For 50 years now, the film industry has been utterly awash in movies stamped with an “R” rating.
Ever since the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968, films have been conveniently categorized according to their content—especially the kind of content that might raise the hackles of a few parents with children in the audience.
In a recent study released by the MPAA, CEO Charles Rivkin said that the ratings system is both a tool to help parents make viewing choices for their children, and also something that protects “the First Amendment rights of filmmakers and the creative process.”
Though it’s true that plenty of filmmakers have butted heads with the MPAA over the years, there’s still a certain amount of creative freedom that comes with codified content warnings.
That is, parents can’t really complain about inappropriate content if they bring their kids to films clearly marked as “R-rated.”
Speaking on the history of the ratings system in America, Rivkin said his predecessor, Jack Valenti, created the MPAA ratings in 1968 “amid mounting calls for censorship and the specter of government intervention.”
He added that it’s important to remember the context of the decade, and “how the expansion of mass media was seen as a threat by many corners of society.”
Interestingly enough, a movie like “Jaws” (1975) was initially going to be rated “R,” but was later labeled “PG” (with the disclaimer that it “may be too intense for younger children.”)
The “PG-13” rating wasn’t actually created until 1984, thanks to some violent scenes in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
It’s obvious that film rating systems, in order to avoid becoming anachronistic, can’t be set in stone.
Before the MPAA stepped in, there was the “Hays Code” of the 1930s, which required filmmakers to adhere to a moral code and get certificates of approval, or else be fined $25,000.
The MPAA study observed that the Hays Code regulations today would be considered “outrageously prudish.”
The code, for instance, banned kisses that lasted longer than 3 seconds, ridicule of clergymen, and “banditry,” among other bizarre stipulations.
Some feel, however, that filmmakers have since gravitated, in the 21st century, to the other extreme: films full of only gratuitous sex, violence, and other “shock value” moments.
On the subject, Hypable’s Nasim Mansuri asked, “Does [the increase in R-rated media] point to a more accepting viewership, or to a more desensitized culture?”
“It seems,” Mansuri said, “there’s an urge to ramp up the ratings in everything—or find loopholes to get around them—in order to stay relevant.” Perhaps the spirit of competition has indeed made for a darker, bolder, less family-friendly cinematic landscape.
The MPAA is also constantly navigating “unique” cases. When it comes to the specific content descriptors that come with the rating box before a film, those in charge of writing them have often had to get a little creative.
The descriptor for the 1996 film “Twister,” for instance, warned of an “intense depiction of very bad weather.” 1995’s “Father and Scout” alerted audiences about the “mild fisticuffs” in the film.
The 2005 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” remake was prefaced vaguely with a warning about “quirky situations.”
It seems like as long as film trends and American culture continue to change and evolve, the MPAA with have their work cut out for them.