MPAA Study: Parents Prefer Violence to Sex, Hate F-Word

The story behind the ratings game

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The latest 007 opus, Spectre, features a sadistic scene in which an assassin uses his thumbs to gouge out the eyeballs of a defenseless victim. The movie is just one of many recent blockbusters rated PG-13—a rating the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) uses to indicate that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.”

Yeah, death by explicit eyeball gouging just might be too much for pre-teens.

A growing chorus of educators and pediatricians is calling attention to increased levels of bloodshed in PG-13 rated movies. But a majority of parents think that violence is addressed just fine by the existing ratings system, according to a new study commissioned by the MPAA.

Daniel Craig James Bond 007
Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The findings are based on a survey of 1,488 parents of children aged 7 to 16. While MPAA hasn't released the raw data, a few of the excerpted statistics caught our eye:

  • 80 percent of parents said they are extremely or very concerned about their children seeing graphic sex scenes, but only 64 percent were concerned about graphic violence.
  • 72 percent said the current rating system does a good job of advising on the amount of violence.
  • Parents from the Pacific and New England regions, as well as parents in urban areas, were more likely to feel the “F-word” is appropriate in a PG-13 rated movie.
  • As many as 90 percent of parents in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions find the ratings system accurate, higher than the national average.

More than half of those surveyed think the F-word is used in PG-13 rated films “too much,” even though the MPAA limits usage of the word to one utterance—and only if non-sexual. Say it twice and filmmakers are saddled with an R rating. And more than a quarter of respondents said there was too much nudity in R rated films.

That makes us wonder: Why are these parents bringing their kids to R rated films?

“We’ve always been more comfortable having children watch 30 people being killed than letting them see a woman’s boob,” suggests Scott Mendelson, box office analyst for

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Admittedly, the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), the division of the MPAA that doles out movie ratings, doesn't have the easiest job. Hollywood producers originally created the MPAA as a sort of lobbying arm for the studios. In 1968 the MPAA started rating films, largely to keep the government from meddling in movie commerce. It allowed Hollywood to self-police.

On the other end are parents, with—obviously—highly individualized concerns about what they feel is appropriate for their children to view.

In some ways, the system has become a victim of its own success—the ratings have become a selling point in themselves. A film rating carries implications that go beyond specific content and instead categorizes the type of film one might be seeing.

Today, a G rating flags a film as squeaky-clean, suitable only for the smallest children. (Most kids' films today are spiked with a PG rating.) An R rating is used to define subject matter most of us think children shouldn’t see. In between is where things get squishy.

“The problem lies not in the ratings system but in human nature, in the attitudes of the people it serves,” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “Talk to a 12- or 14-year-old boy, ask if he wants to see a G rated movie and he’ll say, ‘No way, that’s kid stuff.’ That’s not the MPAA’s fault. The forbidden fruit is his first PG-13, and then an R rated film.”

Credit: MPAA

Mendelson argues that, since the Columbine shootings, marketing R rated films has become more challenging—particularly in an era of big-budget films that must reach the broadest audience in order to break even. “It’s not in the studios’ interests to make an R rated picture unless they really have to,” he adds.

As a result, films rated PG-13 have become Hollywood’s sweetheart—kids can attend, and there’s the promise of titillating action that won’t be found in a PG film. In 2014, 12 out of the year’s top 20 grossing films were rated PG-13. Four each were rated PG or R; none received a G rating.

Mendelson says it’s no accident that fewer R rated movies are made today.

“Over the last 15 years a lot of R rated content is being snuck into PG-13 movies,” explains Mendelson, citing White House Down, The Bourne Legacy, and Angels and Demons as movies that would have been R rated a couple decades ago. “They get cut and wiggled into the PG-13 box, and kids today are essentially seeing R rated content.”

The shift has worked the other direction, as well. Through the mid-1980s the James Bond movies consistently earned PG ratings. But not long after the PG-13 was introduced, License to Kill became the first Bond movie to earn the stricter rating. Today, the violence in Bond films is more explicit and gruesome than the Bond films that came out earlier—and the producers have been rewarded with even bigger box office returns.

A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics confirmed that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has more than tripled since 1985. “Since 2009, PG-13 rated films have contained as much or more violence as R rated films,” the study observed. The industry was called on the carpet as to the effectiveness and fairness of its ratings system.

"Over the last 15 years a lot of R rated content is being snuck into PG-13 movies."

While the MPAA might not cop to defensive measures, it was likely this study and others that sparked the survey of parents’ opinions on the rating system.

“The members of the rating board are tasked with rating a film the way a majority of American parents from across the country would rate it,” wrote CARA chairman Joan Graves on the MPAA’s blog introducing the survey. “Like any good system that is meant to endure, ours is one that evolves to reflect changes in social standards that happen over time.”

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see the raw, un-edited version of this survey, before it was shaped into a study that just happens to mirror the MPAA’s existing standards?

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