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Motion Picture Association of America Ratings System

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In any appraisal, what 'too much' is becomes very controversial. How much is 'too much' violence? Are classic war films too violent with scenes of marines storming a beach and slaying hundreds, wounding thousands? Is it the graphic cop killing, the gangster shoot-out, or the slap across the face of a woman that determines 'too much'? How much is 'blood spilled' to be given emphasis? Where is the line to be drawn between 'this is all right' and 'this is not all right'?
- Jack Valenti

Introduced in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), under the supervision of MPAA president Jack Valenti and in compliance with the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) as well as the International Film Importers & Distributors of America (IFIDA), the MPAA Ratings System is a self-regulating, voluntary, cautionary warning guide intended to help parents of young children decide what cinematic material is most suitable for their children to experience. A board of parents are selected to view each film in its entirety and then to discuss and vote on the film's suitability for young people. They are not officially intended to decide whether or not the film is good or bad but whether or not it is good for children. Somewhere in there, there is supposed to be a distinction that is relevant.

As of September 1999, the MPAA Ratings System uses the following federally-registered certification marks to accomplish its goal of educating the parents of America regarding what's smut and what's not.

  • G - General Audiences
    All ages admitted.

  • PG - Parental Guidance Suggested
    Some material may not be suitable for children.

  • PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
    Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

  • R - Restricted
    Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

  • NC-17 - No one 17 or under admitted
    No ifs, ands or buts.

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous 'X' rating was abandoned by the MPAA in September, 1990, and was never a federally-registered certification mark. What that means is, anyone could brand their own movie 'X' without even going through the MPAA Ratings Board. Of course, doing so was certain financial death unless your movie happened to contain at least 20 naked breasts.

It was believed, in 1990, that by creating the NC-17 rating as a federally-registered certification mark, it would clear the misconception that the misuse of 'X' had promoted: that any movie more restricted than 'R' was automatically pornographic. The fact that the public today tends to treat 'NC-17' in exactly the same way they use to treat 'X' pretty much dismisses this belief.

The Ratings System is meant to be as simple as possible, so the average adult theatre goer can understand it at a glance without having to read long-winded explanations of it such as this one. It somehow falls short.

The MPAA Ratings System was designed to replace an antiquated and biased system known as Will Hays' Production Code1. Implemented originally in 1922, the Hays Office restricted films from many things which are commonplace today, including:

  • The use of words like damn or hell
  • Unpunished criminal activity
  • Indications of adulterous affairs
  • Scenes showing men and women in bed together for any reason2, even if the couple were married

In comparison, Valenti's Ratings System is superior, and more desirable3. The MPAA Ratings System is meant to be voluntary4, and endeavours to allow the movie industry an ability to police itself without censorship and without restrictive political behaviour. It somehow falls short.

Rating Criteria

The criteria which influence the MPAA Ratings System appear simple on the surface, but are responsible for more and bloodier power lunches in Hollywood than any other topic of discussion, including religion, politics, and whether or not the San Diego Chargers will make the next Super Bowl. The criteria include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Drug Abuse - In accordance with the American War On Drugs campaign which has been ongoing in one form or another pretty much ever since the native American Indians first exposed puritans to tobacco, any mention or visual indication of controlled substances in a film almost always guarantees at least an R rating, unless the Devil Weed is shown in a bad light and only bad guys smoke it.

  • Language - The use of colourful metaphors is frowned upon when children learn them, even though some people think it's pretty cute to hear the F word coming out of a toddler's mouth. Such 'bad words' usually apply to subjects such as the standard accepted act of lovemaking, defecation of bodily wastes, and explorations of socially aberrant sexual gratification.

  • Nudity - Our society is so screwed up that we teach our children to be ashamed of not only other people's naked bodies, but their own as well. The only possible explanation for this? Keeping the fashion and textile industries in business.

  • Sensuality - Which is a nice way of saying 'The Seven Deadly Sins'. Any cinematic representation of acts which are devoted to the gratification of the body or excessive material pleasure is questioned, especially in contemplation of what it might inadvertently teach a young viewer. This includes the standard accepted act of lovemaking, defecation of bodily wastes, and explorations of socially aberrant sexual gratification. Note that many socially unacceptable words falls under this category of ratings transgression.

  • Sex - The Ultimate Abomination, apparently: we certaintly don't want little ones to ever learn how to reproduce. God forbid.

  • Violence - Even though children have been known to regularly beat the living daylights out of one another, sometimes to the point of drawing blood, it is socially unacceptable to have them sit in a dark movie theatre for 90 minutes and watch grown men beating up one another in a similar manner. Cartoons for children have, over decades, been sanitized in much the same way. It is believed by not allowing exposure to violent behaviour, children will opt not to be violent. This is no doubt working. Somewhere. I'm sure someone has statistics to prove it's working. Fewer children dropping anvils on one another's heads than in the 1940s, perhaps?

  • And So Much More - Jack Valenti occasionally uses the phrase 'theme' as one criterion. This is a very vague category that is basically the overall message which the film addresses. Is the film giving a morally uplifting and positive view of the world that few will find objectionable? Does it pose complicated and involved dilemmas that small and easily-influenced minds should be protected from, for fear that they might develop abnormally and become sociopathic sex-crazed drug offenders? The rising numbers of juvenile delinquents in the American prison system is proof positive that this approach to protecting children both from dangerous external influences and from their own brains is working tremendously well.


The MPAA has, for the better part of the 20th Century, been under a huge amount of scrutiny and pressure by a seemingly endless number of groups with 'vested interests'; from individual angry parents, to large nonprofit organisations of angry parents, to organizations speaking on behalf of all angry parents everywhere, to anyone who wants to give anyone else the impression they actually care about parents. Oh, and their children, of course!

There has repeatedly been the threat of government intervention designed to somehow curb the alleged flood of adult-oriented material available in the USA that potentially exposes defenceless children to horrors like the naked body, violent acts and other inappropriate images or stories. Due to this threat, the MPAA felt duty-bound to instead police itself and discover a balance between some conservative views that find nudity distasteful and more liberal views that find censorship distasteful.

From a torrent of disagreement and wide-ranging opinion, the MPAA Ratings System was born. Its purpose is single-minded: offer to parents some advance information about movies so that parents can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see...
...we urge and implore parents to care about what their children see and watch, to focus their attention on movies so they can know more about a film before they consent to their children watching it.
- Jack Valenti

Sounds so simple, doesn't it? The MPAA Ratings System, however, is not consistent as it stands.


There are as many opinions regarding what children should be exposed to in cinemas in America as there are Americans. Many just don't care, but they are silent and uninterested so their opinion is rarely considered. Some very outspoken individuals believe there should be strict rules regarding questionable material, and that anyone who is interested in questionable material should be treated like paedophiles and set on fire. However, the vast majority of opinions that matter are the opinions of parents, and those opinions ideally should only apply to that parent's own children.

The ratings system was not originally designed to tell parents what to do or how to think. Its purpose is completely advisory. If the parent doesn't like their children exposed to profanity, they should limit their child's viewing to only G rated material. If profanity is tolerable but nudity is not, G and PG movies should be safe. And so on. Intensely graphic and violent material is slated as inadmissible for children under 17, because it is generally accepted in society that no parent should want their child subjected to seeing such things as opium dens, or disembowelment. There may be a parent out there who finds that sort of thing acceptable, but Jack Valenti hasn't found one yet.

The relative ratings of individual films are also not consistent. The movie The Blair Witch Project (1999), for example, was given an R rating. It contains profanity and suggested violent themes. It does not contain any nudity or actual visual representations of violence. A year earlier, the film X-Files Fight the Future was given a PG-13 rating. It contained profanity, suggested sexual themes, disturbingly dysfunctional conspiratorial old men, images of aliens that came out of someone's nightmares, and several violent scenes including the complete destruction of a government building that was compared to the Oklahoma City bombing. In many ways it is unquestionably more disturbing visually than The Blair Witch Project. However, it got a lower rating.

The lines drawn between PG, PG-13 and R are so grey, vague and inconsistent, some argue they are not even useful guidelines. However, many parents will allow their child to see a PG movie, without even going to see it first themselves.

These are just examples of inconsistencies over the years due to the decisions of the MPAA Rating Board. To attempt to list all potential examples of such inconsistencies would multiply the size of this guide entry by a minimum of a factor of ten. Perhaps more disturbing than the MPAA Rating Board's own discrepancies is the fact that American society as a whole has some wild and varied misconceptions about how the MPAA functions, how powerful it actually is, and what it all means. In fact, often when people discuss the subject of the ratings system, the first thing they wish to do is demonize Jack Valenti himself. When considering the ratings system it is important to observe that Jack Valenti was given an impossible problem to solve and did it more admirably than his predecessors. Despite this, it is not possible to assume that the MPAA Ratings System is fine the way it is. It needs work. In fact, 30 years after its inception, it may need to be completely revamped - again.

Corporate Misconceptions

A prominent and mysterious result of the MPAA Ratings System and how it changed the landscape of modern day cinema is the peculiar adaptation the film industry made to capitalize on its existence for financial gain. The film industry uses it to their advantage as a marketing tool. They are required, in compliance with the MPAA, to place the film's rating prominently on all advertisements for their films. Because of this, naturally they do so in whatever way they deem most suited for their advertising. This seems to happen almost unconsciously.

Today, if you ask a young person if he wants to see a certain movie, he might ask you what it's called or what it's about, but as important to the child would be what the films rating is. If the rating is PG, that's okay. If the rating is G, no good: only babies watch G rated shows. Now, if the rating is R, the young person would probably be very interested in seeing it. This is before he even knows what the movie is about. Just the fact that some adults somewhere don't want him to see it makes him want to see it even more. The film industry knows that certain ratings can bring about different attitudes by the public without any other advanced knowledge about the film, and they try often to use that to their advantage.

If a film's studio believes the rating will be to their benefit, it is placed more prominently in newspaper ads, movie posters, and other assorted publicity. If however they feel the film could be harmed by the rating, it's featured less prominently. NC-17 is not intended as a stamp for censorship, yet few respectable cinemas in the country will show NC-17 films. Often a film will initially be brought to the attention of the MPAA Ratings Board the way the director originally intended it, and the Ratings Board looks it over, counts the number of breasts and the number of times the F word is used, until the end result is an NC-17 rating. The director and his cronies go back to the cutting room and return with a version of the film that has five seconds less sex here, a computer generated figleaf there and voila! The MPAA Ratings Board looks at this new version and relents, giving it an R rating.

Now let's look at the difference here. NC-17 means children under 17 are not admitted. R means children under 17 can go but only if a parent says it's okay. That's the only difference, at least on paper. Financially, however, NC-17 means certain death for the filmmakers. Why? Few respectable movie houses in the country will even show NC-17 movies, and if a movie house won't show it, audiences can't go see it. However, R movies make millions of dollars in the box office. First, the parent is supposed to go see it him/herself without the kids. Then the parent returns with the children to see it. That's automatically built-in repeat business right there. Plus the fact R movies have more of that stuff that we're supposed to believe is bad for our souls and will make hair grow on our palms, naturally it's a sure moneymaker.

However, just an R rating doesn't guarantee as much money as a once-NC-17-turned-R rating. The film's marketing department is now salivating. Why? A film that starts with an official NC-17 rating from the MPAA and then has a trimmed down R-rated version means more money because it develops controversy that gets reported everywhere from CNN to the watercooler. This is effective free publicity for the movie, which generates more public interest and more revenue, regardless of whether or not the movie is any good. The film is almost certain to make money merely because of the buzz going on about it. Furthermore this helps insure it will make money in the video and DVD markets, because when it's released it will have to be released in both the R-rated version and the NC-17 director's cut and some people will want both versions so they can pause and compare.

The studio cuts out five seconds and airbrushes out the pubic hair, and suddenly a financial no-hoper becomes a multi-million dollar box office champion. Compare Orgazmo to the South Park movie and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Although MPAA president Jack Valenti insisted at the time that the new childproof rating was a guideline, not a stigma, many cinema chains refused to show NC-17 or unrated movies. Consequently the first NC-17 movie, Henry and June (1990), remained for years the only major studio release ever to bear the rating.
- alt.culture

These and other reactions to the MPAA Rating System not only show a misunderstanding among the very people participating directly in the system, but demonstrate how this misunderstanding and redirection of information is filtered down to the public.

Public Misconceptions

There are some general misconceptions among the American people regarding why the MPAA rating system is in existence. It is not intended for censorship, and it is not meant to replace parental responsibility. It is an educational tool for parents and a cautionary warning, devised by any American parent's peer group: nothing more than that. It is also often misconceived that the rating system applies to everyone equally. It does not. It is a cautionary system designed to help educate parents about what the film industry is making available to their children. Any adult who does not have children should not in any way be affected by the ratings system, nor should they even feel it necessary to be bothered with understanding it.

Many parents assume that a G rated film is always children's fare, when that is not what the rating means. Many assume that NC-17 definitely means pornography which couldn't be further from the truth. In fact pornographic films are not often even bothered with by the Ratings Board. Many also use the Ratings System to locate what they consider to be smut so that they can rant and wail and demand the smut be destroyed, preferably in a bonfire with those evil Alanis Morrisette albums. The Ratings System is not intended to locate and silence smut. It is only intended to assist parents in deciding what films are appropriate for their children.

With these problems in mind, on first observance it could be concluded that the MPAA Ratings System is nothing more than a nuisance, and should be disregarded by society as a whole. However, it does satisfy its purpose for existing. The difficulty here is not with the ratings system, but how the public perceives the ratings system, and how they react to it.

End Result

If you are not a parent in the United States of America, you can safely ignore the MPAA Ratings System and boo and hiss whenever you see the ratings thing appear on the screen at the end of a movie. If you are an American parent, you cannot expect the rest of the world to take the ratings seriously, but you should start taking the Ratings System very seriously. Awareness of the problems with the Ratings System will allow you to appreciate it for what it is. It's there for you, because in the 20th Century we all know how busy you are and how difficult it is to be an informed parent. If you do not take the MPAA Ratings System seriously, it becomes useless. Still, the final analysis belongs to you. Other parents may tell you that your children watching a certain movie requires your supervision. You do not necessarily have to agree with them.

1William Hays was one of Valenti's predecessors, and had a tendency to resolve debate over offensive material with a simple 'just say no' campaign.2In some cases films showing couples in bed became allowed, but only if the man had at least one foot on the floor.3Not that Valenti's solution is superior or desirable, but it is better than the known alternatives.4However, any movie firm not in compliance is browbeaten into submission and sent to their room without any supper. If they persist, they will inevitably find themselves bankrupt. So much for freedom of choice.

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