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A Quick Opinion On The Current Rating System

by
June 24, 2006

Is there an accurate rating system for films that are released nationwide in America? Some would answer yes, saying that the MPAA- the Motion Picture Association of America-has been around for 35 years and has done an excellent job of grading the content in films to effectively warn parents about what they and/or their kids are about to see. Others would argue no, stating that although it might have worked 35 years ago, the MPAA is now inconsistent with their criteria and "underrates" films for money causing a rise in adult content to slip into lower rated films and in return contributes to parents disapproval of the ratings system and their consent to their children seeing adult rated films anyway.

"Kangaroo Jack", a PG rated kids film released in 2003, is just one example out of many where the previous problems stated about the MPAA have surfaced. In "Kangaroo Jack" there are raunchy jokes about masturbation, homosexuality, drunkenness, and epilepsy. In a film that is promoted with a PG rating, did parents know the content of the film? To the average person, the content that I just listed that was in "Kangaroo Jack" might come as alarming, especially due to its low rating. How do adult themes slip into lower rated films?

The MPAA was established in 1922 and has served as the voice and advocate of the Motion Picture Industry. Every film that is released nationwide in America is graded by the MPAA. They decide, based on the content of the particular film, what letter grade the film should get. These letter ratings are: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance suggested, PG-13 for parents strongly cautioned, R for restricted, and NC-17 for no one under 17 and under admitted. These are ratings strictly given by the board and are not self-applied by the filmmakers. The content on which these films are graded upon are: the amount of violence, offensive language, nudity, sensuality, drug abuse depicted, as well as the overall theme of the film. Members of the board, which is between 8 to 13 members, decide the ratings by a majority vote, based upon how they think most American parents would judge. The problem with some of these categories is that the MPAA only makes their decisions based on what is actually shown. This means that anything that is just an implication in the film is overlooked.

There are many reasons to way the MPAA's overlooking of implicated sex and violence is hurting their ratings system. First off, this means that films can now be edited down to keep a movie at a certain rating. For example, instead of actually showing a killer stab his victim with a knife, the editor would have a series of shots to imply that the killer has stabbed his victim but would not show the actual penetration of the knife into the victim. Is there any difference between showing a violent act and implying a violent act? This is a major issue with the in discrepancy between a PG rated film and a PG-13 film or even a PG-13 film and R-rated film. Martin Kaplan- the director of the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at UCLA in Los Angeles- says that, " The difference between PG-13 and R-rated films has become mostly academic. A lot of PG-13 rated films really push the boundaries (towards R) because it makes them more appealing to kids." Kaplan is correct when he says that PG-13 films are more appealing to kids. That appeal that films generate for certain audiences is something that studios rely very heavily on before releasing a film. Because money plays a significant role in any film production, films seem to be no longer released for general audiences but rather with their audiences determined for them.

The appeal that films have towards their audience is the key to their multimillion-dollar box office success. In a study of the top grossing films from 1968 to 2002, PG-13 rated films have made the most money. In another study of the 20 highest grossing films in 2002, 65 percent was rated PG-13. Also, there has been a 22 percent increase of PG-13 rated films since 1997. The obvious reason to the increase in these types of films is because of their incredibly high domestic gross at the box office. Because studios are making so much money on these types of films, some say that the studios bride the MPAA to receive PG-13 ratings, despite of the violence within a film. Daphne White-a director of a group that opposes marketing media violence to children- says, "The ratings board is run by the movie industry for the benefit of the movie industry." He feels that the ratings board is run by the very studios that it is supposed to police and that the MPAA "underrates" violent and highly sexualized films. They do this because they know that the film will earn significantly more at the box office if it has a PG-13 rating.

Jack Valenti, the president of the MPAA, disagrees with the claims that the board is being bribed. He answers, "No one in the movie industry has the authority or the power to influence the ratings board in any way. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the ratings board has ever bowed to pressure." His point is significant due to the fact that there is basically no evidence to support the MPAA's antagonists. But it is also important to note that if there were evidence that certain studios were bribing the MPAA, the MPAA would be the one's withholding the information and would obviously never admit to doing it.

The lack of evidence to prove that the board is being bribed to under rate films makes the assertion against them to fall flat. However, numerous studies have shown how more violent and explicit material are being allowed into films, suggesting again that movie raters have grown more lenient in their grading standards. In one study of 1,906 feature films from 1992 to 2003, found more violence and sexual material in PG and PG-13 movies than a decade ago. In another survey of 98 films, 2143 bodily violent acts were identified. The results were: 414 for PG, 607 for PG-13, and 1122 for R. What is the consequence for these films that are underrated?

There is a simple solution to solving the problem concerning the ratings given to films by the MPAA. Since the majority of the problem has to do with the content of how the MPAA rates the films, content is also the solution. If the MPAA were to keep their letter grades that they have been using for 35 years, but adapt it to be more content based, the problem of not knowing what exact content is going to be in certain films are taken care of. In fact, an analysis of 4799 parents found that > 64 percent preferred a more content-based system instead of the age-based ratings categories. One parent who agreed to the more content-based system said, "Movie labels should describe and quantify potentially offensive elements, such as acts of violence, depictions of nudity and the use of obscene language. Parents would know before hand that the movie their 12-year-old daughter wants to see contains 16 murders, 13 scenes of sexual intercourse and 32 f-words."

Yet again, there are many people who disagree with the proposal to improve the current ratings system to be more content based. They feel that it is too tricky to define certain elements of the criteria. One critic said, "What counts as nudity? And one act of violence, such as punching someone in the nose, is very different from dismembering someone." It is understandable that the definitions of terms like violence and nudity would vary from person to person. However, if the MPAA would make a consensus about the definitions of these terms, they would be able to make more concrete decisions that would make sense based on the definitions they created. Many parents would feel less concerned about the gray areas of why a PG-13 film is rated the way it is if they just had some kind of description.

With the MPAA not wanting to make changes to their system, and parents being ignored when they suggest a way to improve the system, it seems like the MPAA does not want to compromise at all. However a compromise needs to be reached so parents can finally trust the MPAA, and also so the MPAA can have some parents off of their backs about their system. The best solution still seems to be that the MPAA should adjust their standard letter grade system to be more content oriented. It is already shown that parents prefer it to the other system. The MPAA seems like they have nothing to loose besides a few weeks of hard work that will be devoted to changing the system. They already have come up with a system that works for them, now they just need to come up with one that works for the rest of America.

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