Life Is Not PG-13

October 03, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Life is full of rich ironies you can't make up.

Recently, I attended an evening showing of a PG-13 movie. The auditorium wasn't very full. Sitting a few rows in front of me was a group of five teenage girls. After the film started, they were generally well-behaved, although at least one started texting mid-way through (par for the course these days). But this isn't another column about the bad manners of modern movie-goers. Instead, what caught my attention was their conversation before the Coming Attractions began. I don't recall the sum and substance of it - I wasn't really paying attention even though they were talking loud enough to be heard throughout the theater - but what I found notable was the saltiness of the language. The F-bombs were dropping right and left. And therein lies the irony. Devil (the movie in question) was diluted to a PG-13 level to maximize the number of minors who could attend. But a group of teens in the audience had turned the pre-movie experience into a hard R.

Pardon me while I sound European.

Life is not PG-13. The average American teenager is exposed to more profanity in the halls of a public school than they would hear in a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino movie. Nudity and sexual imagery are prevalent. Besides, every girl sees boobs when she looks in the mirror and every guy sees the male reproductive organs. Many teenagers "too young" to see naked bodies and simulated sex on screen have seen and experienced such things in real life. This isn't a value judgment; it's a fact. So why do we persist in the fantasy of pretending such things are taboo and hiding them behind a restriction that "no one under 17 [shall be] admitted unless accompanied by a parent or guardian"?

One component of the R rating umbrella is not a part of the average person's daily menu. Although profanity, sex, and nudity are average, everyday occurrences, violence is not. People being blown up, dismembered, gored, shot, stabbed, maimed, and otherwise disfigured are exceptions to the norm. To a degree, we have become desensitized by violence because it dominates the news but, in the average person's experience, it's an exceptional incident.

Studies have been done analyzing the influence of violence in movies, video games, and on television on children and the results are sufficient to justify keeping the most extreme and graphic images of that sort veiled behind an age-restricted curtain. There's an argument to be made, although I'm not equipped with the background or facts to make it, that showing a slasher film to an 8-year old could be disturbing. Admittedly, I watched a lot of monster movies (primarily '30s/'40s Universal "horror") when I was that age, but those are considered tame (and, in some cases, laughable) by today's standards. My point here is that I can understand the justification for an R rating where violence is concerned. In most cases, it's aberrant behavior. I have nothing against gruesome, grotesque, or gory motion pictures and am firmly opposed to censoring or banning them, but there is an argument to be made for keeping them away from unaccompanied minors.

In general, people in the United States seem far less concerned with violence than they do sex, nudity, and profanity. The mindset is that it's more objectionable for a prepubescent individual to see a naked person in the throes of passion than it is to see a clothed individual in his or her death throes after having been sliced up by a serial killer. I know parents who have allowed their 10-year old sons to see the R rated Aliens but not the PG-13 rated Doc Hollywood. Why? The latter has boobs; the former does not.

The arguments (pro and con) related to the puritanical American mindset are clichés. I don't need to repeat them here and they're not going to change anyone's mind. They are rooted in a religious obsession with the uncleanness of the human body and with a lack of realization that labeling something as the "forbidden fruit" makes it enticing. We've all heard stories about strait-laced Catholic school girls who, once released by college from the ties that bound for 18 years, lose all inhibitions. Are those exaggerated? Probably, but not by much. There's anecdotal evidence to suggest that children who are exposed to alcohol in the home at an early age and who are allowed to consume it in small amounts over the years (perhaps a small glass of wine at Thanksgiving dinner; a sampling of champagne on New Year's Eve; a sip or two of Dad's beer during a Sunday afternoon football game) are less likely to binge drink at college. Alcohol holds no mystique for them. Been there, done that, don't need to do it to excess.

I find the belief that the R rating is in some way "protecting" kids to be a ludicrous and naïve assertion, yet it's the one the MPAA hides behind when defending the system. Aside from the fact that (excepting violence) the real-world experiences of children are distinctly R rated, the belief that a 12-year old can't gain access to an R rated film is silly. Theater surfing. DVD rentals. On-line downloads (legal or illegal). There are so many ways for a minor to see or obtain R rated material (or even X rated, but that's another column) that the "protection" argument has more holes in it that Swiss cheese.

The real problem with the PG-13 rating is that it no longer serves the purpose for which it was created. It has turned into a marketing tool. Rather than having content determine the rating, it's the other way around. Attaining a PG-13 is the Holy Grail. Only "kiddie movies" are PG - no teen would be caught dead seeing one of those. And Hollywood still mistakenly believes that an R rating is reserved for more mature fare. The flocks of teenagers who arrive at multiplexes on Friday and Saturday nights generally see PG-13 movies.

The insidious thing about this is that movies that should be rated R are emasculated in order to get a PG-13 rating. Nudity is obscured, sex becomes implied, and no more than one "fuck" is allowed. (How dumb is that? Say "fuck" once and it's a PG-13; say it two or three times, and it's an R. I know that if I'm in a PG-13 movie and someone says "fuck," I can relax safe in the realization that I won't be subjected to the word again until the movie is over.) People can be murdered, but their deaths can't be bloody. It works the other way, too. In order to avoid a PG rating, some filmmakers intentionally add profanity, mild sexual content, and a little violence to attain a PG-13. Sometimes, deletions represent ornamental (as opposed to substantive) cutting. But there are times when they genuinely impact the director's vision and/or the viewing experience, when the artificiality of how a scene is shot or edited call attention to what's going on.

The original intent of the PG-13 was to provide audiences with a middle ground between PG and R. For a while, it worked. Look at some of the early PG-13 movies and they're generally harder and racier than their 2010 counterparts. The PG-13 niche comprised the upper end of PG scale and the lower end of the R spectrum, and it worked well within those boundaries. Things changed when studios began altering the movies to achieve the PG-13. The tail is wagging the dog.

Change comes slowly to society, and the only thing that will shift the pro-PG-13 mindset is when sex, nudity, and profanity are no longer deemed taboo to be glimpsed by children under 17. I'm a believer that this will happen, although I wouldn't hazard a guess as to when. The conservative/liberal pendulum is always swinging back and forth, but the overall drift is to what the religious might refer to as "permissive." Mainstream American society has never been as liberal as it is today. You can say and see things on TV that would have been unthinkable as recently as ten or 20 years ago. Young people are comfortable with issues of tolerance and sex. People tend to grow more conservative as they age but, the more liberal the initial base, the less restrictive the final position.

Eventually, we're going to realize that God's creation, the human body, deserves to be celebrated, not feared. "Shielding" children from some things can have the unintended consequence of making them more alluring. That the concept of using a motion picture rating system as a means to segregate who can and cannot see a particular film is dated and useless. There are only two forces that can keep a child from seeing a particular movie: parental involvement and the individual's own judgment.

The time has come for the MPAA to abolish the old-fashioned, inconsistent letter ratings. When the industry was abandoning the Hays Code, they made some sense, but that was nearly 50 years ago! Even the Hays Code itself didn't last that long. The time has come for the MPAA to shift away from regulating who can and cannot see movies to simply providing content information for anyone who cares. Expand upon what is done today and provide more detailed descriptions. Instead of "nudity," how about "female toplessness" or "male rear nudity"? Instead of "violence" how about "bloodless injuries" or "graphic, bloody maimings"? Inform, don't regulate. Allow the directors to make the final call regarding what content their product contains and allow the viewers to make the decision about whether or not to see something. Remember that when it comes to sex, nudity, and profanity, it's hard to imagine something in an R rated movie that nearly every teenager doesn't encounter on an everyday basis in their own R rated life. Isn't the statement "you can live it but you can't watch it" the height of hypocrisy?