Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

I’ve been wondering lately if it might be time to retire the PG-13 rating.

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 3, 2004

This thought occurred to me last week, when Wes Craven told Fangoria that the brilliant folks at Dimension Films were considering editing his new R-rated horror film, Cursed, to get a PG-13 rating. They have done this several times already, including the upcoming horror film Darkness. It’s not an unprecedented move.

There are some arguments for this practice. The recent influx of PG-13 horror and suspense films like The Sixth Sense, The Ring and The Others becoming huge hits has motivated the studios to make more films in this vein. However, the difference is that those are a specific type of horror film that don’t really need to be graphic to be effective. They were always intended to be what they are, and were never altered to fit a certain demographic.

The idea of taking a film that was primarily intended for adults and essentially watering it down so that 13-16-year-olds can buy tickets to it pretty much offends me, whether it’s a horror film or any other genre of film. Usually the result of such alteration is a very lame movie that disappoints the audience anyway and leads to bad word-of-mouth and fewer ticket sales. Nobody’s happy. (And in the case of Darkness, after leaving it on the shelf for about two years, they’re releasing it on Christmas Day, against about a dozen more high-profile films, so it’s probably going to bomb regardless of its rating. Anything can happen, but I’d be very surprised if it did well up against the onslaught of blockbusters and Oscar-bait movies. Yet another bad move by Miramax/Dimension, just the latest of many. But that’s a whole other column.)

I’m old enough to remember exactly when the PG-13 rating was established. It was after the summer of 1984, when PG-rated movies like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. They were considered too dark and intense for kids, and parents freaked out about it. So the MPAA came up with the PG-13 rating, to signify that while a movie might not be “offensive” enough to be R-rated, it wasn’t necessarily suitable for younger children. They also kept the PG rating as it was, though it’s rarely used anymore. Currently, The Incredibles is one of the rare exceptions.

The problem with this is that the system was working just fine as it was. It was the parents who misinterpreted the PG rating as meaning “OK for kids”. PG stands for “Parental Guidance Suggested”, which means you might want to think twice before taking your younger children to see that film. Unfortunately, for most parents it came to mean the same as the G rating, which stands for “General Audiences” or “All Ages Admitted”. They believed that because children COULD go see any PG movie without their supervision, that meant they SHOULD. Analyzing the actual content of the movie and deciding whether or not the material was appropriate for younger-aged children was apparently just too difficult.

(This confusion led to some notorious mix-ups, even in my own family. I vividly remember being taken by my parents to see Airplane at the age of 10. If you’ve seen that movie uncut lately, you know why that was a mistake. My mother was shocked – shocked, I tell you! – and she loudly proclaimed as we walked out, “I didn’t know it was going to be like THAT.” Airplane was rated PG, and as relatively tame as it seems today, many people in my neighborhood thought the sky was falling.)

So they created the PG-13 rating, for films that fall between the supposedly “family-friendly” PG and the more “mature” R. Now, keep in mind, children of all ages are still allowed to see PG-13 films, just as they could with PG. It’s not like the rating actually prevents them from seeing anything. It just serves as a warning to parents more than anything. But more and more, parents seem to be ignoring the ratings and letting their kids see anything with that rating as well, under the incorrect assumption that “it’s not R, it must be OK.”

At the same time, the dividing line between what constitutes a PG-13 movie and an R movie is becoming ever so thin. So thin, in fact, that the studios can take an R-rated movie, cut out a few frames and/or words here and there, and come out with a PG-13 film that kids of any age can see. Yet the basic content of the film is pretty much the same. So people who wouldn’t let their kids see an R-rated “scary movie” are perfectly fine with letting them see virtually the same movie with a PG-13 rating.

Is this a bad thing? Depends on your point of view. It’s definitely bad for adults, because we have to sit through many of the movies we want to see with a bunch of screaming teenagers. But that’s not the only reason to reconsider the PG-13.

Keep in mind, I’m against censorship in all its forms. But I also believe in practicing common sense and age-appropriateness. I have a 7-year-old nephew, and just as I wouldn’t take him to a strip club or a rowdy bar, I wouldn’t take him to a movie that’s not appropriate for kids his age. I’m not dumb enough to pop in Pulp Fiction or Texas Chainsaw Massacre when he’s over at my place. Some people seem to think that kids of any age should be allowed to see anything, but I think that’s naïve at best. At the same time, I don’t preach to him that R-rated movies are “evil” or “bad”. He’s just too young to see them, and he understands that. Not everything is suitable for children, and not everything is supposed to be.

On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between a 7-year-old child, and, say, a 14-year-old teenager. Older kids can handle much stronger material. That’s why I propose that the PG-13 rating be dropped completely, and the R rating be lowered to 13 and over. I’m dead serious about this. As crazy as it might sound at first, hear me out and think about it.

Given that so many R-rated films are already aimed at and marketed towards teenagers anyway, doesn’t it kinda make sense? Kids between 13 and 16 are much more mature about these issues than previous generations were at that age. Generally, they’re much more media-savvy and more aware of the technical and business elements of filmmaking. These are, after all, the same kids who are overwhelmed by MTV, fashion magazines, gangsta rap, Goth culture and their own hormones. They hear more profanity during an average day at high school than they would at an all-day Tarantino-Mamet film festival. Is anyone still naïve enough to think that the morals of today’s teens are going to be corrupted by something like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? Seriously?

And most likely, they’re going to see the movies they want to see anyway. After all, the R rating only prohibits them from seeing these movies without “a parent or guardian”. So they can easily follow the time-honored traditions of sneaking in, or giving an adult money to buy their tickets for them. It’s practically an American rite of passage. Or if that doesn’t work, they can always wait for the movie to come out on DVD, often in an “unrated” form. If they’re not allowed to see R movies at home, they’ll see them at a friend’s house. It’s unavoidable. If they want to see American Pie 6 or Friday the 13th Part 13, one way or another they’re going to. It all depends on how bad they want it. (And let’s get real, if the worst thing your kid ever does is watch an R-rated movie now and then, you’re incredibly lucky and should thank whatever deity you believe in.)

So why not just let ‘em in? They’re going to see this stuff anyway. If anyone out there still thinks that seeing Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs or hearing the “f-word” a few times is going to scar your teenagers for life, you’re out of your minds. If you think these movies are going to give them “ideas” about sex, I’m sorry to inform you that ship has sailed. They’re teenagers. They’re already thinking about sex. (If you have a teenage boy, he’s thinking about it A LOT. Trust me.) But if you’re doing your job as a parent, they won’t turn into a chainsaw-wielding maniac or get pregnant before they can drive. If you’re not, then your kids are probably screwed (literally or figuratively) either way.

Now, I’m not advocating that teens be allowed to see EVERYTHING that comes along. That would be just as foolish as not letting them see anything. But I think lowering the R rating would make parents more aware of their responsibility to make informed choices. They will still have the option of saying, “no, I don’t want you to see that movie.” But they might actually use it if they think there’s a chance their kids might see something truly objectionable. Put a little fear into them and maybe they’ll start doing their jobs again.

This way, the system would shift just enough to make a difference. Films that are relatively tame and harmless would go back to getting a PG – stuff like Mean Girls and National Treasure would fall into that category. But here’s the catch; the truly “adult” films, that teens really shouldn’t see, could be given an NC-17 (or whatever arbitrary number they choose to enforce). That way, the teens can have their movies and the adults can have ours. And the NC-17 rating would finally mean something to people besides being wrongly confused with pornography. It would actually be used and enforced, because the studios and theater chains wouldn’t have any choice.

Best of all, the studios wouldn’t feel the need to cut R-rated movies down to a PG-13 to appeal to the 13-16-year-old ticket buyers. They wouldn’t have to.

Of course I realize that the conservative watchdogs would never allow this to happen, at least not without a fight. I get a headache just thinking about the uproar this would cause.

So here’s another solution: we all collectively agree to let the teens see “their” movies, the ones that are aimed specifically at them. If a movie looks like it was made for 13-year-olds, it probably was. It’s not hard to differentiate them. And we keep “our” adult-themed films for ourselves.

Think about this; how many teenagers were really dying to see Bertolucci’s The Dreamers? As chock-full of sex and nudity as it was…not many. That’s not just because it was rated NC-17 – it’s because nobody told them about it. Teenagers generally aren’t aware of anything outside their own myopic demographic stratosphere. How many teens are clamoring to get in to see Closer or Kinsey? My guess is, not many. Because, just like with my 7-year-old nephew, these films aren’t for them. They don’t run tons of ads for these films on MTV or The O.C. They’re too “serious” and “adult”, which equals “boring” in teen minds. If they knew what was actually going on in these movies, they might take a different view. But they don’t know. They haven’t got a clue.

We can use this to our advantage, people. It may seem like a lot of work, but it’s the best choice we have. You’re a parent and you want to keep your teens away from an R-rated movie? Tell them you think it looks good, and you want to go with them. They won’t go near that movie with a ten-foot pole.

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