J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

On Movie Ratings

Posted by J on September 8, 2007

It’s difficult to say whether movie ratings–G, PG, etc.–are total shams or not. On the one hand, they give you a standard by which to gauge what a movie contains. On the other hand, the standards are vague and misused, and they have changed wildly over time.

Let’s give an example. We’ve had enormous problems with PG movies from the ’70s and early ’80s, before the PG-13 rating came out in about 1985 (because of the “heart” scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). In those years, movies got shoved into either ‘PG’ or ‘R’, which apparently meant that a movie was either family-friendly or for adults only. On that basis a movie like Barry Lyndon still carries a ‘PG’ rating, even though it has a half-second long orgy scene that would make Internet pornographers proud (unfortunately, we discovered this by experience). Similarly, a so-called family movie that critics say will “make you and your kids cheer and weep”–that is, Breaking Away–contained so much “mild” profanity in the first twenty minutes that we couldn’t imagine showing it to an 18-year old (we did not finish it). And Planet of the Apes, with a G rating, contains Charlton Heston’s bare backside.

The ‘PG-13’ rating alleviated these problems only to a degree. Filmmakers can now shoot for ‘PG’ or ‘PG-13’, the optimum ratings for big-budget summer fare that will be marketed heavily to children, teenagers, and adults. No one wants a ‘G’ rating, unless the name attached to it is Pixar or Disney, because ‘G’ does not sell to all key demographic groups and will not make as much money as, say, ‘PG-13’. Meanwhile, what is considered ‘R’ today is so horrific that ‘NC-17’ has become tantamount to pornography. There are unwritten codes that the MPAA ratings board uses to separate the PG fare from the PG-13 and the PG-13 from the R. These codes, you probably have experienced, are both silly and arbitrary and the difference between PG and PG-13 matters to few anyway. In recent years the board has been including brief descriptions along with ratings. For example, Batman Begins is rated PG-13 for “intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements,” while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for “frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.” So what’s the difference between “frightening moments” and “disturbing images”? And what in the world are “thematic elements”?

Let’s go back in time for a moment. In the so-called glory days of Hollywood, the first several decades of the twentieth century, major studios stuck to the standards known as the Hays Code. Some of the highlights from that code are as follows:

General Principles

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.


  • Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
  • The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
  • The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, “when not required by the plot or for proper characterization.”
  • Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
  • References to sex perversion (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
  • The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
  • Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. “Revenge in modern times” was not to be justified.
  • The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. “Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
  • Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
  • “Scenes of Passion” were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot. “Excessive and lustful kissing” was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might “stimulate the lower and baser element.”
  • The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented “fairly.”
  • “Vulgarity,” defined as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects” must be treated within the “subject to the dictates of good taste.” Capital punishment, “third-degree methods,” cruelty to children and animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.

The Hays Code was slowly abandoned during the ’50s and eventually was junked in the late ’60s. Clearly, none of these standards are in place today; you may see all of them violated in one movie preview shown on daytime TV. This is not, however, to say that Hollywood movies from the 1940s were necessarily more “moral” than those today, although we believe that that’s generally the case. One of the most praised movies ever, Casablanca, blatantly glorifies the thought of adultery, and we have seen a number of Westerns that do in fact glorify the killing of Indians. But the now-discarded Hays Code, compared to present-day practices, demonstrates changes in cultural temperaments. Yes, there once was a time where standards existed. This is why, as a general rule, you will be fairly safe with an “old” movie. You knew this already, but the Hays Code shows you why.

Today there is only the shadow of a code in the MPAA’s ratings, and it will not take much more cultural disintegration before G, PG, and PG-13 are totally meaningless, if they aren’t already.

What’s an adult or parent to do if official movie ratings are vague and unhelpful? We use a site called Kids-in-Mind, though we don’t have children of age to watch movies. This is for our own use because our ideal is to try to watch that which is “true, lovely, and of good report.” We wouldn’t recommend that anyone work for the Kids-in-Mind site, and we wouldn’t pay for their services if they required subscriptions. The reason is obvious: someone is watching all the junk and writing down every four-letter word and piece of skin shown. Nevertheless, as long as the information is there, we’ll use it.


One Response to “On Movie Ratings”

  1. […] on Movie-Watching On the Movie Rating System On the Problem of Watching Art for Art’s Sake On Going to the […]

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