Is PG-13 the new R? Exposing the MPAA’s Conflicts of Interest

By Connor Frechette-McCall In the past decade, there has been an undisputed change in the culture regarding how adult topics and themes are portrayed in the mass media. In...

By Connor Frechette-McCall

In the past decade, there has been an undisputed change in the culture regarding how adult topics and themes are portrayed in the mass media. In the realm of films, arguably the most successful and profitable form of mass media, each generation has seen an altering definition of the ratings system that classify film content. Movies that are rated PG and PG-13 today contain more violent and sexual content than the same ratings did in the past. Whether this change is due to the film industry’s incentive to expand profit margins, or simply a change in the culture of what is acceptable for younger audiences, is highly disputed.

Since the early twentieth century, the ratings for films have been determined by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA for short. This group was created by members of Hollywood in 1922 in an attempt to prevent government censorship by self regulating movies. As a Hollywood entity, the MPAA, is supposed to remain neutral in the ratings of films to prevent bias. This is why the subdivision entitled the Classification And Ratings Administration (CARA) was created. Surprisingly, the identities of all members besides the chairman of CARA are not publicly released, although investigative director Kirby Dick worked to uncover these identities in his documentary, “This Film Is not Yet Rated.” Dick reports that, contrary to the MPAA’s implication that it hires only parents with children between the ages of 5 and 17 for CARA positions, most of the ratings board members either have children 18 and over, or have none at all. This begs the question of how this small group of appointed associates can adequately judge what is culturally appropriate for all ages, particularly young aged viewers, when their personal lives are in contrast to the all-encompassing views that the MPAA promises that it has.

Additional conflicts of interest lie within the MPAA’s board selection process, as its seemingly neutral CARA members are all appointed by senior associates of the MPAA. The CARA board of appeals, which maintains the same levels of secrecy and anonymity of the entire system, also consists of several clergy members (Dick, 2006). As a result, nepotistic and religious conflict of interests have become evident in CARA’s ratings. Take for example the changes made to the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, which worked to challenge the oppression associated with the Catholic Church. Prior to the film’s release and rating, Christian groups protested the film. Coincidentally, to maintain the PG-13 rating that New Line Cinema wanted for mass marketing to audiences, the post production team edited out the film’s ending, which featured the most damning personifications of the Catholic Church (Robinson, 2007).

Some other effects of the MPAA’s alleged bias relate to how adult themes in films are being rated over time. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, has researched how the amount of gun related violence found in the top 900 grossing PG and PG-13 films has more than doubled since 1950, and continues to grow to this day (Bushman, 2013). The modern installments of popular film series like Predator, Alien, and Terminator, which were all created as R-rated ultra-violent adult movies in the 1970s and 80s, have all been granted PG-13 ratings in their subsequent sequels despite the same level, or more, of violence as their predecessors (Screenrant, 2012). Critics believe this change is due to film companies lobbying to push the material found in R rated films into PG-13 movies to allow for greater access to larger audiences. Surprisingly, the MPAA has become extremely arbitrary with what it defines as too excessive for each age group. Advocates for the MPAA’s newer ratings content that the reason why more violence is found in modern PG-13 movies is because violence is more common in all forms of culture, such as world news and video games.

Contrary to its stance on violent depictions, the MPAA still enforces the use of swear words as strictly as it did in the 1950s, despite a liberal cultural shift in the perceived severity of swear and taboo words. According to a survey done by Associated Press, nearly three fourths of poll respondents reported that they hear profanity more often than in years past, and some two thirds perceive that swearing has become more prevalent in society (Associated Press, 2006). Scholars such as Timothy Jay researched that adolescents’ use of swearing has increased over the past ten years, with the average youth using “approximately ninety swear words per day” (Jay, 2012). These swear words, despite being less culturally significant, negatively affect films that are pertinent for youth audiences through strict ratings. Whereas violent films are now marketed under liberal ratings of PG-13 without MPAA apprehension or regulation, historically and socially important films such as The King’s Speech and Bully are held to a different standard due to “scenes of brief strong language” (MPAA, 2012).

Regardless of how society views the issue of violence or language, the film industry’s ratings are inconsistent and contradictory, forming a double standard based on special political and ideological interests by the MPAA. Even though violence and swears have become more normalized in contemporary culture, MPAA regulations impose stricter ratings for profanities than gun violence, which is problematic for those seeking fair and accurate ratings for film content. Some scholars believe that this distinction has dire consequences for society’s consumption of media as a whole. Ohio State University’s Brad Bushman defines the gravity of this issue by elaborating that, “youth learn how to solve problems by observing how others solve similar problems… In theater, scripts tell actors what to do and say. In memory, scripts define situations and guide behavior…The media provide scripts for gun use. Gun violence in films might also encourage an association between guns and violence” (Bushman, 2013).

Given the loose regulatory ratings by the MPAA on aggression, youths are much more likely to view gun violence in films as a clear path to solving problems, thereby leading to desensitization and the probability of increased gun related crimes by individuals under the age of 18 (Zuckerman, 2004). While there are very few arguing that the use of profanity is culturally enriching for youth audiences, the idea that the inclusion of swear words warrants an elevated film rating for more mature audiences than violence is preposterous. Moreover, the double standards utilized by the MPAA in rating film content targeted at youths exposes the biases and inconsistencies of the Hollywood industry, which works hard to maintain its access to the youth market as part of its financial enterprise.


Bushman, B. J., Jamieson, P.E., Weitz, I., and D. Romer. “Gun Violence Trends in Movies.” AAP News & Journals Gateway. American Academy of Pediatrics, 19 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
“Film Ratings- Motion Pictures Association of America.” Motion Pictures Association of America, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Jay, T., and K.Janschewitz. “TIL – the Frequency That People Swear in Public Has Remained Stable over the past 30 Years • /r/exmormon.” Psychological Science, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Robinson, T. “Book Vs. Film: <i>The Golden Compass</i>.” The A.V. Club. N.p., 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Shaw-Williams, H. “PG-13 Movies Are Now More Violent Than R Rated Movies.” Screen Rant. N.p., 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

“THE ASSOCIATED PRESS PROFANITY STUDY CONDUCTED BY IPSOS …” Associated Press. Associated Press, 20-22 Mar. 2006. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Dick, K., Perf. Peirce, K., Kramer, W., Tucker, M., Stone, M., IFC Films, 2006. DVD.

Zuckerman, D. “Is There a Youth Violence Epidemic? – National Center For Health Research.” National Center For Health Research. N.p., 1999-2004. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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