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The Issues with the MPAA Movie Rating Scale
Parents have always been concerned about the negative effects that movies can have on their children. Since 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s voluntary rating system has served as the liaison between the film industry and the American parent, attempting to help parents protect their children from age-inappropriate content without infringing upon the free speech of filmmakers. The MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) screens each movie for objectionable elements and assigns it an age-based rating to assist parents in determining whether or not a movie is appropriate for their children to watch. However, the current system is ambiguous and has been shown to reflect the monetary interests of film studios rather than the values of the average parent. Furthermore, the scale does not distinguish between objectionable elements that are perceived as immoral and those that negatively influence a child’s development. The MPAA rating scale does not adequately fulfill its purpose of helping parents to make informed decisions about what movies are appropriate for their children and must be reformed.
The History of Film Regulation
In the early twentieth century, local and statewide censorship boards bore the responsibility for regulating movies. Each censorship board developed its own rules about what content was restricted from theaters in its jurisdiction. Consequently, this forced film studios to make multiple cuts of a movie to fit the movie’s content within each individual board’s allowable parameters and avoid censorship in that region. As the number of censorship boards continually increased, it became impossible for film studios to keep up with each censorship board’s standards. In 1922, the major American film studios founded the MPAA. The MPAA created the Production Code Administration (PCA), which oversaw the first self-regulation of the motion picture industry. The members of the MPAA were required to submit each of their films to the PCA before they could be released in theaters. The PCA was responsible for ensuring that each movie adhered to a long, detailed list of strict rules and regulations designed to determine that the movie promoted morality (Movie Ratings, pars. 2-5).
The Film Industry Evolves
As society evolved, so did the film industry. Movies were still forced to adhere to what was considered to be an outdated Production Code, but Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer studios found a loophole—they could release their movies through a subsidiary and avoid censorship by the PCA. In response, the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that individual states and towns retained the right to ban children from having access to movies that were not illegal for adults (Movie Ratings, pars. 6-10). Later that year, the MPAA partnered with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) to create the voluntary, age-based rating scale that is still used today. The MPAA members agreed to allow CARA to rate their movies to determine their age-appropriateness, and NATO agreed to uphold the age restriction guidelines for movies rated R and X (the equivalent of today’s NC-17) (Movie Ratings, par. 14).
The Current Rating Scale
The rating scale has been adjusted several times but has predominantly remained the same since its inception in 1968. The current scale has five ratings—G, for general audiences, PG, parental guidance suggested, PG-13, parents strongly cautioned, R, no one under seventeen admitted without accompaniment by a parent or guardian, and NC-17, no one under eighteen admitted (Walsh and Gentile 1303). Each movie rated PG or higher is also assigned a content descriptor following the rating that indicates what content in that movie is not suitable for the next-lowest rating(e.g. language, sexual content, violence, etc.). The content descriptors are listed in hierarchical order, with the content that is most objectionable listed first. According to the MPAA, the CARA rating board is overseen by a chairperson, a vice-chair, and several senior raters. In addition, a group of nine parents from diverse backgrounds (big cities, small towns, different ethnicities, different regions of the United States, etc.) who have no connection to the film industry are chosen to represent the average American parent on the CARA rating board (Gentile, Humphrey, and Walsh 431; Espejo 87). Other than the chairperson, the names of the members of the CARA rating board are confidential so that they will remain free from outside influences (Espejo 92). Joan Graves, Chairwoman of CARA, stated that the purpose of CARA is to “inform parents about the content of films” and that the ratings are designed to reflect how the “majority of American parents…would rate a film” (par.2). The ratings are not qualitative. There are no written standards about how much objectionable content is allowed in each rating, and movies’ ratings are not meant to be compared with one another.
Joan Graves Describes How the CARA Rates Movies
Advantages of the MPAA Rating Scale
The MPAA voluntary rating system is advantageous and has had prolonged success for several reasons. The system is an excellent compromise between government-regulated censorship of the film industry and allowing children to have easy access to movies that contain content that their parents would not consider age-appropriate. The system protects the free speech of filmmakers because submitting a film to the MPAA is optional. When a movie is submitted to be rated, it is assigned a rating that allows parents to have a general idea of what is in the movie and what age group the movie is appropriate for. The system recognizes that most parents do not have time to do in-depth research on every movie that their child wants to see, and it allows them to make an educated guess about the movie’s content based on the rating alone. Further, the rating scale has become immersed in American culture. The majority of today’s parents grew up under the current system and have seen enough movies to discern based upon personal experience how much objectionable content a movie with each rating can generally contain (Walsh and Gentile 1303).
Disadvantages of the MPAA Rating Scale
However, the current rating scale’s advantages are outweighed by its deficiencies. Although the MPAA asserts that CARA exists as an independent body and that the MPAA does not directly control it, the MPAA chairperson appoints the CARA chairperson, who in turn selects the CARA rating board members (Movie Ratings, par.13; Albosta143). Thus, the MPAA chairperson can have a direct influence in choosing the CARA rating board members and subsequently the ratings of films themselves. This is a problem because the MPAA and CARA have opposing missions. CARA exists to protect and promote the interests of parents, while the MPAA, which is funded exclusively by the film industry, exists “to advance the business and the art of filmmaking and its enjoyment around the world” (Motion Picture Association of America, par. 7).
CARA claims that it keeps the members of the rating board confidential “to avoid even the appearance that they may be subject to outside influences” (Espejo 93). However, as Kirby Dick, director of the controversial MPAA documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, points out, public officials make important decisions without their names being kept confidential. It is much easier to hold public officials accountable for their decisions and possible influences than the anonymous CARA rating board (Dick 17). Furthermore, CARA’s assertion that its raters remain anonymous so that they will not be subject to outside influences neglects to account for the fact that the greatest potential influence on CARA is internal, not external.
CARA's Conflict of Interest
According to a recent MPAA report, 26% of movie tickets purchased in 2010 were bought by or for minors, and since the implementation of the MPAA age-based rating scale in 1968, 66.6% of the industry’s annual thirty top-grossing movies have not been age-restricted (Motion Picture Association of America 9; Nalkur et al. 442). Statistically speaking, it appears to be in the MPAA’s best interests to appoint a CARA chairperson who will select raters that will rate movies more leniently, particularly between the unrestricted PG-13 rating and the restricted R and NC-17 ratings. Films rated R can only be seen by minors if accompanied by a parent or guardian, and NC-17 movies are not only completely restricted to children, but many theaters and retail stores refuse to show or sell them (Dick 16). CARA cannot ethically represent parents when its parent organization exists to advance the monetary interests of film studios, who can potentially benefit from CARA rating board negligence.
In addition, CARA states that senior members of the rating board are available to filmmakers for consultation both during the moviemaking process and during post-production (Movie Ratings, pars. 32-33). Filmmakers not only have the most vested interest in what rating their movies will receive, but they have direct access to the people who rate them. It is not far-fetched to assume that filmmakers could influence the raters, or even—as Dick suggests—“develop relationships with [them] over the years” (17). Frequent rater-filmmaker interaction constitutes a tremendous conflict of interests for CARA.
How CARA Rates Objectionable Content
There are also indications that the CARA rating scale is better at protecting children from what the rating board perceives as immorality than it is at protecting them from content that is potentially the most harmful to them. Ron Leone’s study of the content removed from films originally rated NC-17 to receive an R rating, featured in the Journal of Communication, found that 61.1% of scenes removed were non-violent sexual sequences compared to only 25.6% non-sexual violent sequences (947). The study also indicated that CARA tended to rate graphic content, or what is displayed on the screen, more harshly than explicit content, how much emphasis is placed on the content (Leone 944-9). These results show that the distinction between R and NC-17 is more about what type of objectionable content is displayed than it is about how explicit the content is. This gives credence to Leone’s claim that “R is truly the ‘violence rating’” as well as the public perception that NC-17 is reserved for pornographic material (Leone 949; Graves, par.7).
Leone’s conclusion has been reinforced by several studies applied to unrestricted ratings in addition to films rated R. Jenkins et al. discovered that although there is a distinction between the average number of violent acts in a movie of each rating, the range between the total number of violent acts was very similar between ratings. PG movies had a range of one to 97 violent acts, and R movies had a range of one to 110 violent acts (Jenkins et al. 514). Similarly, Nalkur et al. found that although sexual content was very well distinguished between ratings, there was no distinction in the amount of violent content between ratings. In fact, 37.3% of PG-13 films contained more explicit violence than the average R-rated film (Nalkur et al. 442). This trend indicates that CARA considers sexual content to be more objectionable than violent content, despite the fact that numerous psychologists have concluded that movie violence is detrimental to a child’s development (Nalkur et al. 444). This confirms Leone’s assertion that CARA is more concerned with how immoral they believe an action to be as opposed to its potential to impact a child’s development (Leone 949).
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The MPAA states that the CARA rating scale does not follow a rigid checklist because it is designed to evolve with culture and reflect current parental attitudes towards each type of objectionable content (Movie Ratings, par. 20; Espejo 89-90). Dick condemns this as an admission of homophobia. He rhetorically asks if society’s values were racist if they were anti-Semitic—would CARA rate movies starring Jews harsher than other films. He further asserts that because CARA rates sexual content more harshly than any other objectionable material, it has become “controversial and sensational” and “is not treated in a mature way” (Dick 17-18). Sensationalizing sexual content causes people, especially adolescents, to view it as a sort of “forbidden fruit” that is titillating or suggestive but is not treated in an adult way (March).
How CARA Changes Social Values
There is also evidence to suggest that CARA influences changes in social values rather than reflects them. In a study of the content descriptors of 1,820 movies spanning the years from 1993 to 2005, psychologists Richard Potts and Angela Belden concluded that PG and PG-13 movies contained increasing amounts of adult content as the study progressed (278). As noted above, this could be attributed to pressure from the film industry to rate movies more leniently to maximize profits. CARA would deny this, saying that the increase in certain types of content reflects changing societal norms. However, this may instead (or in addition) be the result of CARA members undergoing a steady process of desensitization, “a reduction of an emotional response, including shock, revulsion, embarrassment, or mirth, resulting from repeated exposure to relevant emotion-producing stimuli” (Potts and Belden 279). CARA members, who view 800-900 movies a year—two-thirds of which contain sufficient adult content to be age-restricted—would logically become desensitized to objectionable content far quicker than the average American parent (Movie Ratings, par. 38; Potts and Belden 279-80). If the rating board is more desensitized to adult content than the average parent, it will allow increasing amounts of adult content to permeate lower-rated films. If this is the case, then CARA is not reflecting cultural values; it is changing them.
Is the MPAA Rating Scale False Advertising?
Furthermore, with the CARA rating scale, the MPAA creates for itself a false dilemma and may even engage in false advertising. The MPAA asserts both that it exists to promote the interests of the film industry and that parents consider the CARA ratings to be very influential in their decisions about what movies they allow their children to see (Movie Ratings, par. 20; Albosta 136). An age-based rating scale suggests that movies are appropriate for certain age groups and leads parents to make decisions with monetary consequences about what movies they will allow their children to see. The MPAA also says parents should not use their ratings as the only criteria for whether or not to allow their children to see a film (Albosta 137-8). However, by existing solely “to inform parents about the content of films” (Graves par. 2), assigning age-based ratings to movies, and claiming that the rating scale is effective, CARA purports to “represent the quality and nature of those films” (Albosta 138). If parents, because of the CARA ratings, allow their children to see movies that contain objectionable content that was not adequately referenced in the rating, they have suffered a monetary loss due to a deceptively advertised rating. This would not be an issue except that the MPAA has a monetary interest in the CARA ratings because it exists to promote the interests of the film studios. Thus, the CARA rating scale constitutes false advertising.
How Parents View the MPAA
Despite the inadequacies presented above, 78% of parents have used the CARA movie ratings to determine what movies are appropriate for their children (Gentile, Humphrey, and Walsh 439), and the MPAA boasts that the rating scale maintains an 80% approval rating among parents (Movie Ratings, par. 20). However, studies have shown that parents do not agree with nearly 40% of the CARA ratings. In a study by developmental child psychologists David Walsh and Douglas Gentile, parents rated movies using a content-based rating scale developed by Walsh known as KidScore to determine whether movies were appropriate for children aged three to seven, eight to twelve, and thirteen to seventeen. The study assumed that CARA considers movies rated G to be appropriate for children ages three to seven, PG movies to be appropriate for ages eight-twelve, and PG-13 movies to be appropriate for adolescents ages thirteen to seventeen. The study found that parents only considered 50% of movies rated G, 63% of movies rated PG, and 60% of movies rated PG-13 to be appropriate for the corresponding age group (Walsh and Gentile 1305-6).
In a separate study, Gentile, Humphrey, and Walsh conclude that a useful rating system exhibits both reliability and validity. The ratings that each rater assigns to movies must periodically be compared with the others to make sure that there is inter-rater reliability (433). There also must be empirical consistency between ratings; if two movies have comparable content, they should be rated the same and should have the same content descriptors. The system must measure what it claims to measure, that is, content harmful to the development of a child. Lastly, the way movies are rated must not shift over time (434).
Reforming the MPAA Rating Scale
It is clear that changes must be made to the current rating scale. The MPAA’s arguments that the rating scale is valid, protects children from harmful content, and is supported by parents have all been proven wrong. The MPAA will argue that changes to the rating scale will be expensive, confusing to consumers, and will present new flaws, all of which are true. However, these facts do not overshadow the inefficiency (and as Albosta noted, illegality) of the current system.
Respected film critic Roger Ebert proposes that since the implementation of the CARA rating scale, American national standards have changed, and people, even young children, have become desensitized to profanity and sex. He argues that the only two important ratings in modern America are “R” and “not-R,” or restricted to children and not restricted to children (par. 8). He suggests a revised rating scale that features only three ratings: G, for general audiences, T, for teenagers, and A, for adult. The movies will not be rated based upon specific objectionable content; rather, the rating board will subjectively decide which audience the movie is most appropriate for (Ebert, par. 14). Supporters of a scale such as this assert that culture has changed so much since 1968 that no matter how quickly the current scale evolves, it will not be relevant to contemporary culture.
Ebert is right, to an extent. Americans are much more desensitized than they were in previous years, and the rating scale should be changed to reflect that. However, many parents attempt to shelter their children from desensitization and are very concerned with the objectionable content of movies, as is evidenced by the prevalence of websites such as www.screenit.com and www.pluggedin.com that provide a detailed description of every possible objectionable element of a movie. Further, as Walsh and Gentile noted above, the average parent considers the current system to be too lenient about 40% of the time, which indicates that many parents would reject an updated, ambiguous scale. The rating system should still be updated to conform to modern cultural norms, but it should also enable parents who consider many elements of contemporary culture to be objectionable to make informed choices about what movies they allow their children to see.
Is a Rating System Inherent Censorship?
Many filmmakers, such as Kirby Dick and Wes Craven, assert that any rating system is censorship and that a more detailed rating scale will lead to even stricter censorship. Craven argues that the ratings are ill-defined and cause filmmakers to waste valuable time and resources either shooting extra-gory footage intended to be cut after a movie is rated by CARA and by being forced to re-edit movies that are rated NC-17 (pars. 16-18). He says that the ambiguity of the scale leaves filmmakers completely unsure of what rating their movie will receive. He further decries the subjectivity of the scale. He references several instances when one of his films has received an NC-17 rating, and he has mailed CARA video compilations of R-rated movies with comparable content. CARA refused to view the videos because it says that movies are not meant to be compared with one another (Craven 27). Craven and Dick assert that the only way to prevent censorship is to abolish ratings altogether. Dick suggests that in their place there should be a simple but complete description of the content of a movie (18). All movies would be unrestricted, and parents would have the tools to determine exactly what movies they should allow their children to see.
However, this proposed system could not work. Although the current scale is ambiguous and claims of censorship of sexual content, particularly in regards to homosexuality, are not unfounded, complete abolishment of the rating scale is not an option. Many people would simply ignore the longer, more-descriptive narratives, and many children and adolescents would use the narratives to determine what movies had the most “forbidden fruit” (Elvgren; March). Furthermore, DVD cases would not be able to display the long descriptions of objectionable content, leaving parents helpless when choosing a movie to rent or buy at a video store. In addition, parents should not have to worry about children being able to easily attend an adult movie without their consent.
How to Reform the Rating Scale
To achieve the marks of a useful rating system, several things must be done. First and foremost, CARA must separate completely from the MPAA because the two organizations have conflicting interests. As an independent entity, CARA will have autonomy and will better be able to remain objective about the movies it rates. It should still be funded by the film industry—movie studios will pay to have their movies rated—but as an independent organization, CARA will be able to better promote the interests of parents without being subject to outside influences.
The rating board should be composed of an equal amount of parents and child psychologists, who can together determine both what is harmful to children and what content parents do not want their children to be exposed to. The board should be public so that it will be easier to spot possible outside influences. CARA should have a content-based rubric that is made public so that the public can validate the CARA ratings against the rubric and know what content is allowed in each rating. This will also help filmmakers understand what content will earn them each rating as they make their films, and it will give them a standard to appeal to if they feel that their movie has been rated unfairly. The ratings should be content-based but should have a recommended age-appropriateness rating. Each CARA member’s ratings of each film should frequently be compared with the other board members’ ratings as well as the rating rubric to ensure that each rater is reliable.
As stated above, the ratings should be content-based and empirical. However, so that the rating scale will reflect current societal values, the ratings should be updated in seven-year cycles. Five years into each cycle, CARA should begin to conduct extensive surveys of American parents to determine how parents want the rating scale to rate each type of content. CARA should take this information, along with input from child psychologists about what content is harmful to a child’s development, and use it to update the scale. Once this has been done, CARA should aggressively market the new scale in order to educate parents about the impending changes so that they will understand them when the new scale is implemented.
The Limitations of a Rating Scale
Parents have a duty to protect their children from content in movies that could be harmful to them. Movies can be very influential, so parents must teach their children constantly discern the good from the bad as they watch movies. However, children are much more impressionable and less able to discern between the positive and negative elements of a movie. It is their parents’ responsibility to make informed decisions for them about what movies they should be allowed to see. Parents should not make choices based solely on a rating scale but should instead use the rating scale as a guide. The rating scale will reflect the values of the average parent, though many parents will disagree with it. It is their responsibility to determine what content is appropriate for their children, not CARA’s.
Time For a Change
That said, the rating scale proposed above would be an invaluable resource to parents, and it would be immensely more helpful than the current scale. However, achieving complete CARA reform will not be easy. Supporters of an overhaul of CARA, particularly parents, must write letters and petition CARA and the MPAA. Parents must prove to CARA that they do not think that the current system adequately achieves its goal of enabling them to make informed decisions about movies. Parents must join together to voice their disapproval of the current system. If CARA truly exists to protect children and empower parents, then it will listen and make the changes that parents desire.
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MikeS on January 11, 2018:
Nice try, but your article falls prey to so much of the bias that fools like Kirby Dick would want. Perhaps it's not your fault. The literature is loaded with a bunch of cr@p that has already prejudged the entire subject matter and is thus blinded by its own presumptions. This is an excellent subject for revealing how fumbling and incompetent the state of the social sciences are in. :-(
(I say this on the basis of comparing my own research of 25+ years with the published material.)
Flower727 on July 15, 2013:
Great article. Very well-articuled account of the rating system. I think I will definitely be more skeptical of how the movies I watch are rated.
W1totalk on July 11, 2013:
Just like a separation of church and state this makes sense. Good article.