The MPAA Film Ratings

Where applicable, the Decent Films Guide provides the standard film ratings given to films by the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA ratings system is well known and consists of the familiar ratings G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. MPAA ratings for films not covered by the Decent Films Guide can be found at the MPAA website.

The MPAA explains their ratings as follows:

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 and under admitted

This ratings system can provide a very broad indication of the possible levels in a film of sexual content or nudity, violence, and profanity or coarse language. For parents trying to evaluate whether or not to allow their children to see a particular film, these widely recognized labels can be an easily accessible rule of thumb.

The MPAA ratings also have drawbacks and limitations. For one thing, the ratings are based purely on what actually transpires on the screen — which words are said; how much flesh is shown; how often and how graphically people get shot or blown up; etc.

What isn’t taken into account is any moral context these elements might have. Hotel Rwanda and National Security have the same PG‑13 rating, yet the first is a deeply moral film while the second is thoroughly trashy. Nor are the MPAA ratings a consistently reliable guide to age appropriateness. Schindler’s List is rated R, yet could easily be watched with profit by teens, while some PG‑13 films, such as The Hours or Half Past Dead, are highly objectionable even for adult viewers.

The R rating in particular has been stretched almost to the point of uselessness, encompassing thoroughly adult fare to which minors should not under any circumstances be admitted, even accompanied by an adult (and which often enough should be avoided by adults as well), such as The Cell, but also films whose greatest offense is using “the F‑bomb” half a dozen times.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that a film is rated G should not lead parents to believe that no “parental guidance” is required. Parental guidance is always necessary: the MPAA ratings may help inform parental judgment, but they are not a substitute for it. Some G-rated films, even excellent ones, may not be appropriate for every child. Toy Story, for example, is a brilliant and delightful film, but sensitive children may be disturbed by the scenes of a creepy, sadistic boy and his mutilated toys. Other G-rated films contain elements that any Christian parent ought to consider carefully before showing to young children; such as the comic pagan ancestral spirits in Disney’s Mulan and the eco-spirituality of Pocahontas.

It’s also worth noting that reports of “ratings creep” may be exaggerated. Filmmakers may be getting savvier about pushing the limits of PG‑13 and R, but it’s not clear that films today are getting looser ratings than they would have twenty or thirty years ago. In fact, in some cases the opposite is true (read more).

For more about the ratings used by the Decent Films Guide, see the main ratings page. Or see the reviews page to browse reviews by any ratings criterion.