This was my research paper for my English class. I hated that class.
Millions of people go to the movies each year and many rely on the ratings assigned by CARA (the Classification and Rating Administration) to choose which movies are appropriate for their children to watch. CARA, which is an affiliate of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), was established on November 1, 1968, as a tool for parents (Ratings History). As stated on their website, the purpose of the MPAA’s ratings system is to “provide parents with advance information about the content of films, so they can determine what movies are appropriate for their young children to see” (“Film Ratings”). While the ratings system does give a general idea of a movie’s content, the system is inadequate in helping parents decide which films their children should see. The ratings system does not sufficiently inform parents of movie content because the system suffers from ratings creep, inconsistency, and vagueness. The MPAA needs to revise the ratings system to remove these problems. The current ratings system, which assigns a letter grade to a movie designating who should be allowed to see it, should be changed to a system that, instead, quantifies the amount of objectionable content (i.e. violence, nudity, drugs, etc.). CARA also should not look at context or restrict audiences. The MPAA will be able to correct the problems that are presently in the ratings system by changing to a classification system that looks purely at content and not at what may or may not be offensive to prospective audiences.
One of the problems that the ratings system has (and one a change in the system could fix) is ratings creep. Ratings creep is when content that used to be predominantly assigned to one rating (such as R) begins to “creep” down into another (PG-13). A study done in 2010 by Priya Nalkur, Patrick E. Jamieson and Daniel Romer, provides evidence of ratings creep. Nalkur et al. compared the content from the highest grossing films from 1950 to 2006 to their ratings. Nalkur et al. found that “differences in violence between R and PG-13 were often blurred” and “PG-13 has absorbed films that would previously have been assigned R, and has exhibited an increasing trend regarding the explicitness of violent content” (Nalkur). According to their studies, PG-13 movies are becoming increasingly more violent (Nalkur). A PG-13 movie from 2004 is likely to be more violent than one from 1990.
A similar study was done by Richard Potts and Angela Belden. However, instead of looking at the actual content of the movies, they only looked at the rating descriptors. (Ratings descriptors explain why a film received a certain rating.) They came to the same conclusion--that there is “increasingly more adult content in movies at all the rating levels examined . . . ” (Potts). Potts and Belden write that “children are exposed to more mature content . . . in today’s G, PG, and PG-13 movies than they were only a few years ago” (Potts). If movies aimed at kids contain more mature content than they used to, then the ratings are not doing their job.
In addition to reporting their findings, Potts et al. give possible reasons why ratings creep is happening. They point out that CARA is part of the MPAA, which is an “organization whose primary function is to maximize the financial success of motion pictures” (Potts). Because of this affiliation, they continue, a “competing profit motivation exists for CARA to apply the most liberal rating assignments possible and thus facilitate the largest audiences possible for each movie to be released” (Potts). Restrictive ratings, such as R, limit the number of prospective audiences; therefore, these movies are more likely to make less money. By giving more movies PG-13 ratings than R, CARA is increasing their profitability. However, Potts et al. point out that this reason is only “speculative” (Potts).
Another possible reason Potts et al. give is the raters on the board are becoming desensitized to adult content (Potts). They write that “ratings creep could also result from a natural psychological process in which CARA raters themselves, in the execution of their jobs, become involuntarily desensitized to evocative adult content, resulting in collective assignments of more ‘lenient’ ratings” (Potts). If the act of them doing their job compromises the integrity of the ratings, then a revision is needed.
One way to fix ratings creep is to quantify the content instead of assigning an age category. If the raters scaled the amount of violence or sex on a scale from one to ten, instead of deciding whether the movie should be given a PG-13 or R, it can prevent ratings creep. The amount of adult content is objective, whereas assigning content to an age category is subjective. While a better way to rate movies than today’s standard, it is still not perfect. In order for a quantitative rating to really work, there has to be a definitive way of quantifying. But, establishing a standardized way to quantify content is beyond the purpose of this paper.
The second problem a change in the ratings system could fix is inconsistency. In an article for “The Hollywood Reporter,” Joan Graves, head of CARA, wrote, “Our most important job is consistency: Whether a film is educational, delightful, terrible or insightful, ratings are applied based on the level of content in a film” (Graves). However, by examining the content/ratings from different movies, a lot of inconsistency can be found. One example would be the documentaries Gunner Palace (2004) and Bully (2011). Gunner Palace is about the war in Iraq and Bully raises awareness about bullying in public schools. Both movies were originally rated R for language and both appealed to the MPAA to get their ratings changed (Tucker; Sacks). Gunner Palace’s appeal was successful and the film was given a PG-13 rating (Tucker). However, in order for Bully to achieve a PG-13, it had to remove some swearing (Sacks). While one movie was able to get a PG-13 rating without any editing, the other had to be re-cut. Bully removed half of the f-words used, taking it from the original six down to three (Zeitchik ‘Bully’). Gunner Palace, which was not edited, contains forty-two f-words (“Gunner Palace”). If CARA cannot consistently rate language, then something needs to be changed. By quantifying the content, Gunner Palace would have rated higher on the language scale than Bully, allowing for more consistency. A quantification also would have alerted parents of the actual content better than a letter would have.
Language is not the only thing that is unsystematically rated--sexual content also is. In 2010, two movies with similar sexual content were released, Black Swan and Blue Valentine. However, Black Swan was rated R while Blue Valentine received a NC-17. The distributor of Blue Valentine appealed the NC-17 rating and won, allowing the rating to be dropped to an R without any change in content (Zeitchik ‘Blue Valentine’).
These movies show two different inconsistencies. One, they show that the MPAA does not always give the same rating to movies with similar content. One would assume that movies which contain similar content, such Blue Valentine and Black Swan, would receive the same rating. It also shows another inconsistency: changing the rating without changing the content. Bully had to be edited to receive a PG-13 rating. It had different content, so it deserved a different rating. However, Blue Valentine kept all of its content intact while obtaining a lower rating. So, whether it was rated R or NC-17, it was the same movie with the same content.
If the MPAA changed their ratings system to one that quantifies material, it would help decrease the inconsistency in the current ratings. Instead of the board members trying to decide whether something deserves a PG-13, R or NC-17, they only have to measure the amount. By simply quantifying the amount (in whichever way CARA decides is best), it will be able to more consistently describe a movie’s content.
Another concern a revision of the ratings system could change is the vagueness of the ratings themselves. The MPAA assigns a rating (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17) to each movie and then offers a description. According to their website, the purpose of the rating is to signal “the degree of caution parents should exercise in weighing whether a movie is suitable for children” (“How to Read a Rating”). However, not all R-rated movies require the same amount of “caution.” Some R-rated movies, such as The King’s Speech, only have a few f-words, whereas other R-rated movies contain horrendous acts of violence. Not all R-rated movies have equal content and, therefore, should not have equal ratings. Scott Wampler, a writer for Examiner.com, wrote about his surprise that The Human Centipede, a movie “where three characters were stitched together, mouth-to-anus, and forced to parade around a mad scientist's lair,” received a less restrictive rating than Blue Valentine initially received, both of which were released the same year (Wampler). After Blue Valentine’s appeal, they both have an R-rating. But, are parents sufficiently “cautioned” about the movies’ content? According to the rating, the true story about a man overcoming a speech impediment, as seen in The King’s Speech, deserves the same amount of caution as torture-porn films such the Saw franchise. Movie critic, Michael Phillips, in an article for the “Chicago Tribune,” wrote “If ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Saw 3D’ warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless” (Phillips). It is arguable whether the profanity used in The King’s Speech is offensive, particularly to younger children; however, one cannot argue that The King’s Speech is equally offensive as Saw 3D or The Human Centipede. If they are not equally offensive, they should not have equal ratings. The vagueness of the ratings system necessitates that it be updated.
In attempts to make the ratings clearer, the MPAA started including descriptions with the rating during the 90s (“Motion Picture”). As described on their website, the rating descriptor “aims to convey with precision why the film received its rating” (“How to Read a Rating”). Adding these descriptions did help, allowing parents to know the general content of a movie. However, the descriptions are still too vague. The MPAA does modify the content, but these modifications are also unclear. Some PG-13 rated movies contain “violence,” “combat violence,” “sci-fi violence,” “fantasy action violence” and “intense war violence” (“PG-13”). Essentially, these modifiers only name the genre of the movie. Is there a difference between “combat violence” and “war violence”? It can be seen that these descriptions are not very precise.
While the present ratings system is useful, it is not as effective as it should be. It does provide general information about movie content, but it needs a revision. In a study similar to the ones mentioned above, Lucille Jenkins et al. suggest that the ratings could be improved by “the addition of a quantitative component” (Jenkins). However, this idea needs to be taken further and the current letter system replaced by a quantitative system. Referring to how they rate films, Graves wrote, “When we assign ratings to films, we do not make qualitative judgments; we are not film critics or censors” (Graves). However, they are making a “qualitative judgment” when they decide whether certain content is worth a PG-13 or an R-rating. A quantitative system would help CARA achieve its goal and reduce ratings creep, inconsistency and vagueness.
To make the ratings system more effective, the MPAA should adopt a system similar to the one used by Kids-in-Mind.com. As posted on their website, Kinds-in-Mind claim, “We do not assign an inscrutable rating based on age but 3 objective ratings for SEX/NUDITY, VIOLENCE/GORE & PROFANITY, on a scale of 0 to 10, and we explain in detail why a film rates high or low in a specific category” (Kinds-in-Mind). Instead of giving a movie an R-rating, the MPAA should assign a rating similar to four-seven-six (reflecting the amount of sex, violence, and profanity) and then have a detailed outline of the content on their website.
While not a perfect solution, a quantitative ratings system would cut down on the amount of ratings creep. Instead of deciding from movie to movie which deserves an R-rating and which deserves a PG-13 rating, they determine up front how to scale content when the quantitative system is implemented. This will give them a baseline for consistency. Establishing a standardized way to rate films will, of course, be the tricky part. Will sex be measured by screen time, body parts shown or some other way? But, once a way has been chosen and implemented, it will help prevent the amount of ratings creep. One way in that it would help ratings creep is that it would be more transparent; it would be a lot easier to keep track of one specific category and to tell when ratings are creeping.
Another problem that a quantitative ratings system could solve is inconsistency. A scale of one to ten is objective whereas a letter rating is subjective. Saying a movie, in regards to violence, earns a seven out of ten would be easier than deciding whether it deserves a PG-13 or an R rating. Because the one letter grade would be changed to a three category content grade (or whatever is decided upon), it would be more consistent. The rating given to one category would not be influence by the amount in another, thus making it easier to be consistent in scaling it. The raters would only have to look at and measure one category at a time, instead of weighing all of the content and coming up with an average rating for the entire movie.
The four-seven-six example would not necessarily remove the vagueness of the current ratings. However, having a detailed description on a website explaining each category would. Instead of saying that a movie contains “war violence,” it would describe the violence--people are shot with blood splatter, a man gets his arm blown off, etc. It would also clarify the sexual content by saying whether it was consensual or forced, a same sex encounter, etc. Also, some parents may be more concerned about one type of content over another. By having the content divided, the specific content in question would be more accessible to parents and will better help them decide which movies are ok for their children to view.
In addition to preventing ratings creep, inconsistency and vagueness, a switch to a quantitative system would prevent the MPAA from interpreting context and establishing restrictions. Context is more subjective than content. It is true that a war movie might be a more realistic portrayal of violence then the glamorized action blockbuster; but, violence is still violence and some people may want to avoid all of it. A person who wants to avoid all forms of violence would be more easily able to do so with a categorical rating of content.
This type of ratings system would also prevent the MPAA from restricting audiences. It could be argued whether the MPAA should have the right to do so, but I am not going to go into detail about that here. However, Joan Graves, did write that “The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films” (Graves). Therefore, they should not censor who sees what, but should leave that to the individual and parents. Potts et al. point out that “The assertion, or assumption, by the MPAA . . . that CARA raters are somehow valid representatives of the American public, and that their judgments reflect the public's values, is implausible” (Potts). The members of CARA cannot represent the American norm and they should not try; parents should decide what their children see.
In addition to censoring children, the ratings system is also censoring filmmakers. Filmmakers try and earn money from their movies; but a restrictive rating would decrease the prospective audience and, subsequently, box office earnings. So, in order to reach the widest possible audience, filmmakers edit, and censor, their movies to get a lower rating. Steven Zeitchik, in an article for the “LA Times,” wrote that
An NC-17 rating means anyone younger than 17 cannot see the movie in theaters — even if they are accompanied by an adult. Many theater chains have a policy of not exhibiting NC-17 films, and some media outlets refuse to carry ads for NC-17 movies. That means the box office receipts and cultural impact of an NC-17 film are likely to be much more limited than an R-rated movie. (Zeitchik “Two Films”)
Many NC-17 rated movies are mature takes on adult themes, but they are not available because of their rating. In an interview with “TIME,” Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, said, “Some people still see this as a censorship board. It's not. It's an information system. It's actually designed to keep censors at bay” (Cruz). The MPAA may be defending movies from government-imposed censorship, but the structure of the current system is only shifting the censorship to distributors and theaters.
In order for the present ratings system to better fulfill its purpose, it needs to switch from the subjective letter grade based system to an objective quantitative system. Ratings creep, inconsistency and ambiguity in ratings prevent the system from fulfilling its purpose. The ratings system also is imposing its own interpretations on context and is restricting people from seeing certain films. However, a change to a ratings system that objectively assigns content (sex, violence, etc.) a number from one to ten and provides an explanation of the number on its website would greatly help in reducing the current system’s problems. The next question is to decide how to quantify content.
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