Under increasing pressure over its threshold for violence in PG-13 films, the Motion Picture Association of America is defending its often-criticized rating system.
A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Ohio State University recently published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that gun violence in the most popular PG-13 releases since 1985 has tripled in frequency. The number of scenes featuring gun violence in PG-13 films, the study found, has come to rival or even surpass the rate of such sequences in R-rated movies.
The association’s ratings board is no stranger to criticism, but the study — seemingly lending evidence to a long-held claim that the board is softer on violence than sexuality or language — has set off calls for reform.
In the MPAA’s first response to the study, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA’s ratings board, told The Associated Press that the MPAA is in line with parents’ standards.
“We try to get it right,” Graves said. “The criticism of our system is not coming from the parents, who are the people we’re doing this for.”
The association has five ratings classifications, from G to NC-17, but the continental divide is between PG-13 (in which parents are “strongly cautioned” that some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 13) and R (in which children under 17 are required to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian).
In between, battle lines are drawn over violence, language and sexual content — a fraught distinction because it determines what kids can see on their own, thus heavily influencing a film’s potential audience. Critics claim that the MPAA is far more permissive of violence in PG-13 films than fleeting nudity or a handful of expletives.
“It may be time to rethink how violence is treated in movie ratings,” said Dan Romer of the Annenberg Center.
But Graves claims PG-13 “is not a namby-pamby rating,” but intended as a strong warning to parents.
The MPAA frequently points out that it doesn’t police films, but assigns warning labels for parents so that they can make their own choices about what their children see. The ratings system is a voluntary one for theatrical released films that the movie industry founded in the 1960s to replace the far more restrictive Hays Code.
But the current ratings system has persistently drawn criticism for its perceived prudishness, while yielding more easily to the violence in big studio releases, such as Christopher Nolan’s PG-13 rated “Dark Knight” trilogy. Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” leveled claims of censorship at the MPAA ratings board.
Harvey Weinstein was waging his latest battle with the MPAA over the R-rating of the upcoming Weinstein Co. release, “Philomena.” While one expletive is generally allowed for a PG-13 rating, the two in “Philomena” were enough to make it rated R. Weinstein has enlisted the film’s stars, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, in a series of comedic online videos protesting the MPAA’s decision.
Graves said parents more frequently object to language or sex in movies, and that “they feel they’re getting the correct information about the violence.”
“We’re certainly listening on the sexuality and the language,” Graves said. “We’d be very interested in adjusting violence if in fact we were hearing from them we’re getting it wrong. They don’t seem to think that.”
But violence in film and video games has become an increasingly hot topic in the wake of numerous school shootings. Studies have shown conflicting results on whether watching violent movies has any effect on real-life violence. In January, President Barack Obama called for further research on the connection between media and violence.
Graves said the association is aware of school shootings and other violence and the debate on the possible connection to violence in movies. She said the association is open to making adjustments.
“Certainly, it’s always under consideration. It’s not a static thing, ever,” she said.