What does it mean when a movie is rated "R?" Should it be avoided by those under the age of 18? Is a "PG" movie safe for children? Is the rating system an infallible and reliable reflection on the film. Is it even illegal to see a rated "R" film if under the age of 18? If so, how can theaters restrict ticket sales, but they can be rented or purchased by minors?
Contrary to popular belief, the MPAA ratings carry no force of local, state, or federal law anywhere in the U.S. The rating system is administered by the Classification and Ratings Administration, which is not a government agency. It is a group of corporate analysts that screen films and their personal opinions are used to arrive at one of five ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17. Not all films are rated, and are regulated to indy theaters or direct to DVD. Theaters voluntarily agree to enforce corporate film ratings in exchange for access to new film releases. Hence motion pictures have greater distribution opportunities if they submit to an MPAA rating, and theaters must enforce them less they have no new films to draw in audiences in order to sell their overpriced popcorn.
The problem with the C&RA is there are no absolute rules determining what content constitutes a particular rating. Not to mention what standards they have often get compromised anyway. Take for example the recent film, The King's Speech. Classified as a biography/drama, it is both entertaining and historically educational. No violence or nudity, or erotic situations, this rather squeaky clean film earns its R rating because in one scene the frustrated, stuttering King drops a few "F" bombs. This seems to contradict the MPAA standard that the "F" word is forgivable if the word is used as an expletive, and not used for sexual reference. Contrary to this is the 1976 film The Bad News Bears. Here we see kids ranging from 8-13 years old. The kids use foul language, they smoke, and get into fights. There is also a scene where a drunk Father strikes his kid in front of the whole game. Yet this is stamped with a PG rating.
In 1984 the PG-13 classification was introduced. With parents upset over resent films like Spielberg'sGremlins and Temple of Doom, citing scenes of violence and gore, Spielberg suggested to MPAA President Jack Valenti to institute a rating that isn't as bad as an R, but containing more adult themes than standard PG. The result was PG-13, however Spielberg's films were never re-rated.
Since 1990, ratings have been accompanied by brief descriptions of the films content, such as "Cartoon Violence", "Nudity", "Drug Use", "Strong Language", "Blood", etc. But do these even paint a clear picture? Does the PG rating for Hook with its "mild violence" going to inform parents that their kids will see Captain Hook murder a 13 year old boy in a sword fight?
It seems the rating system is becoming less concerned with self-regulating films for the good of the audience and more of a marketing ploy. Sometimes an R can create more buzz for a film than if it received a PG.
So where does this leave parents and audiences? Nowhere really. Despite the MPAA, entertainment watch dog groups, and film critics, movies will always be a personal experience. With both a film's ethics and entertainment value being at the sole disposal of the viewer, one literally has to see the film in order to be fully educated on it.