Ratings Creep? What Ratings Creep?

Written for the National Catholic Register

By Steven D. Greydanus

It sounded like a classic case of ratings creep.

In 2002, according to a July 16 Philadelphia Inquirer story ("Film rating trend raises creepy issues"), Nell Minow, a.k.a. the "Movie Mom" and film critic for movies.yahoo.com, went to see the PG-13 rated About a Boy. At one point in the film, Hugh Grant used an adjectival form of what the MPAA calls "one of the harsher sexually-derived words," but is often referred to as "the f-word."

According to the Inquirer story, "It once was verboten to utter [the f-word] in a PG-13 film. Then, it was allowed once — as an expletive, not to describe the sexual act." Minow, knowing the one-use rule, thought, That’s it. I won’t hear that again. But then the adjective cropped up a second time.

"So, now the standard changes," Minow said. "Instead of one, you can do two. That’s how it happens. It’s incremental."

Maybe, maybe not. Consider this: All the way back in 1987, Adventures in Babysitting featured not one but two emphatic uses of the f-word, not as an adjective but as a (non-sexual) verb, in back-to-back lines of dialogue. It also featured drug references, adolescent boys ogling porn, crass sexual references, and young children in recurring life-threatening peril from mobsters.

And it got a PG-13. In 1987.

In fact, so far from the f-word being off-limits in a PG-13 film in the 1980s, back then you could actually use it and get away with a PG rating, both before the advent of PG-13 (Sixteen Candles) and after (Big; Eight Men Out).

What ratings creep?

"The ‘one f-word’ rule has been inconsistently applied," Minow agrees, "but it is one of the very few ‘rules’ the MPAA will admit to having and of course it is absurd on its face." Clearly, she’s right. For one thing, saying that you can use the word only once is also an invitation to be sure to get it in once. Filmmakers stragetically position their single use for maximum dramatic or comic effect, as when Jim Carrey screams it into the camera in Bruce Almighty.

Still, absurdity is one thing, and ratings creep is another. But ratings creep, real or imagined, is all the rage in the wake of a recent study by Harvard Kids at Risk Project researchers Kimberly Thompson and Fumie Yokota, who claim that films of a given rating today include on average more objectionable content than similarly rated films ten years ago.

The study has generated a flurry of media stories warning parents that PG-13 is the new R, PG is the new PG-13, and G is the new PG. And there’s some truth to that. But good luck finding any stories that raise any critical questions about the authors’ claims.

Many stories have reported head-to-head test cases of older and newer films that Thompson says illustrate "ratings creep." One such comparison involves the original 1994 PG-rated Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause and the G-rated 2002 sequel The Santa Clause 2, which Thompson says is more violent than its predecessor. Does this prove "ratings creep"? Consider:

  • While The Santa Clause 2 does involve some slapstick violence, the original Santa Clause includes a crucial early scene in which the "real" Santa slips off a roof and apparently dies. This could be much more disturbing to children than, say, the sequel’s climactic depiction of Scott and Fake Santa struggling for control of the airborne sleigh.
  • Language in the PG-rated original film includes "hell" and several instances of "oh my God." The G-rated sequel has no objectionable language of this sort.
  • The original film includes some mildly risqué lines, including references to sleeping "buck naked," "freezing my nubs [testicles] off," and "1-800-Spank-Me." In the G-rated sequel, a line about "going pee-pee" is about as risqué as dialogue gets.
  • The original film includes potentially troubling themes, including marital estrangement, divorce, and the legitimizing of the broken family, which for many children could be more stressful than anything in the sequel. While the sequel deals with remarriage after divorce, the first film’s postmarital snarkiness and the death throes of a family could easily be more difficult for children.

In spite of this, many media sources uncritically repeated some version of the claim that, compared with the G-rated sequel, the PG-rated original has "less sex and nudity, violence, gore and profanity" (USA Today, "Harvard study is first to measure Hollywood ‘ratings creep’," August 13).

Not that Thompson herself seems to have said anything about sex, nudity, gore, or profanity in these films. Her concern was the violence, which she apparently considers to trump other issues from risqué language to postmarital snarkiness. As a parent, of course, Thompson has the perogative of deciding what is or isn’t appropriate for her own children. But that’s hardly proof of "ratings creep." And this is one of her own test cases offered in interviews to illustrate her claims.

Thompson’s apparent greater sensitivity to violence over sexuality or language also figures in another one of her test-case comparisons: Forrest Gump, which she considers a hard PG-13 for 1994, and Minority Report, a hard PG-13 for 2002.

On the face of it, this comparison makes no sense: Why put a tragicomedy head to head with a sci‑fi action thriller? Why not compare two similar films?

True, Steven Spielberg got away with some pretty gruesome stuff in the PG-13 rated Minority Report, especially in connection with eyeballs. Then again, two decades earlier in a PG film he got away with a beating heart ripped out of a victim’s chest, not to mention child slave labor. In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom pushed the limits of PG so hard that, along with Gremlins, it helped bring about the creation of the PG-13 rating.

Yet the film Thompson chooses to compare Minority Report with is Forrest Gump — a film rated PG-13 largely for sexual content, not violence. Once again, Thompson seems less interested in illustrating ratings creep generally than in suggesting that modern films are more violent than their earlier counterparts. But pitting Forrest Gump against Minority Report hardly proves that, any more than pitting the violent PG Temple of Doom against, say, the very gentle PG-13 Whale Rider proves the opposite.

Thompson’s special concern over violence seems to lead her to weight all violence the same, whether slapstick, stylized, realistic, etc. Does this make sense? Should a graphic depiction of terrorists decapitating a hostage, say, be counted as equivalent to Aragorn slicing off orc-heads in The Lord of the Rings? How about Mace Windu swapping off Jango Fett’s fully helmeted head with a lightsaber in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones?

This tendency to equate all violence leads is also behind another much-reported one of Thompson’s comparison cases: the R-rated A Time to Kill (1996) and the PG-13 The Return of the King (2003).

This comparison was challenged in one of the only articles anywhere to cast doubts on the study. In a July 14 article for TheCelebrityCafe.com ("Harvard Study Shows Ratings Creep"), Internet writer Brian McCarthy points out, "A Time to Kill dealt with child rape, gunning down unarmed men and racial hate crimes (brick throwing, burnings). Granted there was more killing of creatures in [Lord of the Rings], but, A Time to Kill is still more violent."

None of this is to say that there isn’t a real big-picture ratings-creep phenomenon at work. There probably is — along with counter-trends of ratings getting stricter in some areas as well as looser in others.

Many older films, were they released today, would in all likelihood get a higher rating if released today. For example, movies with the f-word like Big and Eight Men Out could never get away with a PG rating today. Nor could you have a drug reference in a PG film, as The Goonies did in 1985.

Going back even further, a number of older films rated G that would never get that rating today, including the original Planet of the Apes (which includes much violence, menace, some disturbing imagery, and a prominent use of "damn") and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (which shows the teenaged lovers naked in bed and ends with a double suicide). In fact, for a subsequent release Romeo and Juliet was later re-rated from G to PG, proving that the ratings had gotten stricter. Likewise, some older films that originally received the equivalent of a PG rating, including Psycho and A Man Called Horse, were later re-rated R upon theatrical re-release or release to DVD.

The ratings creep phenomenon may well be real. However, anecdotal data offered by the study’s authors are unconvincing.

What about the study itself? Where did the authors get their data? From a pair of parental content advisory websites, www.kidsinmind.com and www.screenit.com, which date to 1992 and 1994, respectively.

One thing this means, as the study’s authors acknowledge, is that the study covers only the last decade or so, and their findings may not be reflective of the whole sweep of ratings history. Indeed, looking at the larger picture, there is evidence that ratings have in some ways become stricter over time as well as looser in others.

The study’s use of parental advisory websites also raises other questions. Is data gathered from one website equivalent to that of the other? Have the reviewers always covered film content consistently over the years? Or might they have gotten better at their jobs with time, and provided more complete coverage of later films than earlier ones? The writers at ScreenIt, for example, acknowledge that in response to reader concerns they are more scrupulous today in documenting profanity in the proper religious sense of the term than when they first launched their site. So how uniform is the data?

What’s the truth about ratings creep? Until we have a serious critique of the Harvard study, it’s hard to say. Whatever the case, the Decent Films rule of thumb continues to apply: Parents shouldn’t count on the MPAA system to do their job for them. No matter what the rating, parental guidance is always required.



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