Protecting children, protecting childhood: the MPAA and the “ratings creep”

Filipa Antunes's picture

Earlier this year, a study in Pediatrics showed that violence in PG-13 films is on the rise, adding to a growing list of studies concerned with the “ratings creep,” the notion that PG-13 films today are more violent than R films were in the 1980s. This hypothesis has been around for a while, and is of course a big part of the media effects debate: violent content, more extensive and easily available, is a problem because it may encourage real-life violent behaviour. You might remember how this topic was fiercely discussed back in 2013, when a study by Bushman et al. pointed the finger at the violence in PG-13 movies. And you might also remember that, despite this heated moment of criticism, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) brushed it off, the general public forgot it, and nothing changed. Why was this?

     VIDEO: Headlines of the 2013 controversy

The MPAA is used to criticism. When its not the “creep” it’s censorship,1 or inadequate categories,2 or something else. These criticisms are usually thought-provoking, but what interests me even more is how the MPAA responds. As far as I’m aware, their answer has never changed. In the words of Joan Graves, current head of the MPAA: “We try to get it right. The criticism of our system is not coming from the parents, who are the people we’re doing this for.”

Though it may sound like a tired excuse, I think Graves actually makes an important point here. Rating decisions are seldom protested en masse by parents – or even by the general public. When debate surfaces, the concern is not generally focused on the MPAA doing a bad job exactly but on much broader issues to do with culture and values, such as the notion that there is too much violence in movies. The MPAA’s default response is a reminder of that fact. As far as ratings go, “getting it right” is not so much about ultimate accuracy, but about acting in conformity with the cultural climate of a given period.

This much has been spelled out by Dan Glickman, former president of the MPAA, who got a grilling about PG-13 and violence live on CNN back in 2013 (video below). Referring to the MPAA’s known inclination to restrict sexual content more consistently than violence, the interviewer asked him a provocative question: “In your opinion, is rough sex worse than a bloody massacre?” Glickman’s answer was quite insightful: “Well, this is a cultural thing in America. … The truth of the matter is ratings reflect our culture.” He is baited by the interviewer again later on: “So bottom line, ratings don’t matter!” And, again, Glickman’s response is insightful: “Oh, no no no. You should watch the ratings, you should watch the descriptors, and you need to be a big part of what your kid does. … There is the responsibility [on] the parent or the guardian to make sure that they know what their kid is doing.”

     VIDEO: CNN interview with Dan Glickman

This is a cultural thing too. Leaving the final decision for parents is not just something Glickman said to duck a tough question; it is a fundamental part of how the system works. With the exception of NC-17, children are in fact allowed to watch movies of all ratings in theatre, even those rated R if they are taken by a guardian. This liberalism is not unique to the MPAA’s ratings, but neither is it a feature of every other ratings system in the world. British classifications, for instance, are much stricter: the 15 and 18 ratings are not suggestions but prohibitions, and even the 12a rating allows children only on the condition of a guardian being present. Individual freedom is a fundamental part of how America understands itself – and as such, it is not surprising that it would underpin American ratings.

This cultural specificity is also why the MPAA can defend its decisions on violence. Their reasoning, which remains mostly unchallenged, is that children today are less innocent of the world around them and can therefore make sense of content which is already present elsewhere in their culture. This is an argument that only works for violence; where sexuality is concerned, the cultural dominance of conservative ideologies in the USA would make it unpersuasive. Whenever the argument is made, in fact, its drive is for a change in dominant values – and the same is true for arguments against the violence in PG-13 films.

My point is that PG-13, like all other ratings, reflects the attitudes of the dominant majority. By conforming to dominant attitudes and valuing certain things more than others, the ratings works with (and toward) establishing a shared sense of what it means to be American. If we put issues of moral disagreement aside for a moment, what becomes clear is that the ratings don’t really protect children; what they protect – what they construct – is a much bigger concept: childhood.

Yes, the rating system is deeply, intensely, intertwined with the question of what it means to be a child in America. Even if the age-based categories might appear “scientific,” the meaning of each rating, and of the system as a whole, is up to interpretation, unstable and historically contingent – much like the meaning of childhood.


Caption: Film ratings poster

In this light, the “ratings creep” hypothesis is a reductive explanation for PG-13 and violence. Can we reasonably expect the criteria of PG-13, of any rating, to remain static for over thirty years? The problem is not the MPAA or its system; to make it so is why nothing changes. Of course, this is not to discount the many issues with the MPAA. The ratings have a huge impact on a film’s profit, and their restrictions do affect the shape of our cultural landscape in a significant way. On this count, we should remain vigilant and questioning, as would be true for any influential organisation.

However, there are more useful approaches to the ratings themselves. When we see them as a tangible representation of cultural attitudes toward childhood, they gain new meaning. Consider PG-13: it was introduced only when America accepted childhood as something other than a unified, unchanging, concept. I develop this argument in much greater detail elsewhere,3 but here I want to note only how PG-13 marks a cultural transition away from the belief that all children are equal (i.e., not adults), and toward a much more nuanced understanding of childhood as a spectrum, including young children, pre-teens and teens, all of whom with different maturity levels and therefore, entertainment needs. The introduction of PG-13 in 1984, therefore, is an important cultural marker, significant well beyond the scope of ratings and movies.

This is the sort of insight that the ratings can give us. As Glickman said in that CNN interview, “Yes, there probably is more violence today, but [i]t’s up to parents to … understand the system in order to best advise their children on what to do.” It is also up to scholars to understand the system, to work out its broader cultural meanings, and in so doing reach deeper insights about childhood, about American culture, and how the two continue to be transformed.


1. E.g., Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), which accuses the system of being arbitrary and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) of using a façade of “protecting the children” to censor films and push a conservative agenda.

2. E.g., Joanne Cantor’s lucid proposal of a descriptor-only system in “Mommy, I’m Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them” (New York: Harcourt, 1998)

3. Antunes, Filipa (2017) “Rethinking PG-13: Ratings and the Boundaries of Childhood and Horror” Journal of Film and Video 69.1