Is it time to give up on film ratings altogether?

“The reliability and validity of the movie ratings system are problematic, and its usefulness for parents limited,” declared a study published on Monday in which researchers of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that US film ratings barely distinguish between levels of violence depicted in PG-13s and R rated films [1]. Following so swiftly after a separate study last month determined that the level of gun violence in PG-13s exceeds that of films rated R and has tripled since 1985 when MPAA ratings began [2], is it time to stop questioning the efficacy and merits of the rating system and instead consider scrapping or replacing it altogether?

Perhaps it is inevitable that any group dictating age specific censorship will draw criticism, be it the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but studies specifically undermining the classification of films and highlighting deep flaws in the rating process underline an urgent need to reform or replace the current system. Amy Bleakley, the lead author of Monday’s study suggests: “It seems like [the ratings system] is not necessarily doing the job it set out to do in terms of shielding youth from inappropriate content” [3] and it’s hard to argue, but I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘inappropriate content’.

Anyone who has visited the cinema in the past decade will be no stranger to the nonchalant, stylised violence of popcorn flicks. Earlier this year Pacific Rim saw Hong Kong leveled by giant fighting robots versus fictional monsters (with apparently no corporeal consequences for the population who seem to have somehow been promptly reposited to underground bunkers); Man of Steel saw Superman snapping necks and casually demolishing buildings (amusingly mocked in a Screen Junkies ‘Honest Trailer’ [4] – “if you loved the Christopher Reeves Superman movies, but wished they made them less hopeful, killed countless civilians, visualised our worst fears of urban terrorism and had Superman overcome his first villain by murdering him with his bare hands, DC has made the reboot for you, psycho!”); while in The Lone Ranger, a mans heart is ripped from his corpse and eaten by another…

None of this calamity is a touchy topic for Hollywood (even though they are still hugely uncomfortable with depictions sex [5]), but whether there’s anything wrong with the spectacle of cinematic violence or not, it is indisputably odd that this kind of wanton destruction is par for the course entertainment for kids, when truly cautionary and profound tales lacking any blatant violence, such as David Schwimmer’s Trust, are cursed with higher ratings under the pretense of “protecting” the viewer. As Schwimmer lamented to Deadline [6] during his battle to lower Trust’s rating, “What I find frustrating is there are plenty of films that get PG-13 that are so violent. There is a double standard. You can’t show nudity or hear the F-word, but you can show people being blown to bits and chopped up…the ratings system needs to be updated to reflect the times. It is quite old.”

Indeed, interestingly, responding to the latest study in a statement to The Wrap [7], Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said “the purpose of the rating system is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them – the rating board tries to rate a film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it. Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change with them.” A fair point, although that being the case, wouldn’t it be better to simply permit the parents to actually make that decision for themselves? As it is, this methodology inevitably foments a downward spiral, as more and more children with a lax viewing history become parents with an even more lenient viewing standard and the ratings apparently loosen accordingly, presumably ad infinitum.

This is then compounded by lobbying from distributors appealing to the MPAA and BBFC to lower ratings for their films in the hope that they can reach a broader audience and ergo a broader money pool. It’s unsurprising and perfectly logical that this is the case: youth rated movies are the proverbial money shot for the film industry, accounting for over half of all box office revenue, and no movie rated R has ever crossed the billion dollar mark [8]. But then how does a film lower its rating for a greater potential audience pool? It doesn’t cut the violence; it cuts the consequences of the violence.

The BBFC specifies that in a 12/12A: “there should be no emphasis on injuries or blood” [9], while the MPAA requires that violence in a PG-13 shouldn’t be “realistic and extreme or persistent” [10]. Now surely, if anything, that’s a worse lesson for children – not only are violent actions glorified and glamorised, but those actions appear to suffer no reprehensible consequences. As Darren Aronofsky says in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated [11] about this very subject, “It just seems backwards that…you can shoot as many bodies as long as there’s no blood and be PG-13. What are we training our kids for? We’re not showing the result of what happens when you fire a gun. So I think it should be flipped. I think if you show violence without blood it’s like fantasy, and the only people that can actually handle that intellectually are adults, but if you show violence with blood it should be PG-13 so that people can actually realise the result of what it actually does.”

A sound perspective. Here’s another one: change the ratings system altogether so that the decision of who can view a film doesn’t lie with an arbitrary, abstract ratings board speculating on “the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it”, but instead puts that decision in the hands of those parents and prospective viewers. This isn’t to suggest that The Human Centipede or Shame ought to be offered uncontested to children, but a guidance system that could better denote precisely the age sensitive material in each film would surely be a more sensible alternative to the current ineffective set up.

How’s this for a whacky idea? An alternative system could emulate the colour coding of nutritional values as detailed on food packaging. Whilst food labeling is by no means ideal, and no doubt isn’t as informative as it probably ought to be, it does provide the buyer with sufficient information to make a somewhat educated decision about what they choose to eat. There are plenty of descriptive buzz words that could be utilised if an equivalent system for films was implemented: violence, sex, drugs, coarse language, dramatic intensity…

The latter might deserve more attention than it is currently credited with. Often a film isn’t necessarily brutally violent or prurient, but nonetheless has a level of dramatic severity that might be deemed unhealthy or injudicious to show to children. Alternatively, it might be anodyne enough, but be unlikely to interest children at all! Our current rating system fails to take any of these nuances in to account, and consequently, as evidenced by the study, fails to effectively discriminate and differentiate, regardless of the rating a film has been granted [12].

At least with colour coded labeling, parents could identify, at a glance, the precise kind of content explored in a film, and determine for themselves whether that’s the kind of content they think their children are mature enough to handle. Or they could just keep looking at arbitrary numbers and have a stab in the dark – but for the love of God, a stab in the dark with no blood!