both of which earned only PG ratings despite being saturated with violence. The Indiana Jones film even included a man having his beating heart ripped from his chest, yet that moment wasn’t enough to persuade the ratings board to slap an R-rating on a movie that was being directly marketed to family audiences.

Thus the PG-13 rating was a compromise designed to give parents more information. That’s a good thing in principle, but far trickier in practice. Even from the outset, the PG-13 rating exacerbated the process by diluting the ratings system.

Prior to PG-13’s creation, a single use of a most prominent vulgarity would automatically mean an R-rating. Now it can be heard in PG-13 movies, too, as long as it isn’t repeated. Today, it seems obligatory that every PG-13 film include that profanity. Without the PG-13 rating, that word likely would be excised from the script far more often than it is today, and we doubt moviegoers would lament its absence.

In addition, the PG-13 rating has paradoxically made it easier to show excessive violence while at the same time, masking the consequences of that violence. Heroes can riddle a bad guy with bullets and not produce the kind of blood and gore that would likely lead to an R-rating. Many films also seem intent on pushing the envelope on what’s acceptable in a PG-13 film. The study in “Pediatrics” notes that many R-rated movies from years ago would likely be rated PG-13 if they were released today.

This is not a call to scrap the ratings system. It is still a valuable tool for moviegoers and has become a well-recognized part of the culture. However, it is important to recognize that the ratings are an imperfect tool. Parents and others need to gather more information about a movie’s appropriateness beyond the rating assigned to it.

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