The Answer is Not to Abolish the PG-13 Rating

In an article over at Cinema Blend, Gabe Toro makes a case for abolishing the PG-13 rating on the back of the PG-13 recently handed out to Sylvester Stallone‘s The Expendables 3, the first installment in the franchise not to receive an R-rating.

The reason given by the MPAA for the rating was due to “violence including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language”. The reason given by Stallone for the rating, however, was, “We want to reach as many people as possible. It’s very close to an R, believe me, it’s right there. But I think we owe it to the next generation. We thought we’d join that club for a while.” Of course, he could have just given the reason without beating around the bush, which is We want to make more money at the box office.

When the PG-13 rating was originally introduced it came on the back of, largely, Steven Spielberg‘s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which featured the removal of a man’s beating heart from his chest and the dining on chilled monkey brains (Mmmmmmm). That film was rated PG, but I’d argue it remains far less gory than say similarly PG-rated films including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist, where the melting of faces and facial mutilation in general is highly prominent and memorable.

Of course, with the PG-13 rating has come an unwritten set of rules; you can show a naked Kate Winslet in Titanic, you get one use of the word “fuck” which has been turned into a joke in most PG-13 movies, you can feature as much violence as you want as long as the blood is limited, non-existent or, in the case of something like Aliens vs. Predator, it isn’t the blood of humans. Such “rules” are ridiculous, especially in the age of the Internet where red band trailers are readily available and porn is just a click away. What exactly are we protecting children from anyway?

So when it comes to Toro’s request to abolish the PG-13 rating, he suggests it will accomplish the following:

What this does is force the MPAA to look at content differently. That means, no more arbitrary rulings or beliefs about one breast versus two, one headshot versus five. Whatever they think is a movie for “adults” will earn an R-rating. This means that anyone making a movie with a decent amount of violence and sex is going to get an R. Rather them limiting their audience (which is b.s. because tons of theaters don’t enforce the ratings, and many teens or kids will still see an R-rated film with older people), the studios will see this opportunity to actually engage with adult ideas and concepts. A superhero film can actually still be thrilling and feature politics and romance. A comedy can be as naughty as it wants to be. And The Expendables 3 can be filled with exploding heads everywhere.

Uh, whether the PG-13 rating exists or not, The Expendables 3 can still feature exploding heads, it’s just going to have to be rated R if it does. What removing the PG-13 rating will actually accomplish is a separate likelihood, which is you might not get an Expendables 3 at all.

Previously, Guillermo del Toro wasn’t allowed to make At the Mountains of Madness with Tom Cruise attached to star because it would have been an R rated film, now he tells the Wall Street Journal, “[W]ith the way I’ve seen PG-13 become more and more flexible, I think I could do it PG-13 now, so I’m going to explore it with [Legendary], to be as horrifying as I can, but to not be quite as graphic.” Get rid of PG-13 and you’ll never see that movie.

All that said, the major flaw I see in this idea of abolishing the PG-13 rating is in the opinion it means we’ll get more R-rated, adult blockbusters. No, you won’t. Thanks to the PG-13 rating the PG rating has been softened to the point it’s rarely used any longer, while at the same time studios aren’t going to make big budget tentpole features for an R-rated, adults-only audience. Marvel and DC Comics’ movies will be watered down to the PG-rating and adults will begin to shy away, a solution no one wants.

Okay, yes, if we got rid of the PG-13, perhaps The Expendables 3 would be made and released as an R-rated movie, but is that the kind of movie we’re really fighting for? Maybe 0.2% of the PG-13 movies made today would remain uncut and released with an R-rating, but the majority of them would be watered down to largely uninteresting, PG-rated kiddie features, which I don’t think is what Toro is fighting for.

As I pointed out, while a lot of movies that were released prior to Temple of Doom were rated PG, in today’s world they would be rated PG-13 if not R and you take away that PG-13 and you’ll dramatically limit the pool of anything remotely resembling a big budget adult feature.

So, no, the answer is not to abolish just the PG-13 rating, it’s to abolish the ratings system entirely. The removal of the PG-13 rating might limit “arbitrary rulings”, but it would increase strict rulings, which would limit the options available to filmmakers seeking to make a movie for a wide audience.

What needs to happen is the elimination of ratings and the introduction of descriptions as to what the film contains… period. It’s not the theater’s job to police our children, that’s the job of the parents. So, provide an accurate description (yes, this involves reading) of the kind of “visual bloody violence”, “graphic nudity”, “vulgar language” and so forth a film contains and the audience can make up its own mind. After all, we have that ability right? The ability to think for ourselves. If not, be careful, there are walls everywhere, I wouldn’t want you to run into one.

“But what about when I’m not with my child and they go to the movies alone?”

Well, have you raised them properly and what movie are they going to see that is really going to offer up something so heinous it’s going to scar them for life? I can just imagine someone reading this and yelling, “I don’t want my kid seeing Nymphomaniac!” Well kudos to you for having that one child out there seeking out the art house cinema so they can sit through two separate, two hour volumes of a Lars von Trier movie.

All told, the one line from Toro’s piece that bothers me the most is when he writes, “And parents won’t have to worry about taking their child to a PG-13 movie and having to have a talk with them about content, or try to tamp down their hyperactivity after seeing a particularly violent film.”

Heaven forbid parents talk to their children about the content they see in the movie they chose to take them to. I guess that’s someone else’s job… but whose? One thing is for certain, not the movies, maybe the schools? Nah, hmmm, this is tough, but one thing is for certain, whatever you do if you’re a parent… don’t talk to your children about things you aren’t comfortable talking about… hopefully they’ll just learn on their own through trial and error. Right?


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