MPAA film rating system

From Academic Kids

The MPAA film rating system is a system used in the United States and instituted by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate a movie based on its content. It is one of various motion picture rating systems used to help patrons decide which movies may be appropriate for children.

The current MPAA movie ratings consist of:

  • Rated G – GENERAL AUDIENCES: All ages admitted.
  • Rated PG – PARENTAL GUIDANCE SUGGESTED: Some material may not be suitable for children.
  • Rated PG-13 – PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
  • Rated R – RESTRICTED: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (Some jurisdictions or theater companies may have a higher age.)
  • Rated NC-17 – No one 17 and under admitted. (Some jurisdictions or theater companies may have a higher age.)

If a film was never submitted for a rating, the label "NR" (Not Rated) is often used; however, "NR" is not an official MPAA classification. Films that have not yet received MPAA classification, but are expected to, are often advertised with the notice, "This film is not yet rated".




The MPAA film rating system was instituted in November 1968 as a response to massive citizen complaints about the appearance and increase of explicit sexual content, graphic violence, scatology and related features of postmodernism in American film following the abolition, by the MPAA, of the Production Code of America in 1964.. The United States came rather late to motion picture rating, as many other countries had been using rating systems for decades.

The postmodern movement had its advantages and disadvantages: while it allowed in its earliest days (before the Code was completely abolished) for movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) to be filmed, it also sparked a rise in low-budget exploitation films that became more and more explicit in their sexual and violent changes.

In 1967, two movies, Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's'isname, were released containing the word fuck in their dialogue. This precipitated the public demand for the re-introduction of self-regulation. After a series of meetings with government representatives, the Motion Picture Association of America and National Association of Theatre Owners agreed to provide a uniform ratings system for all of its constituents' movies, a system that would be theoretically enforced by the film exhibitors. Film production companies not members of the MPAA were not affected, and the ratings system had no official, governmental enforceability due to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as interpreted in regards to matters of sexuality and violence in the media dating back to 1951's United States vs. Playboy Inc. decision.

Original ratings

The original movie ratings consisted of:

  • Rated G – Suggested For GENERAL Audiences (including children).
  • Rated M – Suggested For MATURE Audiences: Parental Discretion Advised.
  • Rated R – RESTRICTED: Children under 17 (originally 16) not admitted unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian; some theater chains specifically stated that the "adult guardian" must be at least 21.
  • Rated X – Children Under 18 Not Admitted; the notation "Age limit may vary in certain areas" was sometimes added.

Many parents thought films rated M contained more adult content than those that were rated R; this confusion led to its replacement in 1969 by GP:

  • Rated GP – General audiences/Parental guidance suggested.

In 1970 GP was changed to PG – Parental guidance suggested .

From the adoption of the system through the mid-1970s, it was not uncommon for mainstream films such as Airport, Planet of the Apes, The Odd Couple, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to be released with G ratings, but by 1978, that rating had become increasingly associated with films, often poorly made, intended specifically for children, while the PG rating became increasingly common for "family" films, with the G rating increasingly stigmatized by a public perception that a film so rated was a "dumb movie rated G for kids." This led to the PG rating becoming overloaded with everything from family films "spiced up" to avoid a G to very mature films that were "toned down" to avoid R ratings. It also led to the somewhat waggish public connotation (never intended by the MPAA) of PG as "Pretty Good."


Missing image
PG-13 rating symbol

In 1984, the actions of Steven Spielberg led to the introduction of the PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) rating. [1] ( Violent scenes in the PG-rated films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which he directed) and Gremlins (which he produced), were the catalyst. Public outcry about the violence led Spielberg to suggest a new PG-13 rating to Jack Valenti, who conferred with theater owners and then introduced the new rating on July 1. The rating still allows children under 13 to be admitted without a parent or guardian, but it cautions parents about potentially shocking violence or sexual content. The first movie to be released with a PG-13 rating was 1984's Red Dawn. By this point, the mass audience for films with content in the "G" or "PG" range had largely abandoned filmgoing, and filmmakers began to consciously tailor their material to ensure a "PG-13" or, even moreso, an "R" rating, focussing on the remaining audience (largely teenagers and their college-age "adult" siblings) who preferred such material.


In the early years of the ratings system, X-rated movies such as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) could win Academy Award nominations and awards. But the rating, which wasn't trademarked by the MPAA (as were its other ratings), was self-applied by the "adult entertainment" segment of the industry to the point where an X rating became an advertising gimmick equated strictly with film pornography.

This led to large number of newspapers and TV stations refusing to accept ads for X-rated movies, and some theaters' landlords forbade exhibition of X-rated movies. Such policies led to a compromise with the distributors of George Romero's 1979 horror film Dawn of the Dead: the audience restriction for X would be enforced, but the letter "X" itself would not appear in the film's advertisements or displays, with the following message being substituted: "There is no explicit sex in this picture; however, there are scenes of violence which may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted." The same dispensation was granted to some later horror films, including Zombie and Day of the Dead.

Missing image
NC-17 rating symbol

The MPAA introduced the NC-17 (No one 17 and under admitted) rating on September 27, 1990 to differentiate MPAA-rated adult-oriented films from movies rated X by their producers. This move was largely prompted by Universal Pictures' Henry & June (1990), which would have otherwise received a dreaded X rating. The argument was that X equated with artlessness, and "Henry & June" was intended as a master-work of film: the revision of "X" to "NC-17" was intended to placate the filmmakers' complaints. However, media outlets which refused ads for X-rated titles viewed ads for NC-17 rated films as equally unsuitable, despite studio claims of such films being non-pornographic art, and thus simply transferred that policy to NC-17 titles, as did many theater landlords. A number of social conservative groups placed pressure on large video chains including Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video, as a result of which these chains do not stock NC-17 titles.

While a number of movies have been released with the NC-17 rating, none of them have been a major box-office hit. In a bold attempt to broaden the acceptance of NC-17 rated films towards the movie-going public, United Artists marketed it's big-budgeted Showgirls heavily, with splashy TV and print ads. The film became the first (and, to date, only) NC-17 rated film to open in wide release, on 1,388 screens. But the critically-savaged film's poor box-office performance only created a larger stigma towards the rating, deeming any film rated NC-17 as being "box-office poison". However, that has not stopped several "NC-17" movies from accumulating artistic praise such as Requiem for a Dream in which the lead actress, Ellen Burstyn, was nominated for Best Actress in the 2000 Academy Awardss. The "NC-17" rating has more recently been limited to films considered to appeal to a limited audience, where the limited distribution and advertising of such films is not considered a major obstacle.

The rating process

While the MPAA does not publish an official list of all the exact words, actions, and exposed body parts used to determine a movie's rating, some details have nonetheless been made available:

  • if a film uses "one of the harsher sexually-derived words" (such as fuck) once, it remains eligible for a PG-13 rating, provided that the word is used as an expletive and not in a sexual context;
  • if such language is used more than once, or once if in a sexual context, it usually receives an R rating;
  • a reference to drugs usually gets a movie a PG-13 at a minimum, though a few movies were rated PG for mild drug references;
  • a "graphic" or "explicit" drug scene earning a film an R at a minimum;
  • while total female nudity is permitted in an R-rated movie, any display of naked male genitalia will (usually) result in an NC-17 rating. Non-sexual male nudity is the one exception.

Members of the MPAA's Rating Board view the movie, discuss it, and vote on the film's rating. If the movie's producer is unhappy with this rating, (s)he can re-edit the film and re-submit it, or can appeal to an Appeals Board. In nearly all appeals the film was either rated R and the producer was seeking to have the rating changed to PG-13, or (occasionally) rated NC-17 and the producer was seeking to have the rating changed to R..

Effects of ratings

Legally, the rating system is entirely voluntary. However, given that MPAA member studios are expected to submit all of their theatrical releases for rating, and few mainstream producers (outside the pornography niche) are willing to bypass the rating system due to potential effects on revenues, the system has a de facto compulsory status in the industry.

One of the unintended side effects of the rating system is that the G and (in recent years) PG ratings have been associated with children's films and are widely considered to be commercially bad for films targeted at teenagers and adults. For example, the 2004 action/adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow received a PG rating, even though it was not targeted at children. The movie did not do well at the box office. In a number of cases, such as the movie Sneakers or Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, directors have intentionally added profanity in order to avoid the G rating.

The minimum age for unaccompanied patrons at R films, and all patrons at X films, was originally set at 16 and by 1970 raised to 17 (in some areas the age may be higher still, often 18 but in rare cases as high as 21 or even 25), though theater owners could still allow children into R-rated (but, at least in theory, not X-rated) films without being accompanied by an adult since the rating system is technically voluntary and does not have the force of law behind it (those films with strong enough content to merit an X rating being presumably subject to obscenity laws at one governmental level or another). In the 1970s the East Coast-based Century theater chain used its own rating system, with only three categories instead of four: For All Ages, For Mature Audiences and No One Under 17 Admitted, with most, but not all, R-rated films receiving the middle designation, under which no age limits were enforced.

Many films which are rated R have been targeted at teenage audiences. In 2000, due to issues raised by Senator Joseph Lieberman, the National Association of Theater Owners, the major trade association in the U.S., announced it would start strict enforcement of ID checks for R-rated movies.

The 2001 independent film L.I.E. challenged its NC-17 rating and waged a publicity campaign against the arbitrary nature of the ratings system. Lot 47, the film's distributor, lost its appeal, and released the film unrated. With the recent success of another NC-17 film, The Dreamers, some film producers and directors hope that the rating may begin to lose some of its stigma and more movie theaters will consider playing such films.

Video has allowed studios to skirt the rating system and release unrated versions of films on videocassette and DVD. Sometimes these versions would have earned an NC-17 if submitted for rating, but often their unrated status is merely for marketing purposes, with the implication that the added unrated material is racier than an R rating would permit. For example, one DVD release of American Pie, rated R in its theatrical release, exclaims on the box, "UNRATED! The Version You Couldn't See In Theaters". Sometimes the difference between an R-rated feature and its unrated home video counterpart is as little as a few seconds. A number of filmmakers have also taken to filming additional footage specifically for video or DVD release, with no intention of submitting this material to the MPAA.

Some foreign and independent films do not bother to submit to the rating system, reasoning that they will not be distributed widely beyond their art-house audience, so the expense is unnecessary.

Critics of system

The movie rating system has had a number of high-profile critics. Film critic Roger Ebert argues that the system places too much emphasis on not showing sex while allowing the portrayal of massive amounts of gruesome violence. Moreover, he argues that the rating system is geared toward looking at trivial aspects of the movie (such as the number of times a profane word is used) rather than at the general theme of the movie (for example, if the movie realistically depicts the consequences of sex and violence). He has called for an A rating, to indicate films high in violence or mature content which should not be marketed to teenagers, but do not have NC-17 levels of sex (or that rating's cachet).

Perhaps with these objections in mind, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting (a descendent of the formerly influential National Legion of Decency) maintains its own film-classification system, which takes the overall "moral tone" (according to its point of view) of a film into account, rather than focusing on content alone.

Many critics of the system, especially independent distributors, have charged that major studios' releases often receive more lenient treatment than independent films. It is widely assumed that Saving Private Ryan, with its intense depiction of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, would have earned an NC-17 if it were not a Steven Spielberg film. The comedy Scary Movie, released by a division of The Walt Disney Company's Miramax Films, contained "strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use and violence" but was rated R, to the surprise of many reviewers and audiences; by comparison, the comparatively tamer porn spoof Orgazmo, an independent release, contained "explicit sexual content and dialogue" and received an NC-17.

Ironically, before its purchase by Disney, Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein often clashed with the MPAA, proclaimed the rating system unfair to independents, and released some films unrated to avoid an X or NC-17. Orgazmo director Trey Parker's ratings battles later inspired the (R-rated) film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which directly criticized the MPAA and holds the Guinness world record for most profanity and violence in an animated feature (399 profane words, 128 offensive gestures and 221 acts of violence).

On June 13, 2004, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study documenting "ratings creep" as more adult content is allowed in films at a given rating than was allowed in the past. [2] ( The study reports:

"The MPAA appears to tolerate increasingly more extreme content in any given age-based rating category over time. Movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and type of potentially objectional content. Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content."

Films rated PG-13, in particular, seem to be exhibiting the most "ratings creep" as more features that would have received R ratings even five years ago are now receiving the lesser rating.

The CAP Ministry had noticed and reported similar results four years earlier.

See also

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