Changes in Movie Ratings—Yet Again

In January I wrote about new MPAA head Dan Glickman’s encouraging remarks to filmmakers to create more NC-17 movies and have them playing at suburban theaters. [] But over the past few months—and especially the last two weeks—I’m seeing other changes that I haven’t heard any comments about, yet I’m convinced something has changed in the rating’s room.

First, I’ve seen a noted increase in violence in the PG-13 rating category. I’m sure part of this is due to perceived competition from television networks. If you look at the clips [] (only click the link if you are prepared to watch some very, very graphic content) the Parents Television Council presented to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on June 26, 2007, it’s immediately obvious that many TV shows should receive an R-rating if they were movies in theaters.

I say "should" because in movie theaters I’m amazed at what levels of violence can be included in a film that still receives a PG-13 rating. Over the past while, a few titles come to mind like The Da Vinci Code, The Marine, Déjà Vu, and Casino Royale. All are rated PG-13 and all contain high levels of violence.

Yet last week’s release of Live Free or Die Hard appears to have set an even higher watermark for PG-13 violence.

The film is the fourth in a series that was given up for dead. It’s been well over ten years since the last Die Hard movie came to theaters, and back when Bruce Willis was at his physical prime, all these films received R-ratings. Yet, for some reason, the MPAA determined the new Die Hard was only worthy of a PG-13.

This film is literally two constant hours of violent mayhem as Willis’s super cop character rampages through anything and anyone in order to capture the bad guy who has taken over the country’s computers. Countless—and I truly do mean countless—people are shot, usually on screen with blood, and many more are beaten senseless after being slammed against every stationary object imaginable. A man’s head smashes through a windshield. Another man is tortured and shot in the knee. With a steel cable, a man strangles a woman, and then she drops to her death in an elevator shaft. Somehow we can "justify" the violence toward her because she was one of the "bad guys." Another female character is subjected to threats and is hit by a man—but this time he is one of the "bad guys."

If this isn’t enough, the film also contains a scene of sexuality and many profanities.

Remember that literally anyone capable of paying for a ticket can go see this movie. PG-13 is only an age recommendation. It does not restrict admission. If you are eight years old, and have the money, you’re ticket is waiting for you at a theater near you.

Then there’s another movie coming up later in July that is not rated PG-13 but instead PG. Hairspray is a film adaptation of a live musical set in 1962. On the surface, it features a wholesome cast of kids who want to dance on a local television show. Dig a little deeper and listen to the dialogue and you’ll discover what must be the raunchiest PG movie since the introduction of the PG-13 rating in the 1980s.

(A historical ratings note: Prior to the PG-13 rating, only G, PG and R ratings existed. Movies with nudity and sexual topics were sometimes rated PG.)

Featuring a cast of teen characters and a few adults, this film has a Grease feel about it as girls sing about pregnancy, having sex with the football team, French kissing, and "screwing" the judges to win a contest.

Also surprising, considering comments from the MPAA just a few weeks ago, the film has teens and even pregnant women smoking cigarettes. The cigarette use is noted in the rating’s descriptor, but what is this content doing in a PG movie? (Interestingly, we also saw cigarettes in the PG-rated Shrek the Third (which also had implied drug use) and the animated Surf’s Up.)

Parents are used to seeing a certain level of content in a PG movie, yet suddenly we are observing things that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Perhaps even more confusing is to compare the content of the PG-rated Hairspray with a movie like last year’s The Queen, which was rated PG-13.

Is it possible that under the direction of Mr. Glickman the MPAA is making quiet changes to its rating categories? I certainly hope they remember why they go to the effort of rating movies in the first place and that parents and their desire to find entertainment suitable for their children will always remain the top priority, and not creating ways to bring younger people’s wallets into theaters.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…