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{A&E} Is the MPAA a Friend of Families?

Kate Ensign-Lewis - August 09, 2012

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Movie ratings are meant to help people make easy decisions about what they see. But that decision has become anything but easy—all too often, families are left wondering if the rating actually reflects what's in the movie. Does the MPAA need to revisit its standards?

I remember going to see my first PG movie by myself. I was staying with my grandma, and my cousin and I went to see D2: The Mighty Ducks. At some point my grandma found out we were going to see it, and she asked us why we weren’t going with an adult. “It’s PG,” I said, matter-of-factly, trusting my almost 10-year-old status as clearly old enough to attend alone.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

In the years since, I’ve realized how right she was. Rarely a movie will be rated too harshly; for the most part, it skews the other way, with movies being increasingly loose with their ratings. I still remember when the number of f-words that a PG-13 movie could have changed from one to three (in As Good As It Gets). Jamie Lawson, our managing editor, told me once how she took her boys to see Marley and Me and was shocked at the sexual content of that PG movie. And my husband frequently refers to Liam Neeson’s Taken as the rawest PG-13 movie he’s ever seen. Simply put: you really can’t trust a movie rating, and with sliding standards, you can’t really trust the MPAA.

So should the MPAA revisit its standards?

It’s almost a rhetorical question. Yes, of course it should. The fact remains that non-R-rated movies make more money than other movies, and by taking a stand and rating movies more harshly, the folks at the MPAA could hit Hollywood where it hurts and encourage them to cut out some of the garbage.

But, they won’t. The sad truth is they actually represent the six big studios, and as a business, look out for their members’ interests. They won’t be looking to check those studios anytime soon; they'll continue to let things slide into more "family friendly" ratings to help look out for the bottom line of their members. And this answers my other question (the one in the title): no, the MPAA is not a friend to families. What’s more, if I’m being bold, that’s not their job (as much as we wish it was).

What they do is still useful. (“Say, what?!”) The idea behind ratings is a good one—let people know in a quick, simple way if it's appropriate for them or their children. But it’s limited. With ratings being simple as they are, we can’t rely wholly on the rating (or the MPAA) to tell us what passes the mark. Putting a simple rating on something as nuanced as a movie is inherently limited, so while it can help us in making initial decisions (“I won’t take my 7-year-old to see that PG-13 movie, but the PG movie might do”), we really have to do our own due diligence.

And these days, there are no excuses for us not to.

Countless websites exist giving critics’ reviews, parental reviews, rating explanations, even full-on synopses of movies so we can figure out if we (or our children) should see a movie—even to the point that we sometimes don’t have to see it beforehand. We at LDS Living have published our own guide to finding clean movies in the past, and the Deseret News recently launched a media guide at OK.com, full of information on specific content and “ok’ed” ages.

In the end, the MPAA might pretend it’s looking out for families, but it isn’t, and frankly, we shouldn’t expect it to. Gone are the days when we could make blanket statements about which ratings are okay to watch. With slipping standards we can rely on movie ratings only as a jumping off point, and it is now our responsibility to use the tools technology has given and make decisions for ourselves.

What do you think? Is the MPAA looking out for families?

What standards have you set? Do you mostly rely on MPAA ratings, or do you have your own method?

© LDS Living, 2012.
Comments 5 comments

macho_mz said...

09:18 AM
on Aug 09, 2012

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I agree that MPAA standards aren’t as helpful as we would like them to be. Part of that lies in the standards of the country not be the same as the standards of the gospel. In the US, for example, they tend to be more strict with ratings based on language or nudity (things that are usually not ambiguous), and more lenient on violence. In Europe, they are much stricter in most country’s ratings systems on violence than nudity or sexual content. The point about the revenue with movies below an R-rating is also true. I do think, however, that parent/family organizations might have more luck lobbying the MPAA to become stricter with the ratings now than they would have 10 years ago. There have been many very successful R-rated comedies in recent years (The Hangover, Bridesmaids, etc) that have made the studios a little less fearful of the once dreaded R-rating. I hope they do reevaluate the system so that those of us who don’t want to see the smut can go to the movies without having to do hours of advance research!

heroic said...

10:30 AM
on Aug 09, 2012

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As a longtime professional film critic and entertainment journalist, I can speak to the fact that the MPAA does not and never has cared about families. It's the biggest con job in the business. The history of self-censorship from the days of the Production Code to the present Ratings System is about one thing: keeping the government at bay. The MPAA is first and foremost a lobbying entity. They are mostly concerned with things like piracy and policies that protect and enhance the profits of the major studios who constitute its members. To male politicians "malleable" to support them, they need to look like they're doing the right thing vis-a-vis parents. So you get a ratings system engineered to please politicians, not serve parents. This is why their ratings standards are so loose and inconsistent. It's also why independent films - whose producers are not members of the MPAA - often are judged more harshly while studio films get an easy pass on harder content. It's a clear conflict of interest. Movies like "This Film is Not Yet Rated" have also revealed just how they fail to even enforce their own internal standards and rules, relying instead on extreme secrecy to prevent scrutiny. The PG-13 was a particularly egregious con job. Rather than carving out the high end of PG it allowed studios to carve out the low end of R with just a few changes, allowing teenagers easy access to fare that was previously restricted. The MPAA is not your friend and their ratings system is a sham. Some of the most offensive films in history are PG-13 and some of the most emotionally enriching, family friendly films are, believe it or not, rated R. Case in point: "The Joy Luck Club." Latter-day Saints should keep this in mind.

mishqueen said...

11:59 AM
on Aug 09, 2012

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I think if we approach a problem from the wrong premise, we cannot report the problem correctly. The premise of this article is that the MPAA is not longer working for the benefit of the public. However, the MPAA has NEVER worked for the public, or families, or viewers at all. The MPAA works for film marketing. The rating is established to generate sales, not to guide the viewer. Therefor, we are not recently being betrayed by our guide. We never had a guide in the first place.

mishqueen said...

12:01 PM
on Aug 09, 2012

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p.s. Websites like www.kids-in-mind.com and http://dove.org ARE for your benefit, and do a great job of guiding your family.

mjduley said...

01:48 PM
on Aug 10, 2012

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I use websites like the ones mishqueen mentioned, which tell me exactly what types of things are in a movie (some of them will even tell you things like exactly how many instances of nudity are in a film and what type is it, such as rear ends, full frontal, etc.). I have seen PG-13 movies that I felt should have been rated R and even one or two R rated films that I felt deserved a PG-13. So now I just look at the content itself and ignore the MPAA ratings.
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