When the PG-13 rating was introduced back in 1984, the aim was clear: to create a rating for movies that were just a little too intense for the PG rating, yet not “adult” enough for the R. Its invention was prompted by the massive success of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, two PG-rated pictures whose intense and rather scary violence caused widespread complaints from parents. But in the nearly 30 ensuing years, a funny thing happened: instead of cranking up their PG movies, Hollywood started cranking down their Rs. With the lucrative dollars of teenage moviegoers at stake, the PG-13 became the industry’s most desired rating, and its most lucrative. But a new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center finds something more disturbing: though initial PG-13 films contained about as much gun violence as G or PG-rated pictures, “since 2009, PG-13-rated films have contained as much or more violence as R-rated films” (emphasis mine). And hey, funny story, that rise matches gun violence off-screen too.
The study’s conclusions about the Motion Picture Association of America’s “standards” for the PG-13 rating shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s paid much attention to the organization (or who has seen Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Anything more than the quickest flash of nudity will get you an R rating, and you only get one free “F-word” (and that can only be in the non-sexual sense, i.e., “fuck you” and not “I’d love to fuck you”) before you’re in R territory. But when it comes to gun violence, hey, have at it; as long as the blood isn’t, like, literally spraying, you can kill as many people as you want in a PG-13. You just can’t show them fucking, or talking about fucking.
But the Annenberg study’s angle is a fresh one, and worth examining. Those of us who write about film tend to look at the MPAA’s PG-13 problem purely through an economic prism, clucking over the studio-funded entity’s transparently naked interest in opening the ticket-buying floodgates for tentpole pictures. But the study examines the psychological ramifications of a youth spent looking at people with guns, defined as the “weapons effect,” or the idea that this kind of prolonged exposure to the notion of guns as a problem solver can increase aggression, and thus (for some) the likelihood of using a gun.
The researchers are careful to avoid drawing “a direct causal link to the recent rise in school and other public shootings but the rise in gun violence in films certainly coincides with those events,” notes co-author Daniel Romer. And there’s a natural inclination to want to pull back from such conclusions, especially since Wayne LaPierre and his gun-nut brethren are always coming out after a mass shooting and telling us how it’s not the laughably lax gun restrictions but all those damn movies and video games that are making us more violent.
When you start talking about that kind of cause/effect relationship, you’re wading into the sticky waters of censorship — of presuming that because an unbalanced lad with an arsenal can’t make the tricky distinction between fantasy and reality, those who can should be deprived of it. And nobody’s proposing that. But there is something to be said for considering the implications of violent media, of the kind of world it paints, and (directly or not) influences. That’s up to all of us to decide, not via legislation but good common sense, in determining the kinds of films, television, and video games we’re going to see, and patronize, and (on the other side of the creator/consumer equation) make.
But the MPAA prides itself on being, above all, an organization for parents. That’s the argument they prop up whenever criticisms of the sex/violence double standards prop up; that’s their mission, according to their website (“Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what movies are appropriate for their children at any age”). But that line isn’t gonna cut it this time around. If they really want to provide a service for parents, they’ve got to weigh those implications too. Seeing someone’s ass in a movie isn’t going to turn our teenagers into sex addicts (any more than they already are, thanks to the Internet, where porn isn’t exactly clandestine), and hearing the kind of profanity in a movie theater that they hear in their school hallways isn’t going to cause an outbreak of Tourette’s syndrome. But the normalizing of gun violence is a real thing, and worth considering when dispensing film ratings. Then again, the MPAA has never been a group renowned for making much sense.