Unlike a lot of adolescent rites of passage — getting a drivers license, gambling and taking that first sweet sip of brew at midnight on your 21st birthday — seeing an R-rated movie in the theater, sans parents, isn’t determined by law.
Though depending on the theater and the vigilance of the ticket sellers, it can sure feel like it, especially if you are 16.
In the United States, the rating of movies is a voluntary system managed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). Every member of the MPAA, which comprises executives from the six major studios—Disney, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner Bros.—has agreed to submit their movies for review. And every member of NATO, which includes the vast majority of independent and chain theaters, has agreed to enforce it, albeit with varying results.
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The MPAA says that the ratings system was designed to inform parents about movie content that they may not want their kids to see. But protecting innocent minds wasn’t at the front of Jack Valenti’s mind when he created the ratings system back in 1966. At the time, Valenti, who was president of the MPAA for 38 years, was concerned with warding off “the odious smell of censorship …. and the possible intrusion of government into the movie arena.”
He realized, and rightly so, that if the movie industry policed itself, the government would stay out of the movies.
So who actually rates the movies?
Their only qualification is having children between the ages of 5 and 17; they receive no training in film or psychology. When a film is submitted, eight parents are selected to watch a movie and give their opinions on whether it should receive a G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 rating. They also list the factors, such as nudity, language and violence, which informed their decisions. After the ballots are compared, a rating is determined.
The MPAA keeps the parent reviewers anonymous to protect them from the machinations of studio executives and filmmakers. But critics say there is a lack of accountability and transparency in the system, which has drawn criticism from both liberals and conservatives, but especially from the filmmakers whose work is at the mercy of eight anonymous parents.
Furthermore, the ratings standards seem so flexible as to be arbitrary: Experts have pointed out that inspirational family dramas such as Billy Elliot and Erin Brockovich have received the same R rating as gratuitously violent movies, such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
While the MPAA will not release the criteria its parent reviewers use to rate movies, we can infer a few things based on precedent.
What earns a movie an “R” rating?
1. The f-word as a verb
If the word is used only as an expletive and three times or fewer, it will likely be granted a PG-13 rating. But even one use of the f-word as a verb, even as a participle, guarantees an R.
2. Tobacco use
In 2007, the MPAA announced that parent reviewers would factor tobacco use when rating movies. Universal Studios went a step further and banned tobacco products in movies rated G, PG and PG-13.
3. Hard drugs
Regardless of the rest of a movie’s content, any depiction of illegal drugs will earn a film at least a PG-13 rating; but a graphic depiction of hard drug use will typically be slapped with an R. No less than Roger Ebert has called this particular criterion “a wild overreaction.”
This is a tricky one: Shirtless men are allowed in G-rated films, while topless women usually earn at least a PG-13; but naked men nearly always garner an R-rating (see: Sideways), while fully naked women are routinely seen in PG-13 movies (see: Titanic, rated PG-13). And you can forget about sex. Even non-graphic depictions of love-making will render an otherwise tame movie unacceptable for 16-year-olds (see: Never Let Me Go).
5. Extreme and graphic violence
A movie has to be approaching the sadistic to get an R-rating. Think torture. The Dark Knight and the three Lord of the Rings films are all very violent and rated PG-13. The uber-gory Saving Private Ryan, not to mention Passion of the Christ, “one of the most violent movies ever made” are both rated R, despite the fact that many people well over 17 found the imagery disturbing to say the least.