The Useless Rating

I want to go to the movies today.  The film version of The Fault in Our Stars came out this weekend, and, as a fan of the novel (and John Green’s books in general, despite the impression that I may have given in THIS POST), I’d like to go. 

It wouldn’t just be me, though.  I have two kids, who wouldn’t be too thrilled if Dad ditched them to see a movie.  For my son, this isn’t really an issue.  He’s fourteen and has already read and liked the book.  My daughter is the issue.  She’s ten, the film is rated PG-13, but I have no idea what kind of PG-13 movie we’re talking about here. 

Did they suddenly add a bunch of profanity that wasn’t in the novel?  I doubt it.  John Green was on set during the filming and has spoken very highly of the adaptation of his work.  I can’t imagine he’d be pleased if they’d made the language in the script more salty (I just love that word to describe language.  Salty!  Ahem, moving on).  Is it violence?  Um…there wasn’t any in the book, unless you count the video game the characters play, so I don’t think so.  Besides, if there was any violence in the film, the trailers would have been playing it up.  That’s just how film marketing works.  Is it due to the subject matter?  These kids do have cancer, after all.  Could it be…sex (Gasp!)?  The main characters do engage in sexual activity.  That’s even a shot in the trailer that shows the female lead in her bra!

The fact is that the PG-13 doesn’t really tell me anything because a huge range of films get that rating.  Can I really compare Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  As a parent, I completely agree that my job is to do more research and find out what’s actually in a film.  In the case of The Fault in Our Stars the MPAA says that the film received the PG-13 rating for “thematic elements, some sexuality, and brief strong language.”  I’m guessing the thematic element is the cancer, I’ve already talked about the sexuality part, and brief strong language suggests somebody says a bad word at some point.

Part of the issue is that it seems like most of the movies coming out now are PG-13, which means there’s a huge swath of content all getting the same rating.  The reason for that is simple: money.  PG-13 is the Goldilocks Zone of movie ratings.  Teens can see them without an adult, families will take kids younger than 13 to see those movies (My daughter saw The Avengers in the theater at age 8 as well as the last few Harry Potter films), and both adults and older kids (and by older I mean older than about second grade) don’t have the feeling that they’re attending a kiddie movie.  According to Buzzfeed.com (Yes, they do have real articles instead of silly lists occasionally), there were 119 PG-13 films released in 2012, and they grossed a combined $5.62 billion.  That number includes everything from The Avengers to Lincoln.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, though, I have to wonder how many of these films would have been rated PG prior to the creation of the PG-13 rating in 1984.  Here are a few PG films from that time. 

The Goonies -  It’s a fun adventure film starring kids, right?  Have you watched it lately?  The language starts in the opening credits when Chunk utters the first “shit” of the film.  Later, a teen boy readjusts his rearview mirror to try to get a better look up a teen girl’s skirt, and the main kids have a problem with a plaster penis that they knock off of a statue.  Easy PG-13 today.

Smokey and the Bandit – I loved this movie as a kid.  It’s got car chases, a great theme song, Burt Reynolds at possibly his most charming, and Jackie Gleason eating as much scenery as possible.  I discovered when I decided to show the movie to my son several years ago, that I’d been watching the edited for TV version when I was young.  This movie is filled with language, but these days the visit to the roadside brothel alone would probably earn the movie a PG-13.

Airplane! ­­– This is one of the funniest movies ever made, but if you talk to someone about it, they’re probably surprised to learn that it was rated PG.  Does inflating the auto-pilot ring any bells?  How about the gratuitous breast shot during one of the panic sequences?  A simulated blow job and boobs = PG-13.

So parents back then had even less of an idea of what they were getting into.  Did PG mean Star Wars or Airplane?  What would their kids be seeing?  From that perspective, I can completely support the creation of the PG-13 rating. 

The problem is that has become the go-to rating and has become almost meaningless.  Any sort of scary content can get a movie that rating, and, as a result, the scale for what qualifies as PG and G have moved accordingly.  What’s the last PG rated film you can remember that wasn’t specifically targeted toward children?  National Treasure is the last one that comes to mind for me. 

Otherwise, PG has become the home of most of the live-action kids movies, such as the recently-released live-action take on Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent.  PG is also where most animated features now land.  Frozen was PG, Despicable Me 1& 2 were PG, and every Shrek and Madagascar film was PG.

What was in these films that makes them warrant the PG as opposed to say The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, both of which earned G ratings 25 years ago?  I would argue nothing.  Rather, if The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast came out today, they would probably be rated PG. 

With that being the case, what is rated G anymore?  Honestly, not much.  Going back to 2012 again, in comparison with the 119 PG-13 films, there were 9 G films.  Nine.  In THIS article, Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock is quoted as saying, “It’s just not cool for kids — at least kids old enough to care about stuff like this — to go to G-rated films anymore.”  And now, thanks to the ratings creep that makes even the slightest scary scene get a film hit with PG, the content of most G films is so inane that adults have a hard time sitting through them.  They should come with a caution label, “WARNING: This Film Will Kill As Many Brain Cells As Watching One Hour of Real Housewives!”

So G is now PG, what used to be PG would now be PG, and films that would otherwise be PG or even R are now aiming squarely for PG-13, because that’s where the money is.  The rating has become basically meaningless as more and more films of wildly ranging content end up in the same bucket.  As THIS Entertainment Weekly article argues, a film can now kill millions of people and still get a PG-13.  Actually, as THIS study found, at this point you can have all kinds of violence, as long as it is not too graphic, and keep the PG-13.

Where does this leave me as a parent?  Mostly hoping that I can find a review online that tells me what’s actually in a film before I decide to take my daughter, which says to me that the PG-13 rating really needs to be rethought and revamped at this point.  It means that every movie slapped with that rating (which is, as I already pointed out, most of them) is a big “maybe” in terms of whether it’s appropriate.  And even the elaboration provided by the MPAA can be maddeningly vague.  “Thematic content” tells me nothing.  According to IMDB.com, the 1989 Batman film received a PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.”  What does that even mean?  Is the PG-13 for brooding as well as dark violence?

Again, I know that it is and I want it to be my job as a parent to research what’s in a film, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more help here, guys.  Maybe take a cue from the TV rating system and add the S, L, V (Sexuality, Language, Violence) letters to the rating, so The Avengers might get PG-13-V while Vicky Cristina Barcelona  gets PG-13-S.  From there, how about writing descriptions that actually mean something.  Instead of saying “Thematic elements” for The Fault in Our Stars,  how about “This movie is about kids who have cancer”?  That actually gives me information I can use to decide whether or not my kid is ready for it.  

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter