A Brief History
On November 1, 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced a system of rating motion pictures with a letter rating system to guide audiences in choosing which movies to see, especially insofar as movies they deemed appropriate for child age groups. The initial ratings included the letter designations G, M, R and X. (We will stop right here to take a moment and announce our opposition to censorship in almost all of its forms. Historically, censorship is a tool in the oppression of thoughts and ideas that limit the advance of mankind.) This letter rating method of labeling movies replaced previous industry efforts to regulate movie content in the United States by the “Production Code” from 1930 to 1934, and then the so called “Hays Code” from 1935 to 1968. These previous efforts at controlling the content of Hollywood movies was largely instigated by Catholic and Protestant Christian groups trying to prevent the public from seeing movie content those groups thought was somehow immoral or inconsistent with their beliefs.
In 1922, the MPAA was formed (originally called Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) by the largest of the American movie studios, those responsible for about 80% of the filmmaking in the US. Former Postmaster General of the United States Will H. Hays was named as the first President of the Association. The Association was primarily concerned with the financial viability of the movie industry, and in order to make money the industry had to avoid controversy and boycotts of their products. In order to attract and keep investors, the movie industry chose to voluntarily self-censor their movies by keeping them within the bounds of what passed for “moral” and “decent” norms and mores of the times, what they called “clean moral tone.” This self-censorship was also done to prevent any sort of government imposed standards that could possibly be stifling to the art of filmmaking. If the industry could police itself, lawmakers would not have to.
The Motion Picture Production Code originated in 1930 under the direction of Hays and became enforced starting in 1934. Despite the distaste that censorship evokes, the Code must have been successful because it lasted until 1968 and Hollywood certainly prospered during the 38 years the Code existed. In 1968, the MPPC was replaced by the movie rating system we know of today, which allows much more artistic expression while warning movie goers of the type of content ahead of time, allowing them to choose for themselves the type of film they want to see. The types of subjects the Code “protected” us from included references or depictions of child sexual activity or genitals, sex between races, profanity, irreverent religious references and any negative depiction of religion. Perversion, illegal drugs, child birth (actual, not implied), venereal disease, and a host of other subjects were closely monitored so that any use or reference to those subjects would somehow be manipulated to provide the status quo moral lesson. Care would have to be taken to avoid offensive depiction of our national flag, any particular race or nationality, detailed criminal activity (to avoid becoming a “how to” film), rape, prostitution, gruesome or graphic bloody and gory scenes, and explicit executions or surgeries. Kisses were limited to 3 seconds each!
Although Hays, and later Joseph Breen (starting in 1934) did not have the authority to force a studio to make the “recommended” changes to movies being reviewed for compliance with the Code, the prospect of facing legal problems from zealous state and local censors convinced producers to comply with enforcement of the Code. In the 1950’s and 1960’s filmmakers chafed under the Code’s restrictions and pushed back, stretching content to or past the limits outlined in the Code. When it became obvious that something had to change, it did, and the industry developed the ratings that are used today. Even movie trailers are rated to be shown to audiences of other movies only of a like or more restrictive rating.
The original (1968-1970) movie rating letter system had the following guidelines for audiences:
G– General Audiences, no restrictions or warnings (family)
M– Mature Audiences – parental discretion advised (from 1970 to 1972 this was changed to GP)
R– Restricted – persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian (1970-1972 persons under 17 needed a parent or guardian to accompany them)
X– explicit sexual activity, adults of 16 years of age or older only, no exceptions even if accompanied by a parent (1970-1972 changed to admit no one under 17 years of age)
Starting in 1990, a brief explanation of the content of the movies was provided to give audiences (or parents) an idea of why the movie got the rating it received. The above ratings were found to be wanting as far as clearly advising audiences, so a new list of alphabetized ratings was concocted, the list we have today:
G- for all ages, no age limits or warnings (General Audiences)
PG- for all ages, but parental discretions regarding pre-teen children (Parental Guidance)
PG-13– parents strongly cautioned for children less than 13 years old
R- persons less than 17 years of age require parent or guardian accompany them (Restricted)
NC-17- no person less than 17 years of age admitted
X- no person under 17 years of age permitted (replaced in 1996 by the NC-17 rating)
The X or XXX rating is no longer an MPAA endorsed rating but is often displayed by theaters indicating explicit sexual films that exclude patrons less than 18 years old. The NC-17 or R rating may be levied if sexual situations are particularly revealing or suggestive, or if the violence depicted is graphic. The exact level of violence or sex that determines the rating a film receives is a little ambiguous, though more or less constant violence or sexual situations will probably garner an R or NC-17 rating. Likewise for rough language (“F- bombs” usually result in an R rating, though not always) and depictions of drug use. In fact, anti-smoking advocates have pretty much excluded showing smoking of cigarettes in G or PG films. Mere nudity without sexual situations may result in a PG rating or higher, depending on the duration and extent of the nudity. If you are confused as to exactly how far a film can go before it is elevated to the next rating level, then you can join the frustrated Hollywood movie makers!
Censorship in all forms remains a controversial subject, whether in movies, television, radio, or print. Some people believe it is vital to the morals and well being of our society, while others believe there should be free expression period. The MPAA rating system is a form of censorship in that some people are excluded from seeing movies on their own based on age. More importantly, the age restriction for R and NC-17 ratings usually results in diminished box office returns, leading movie producers to seek a PG or PG-13 rating at all costs, often to the detriment of the film (reducing scenes of violence, gore, or sexual activity that may otherwise have been critical to the artistic value of the film. Many horror movies and war related movies come off somewhat disappointing because of the studio trying to avoid an R rating. Sometimes movie studios prefer to leave a film “Unrated” or later offer “Unrated” DVD editions for those film lovers that chafe under the rating codes.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you agree with the way movies are rated? Should R movies exclude teens under 17? Does the government have a right to censor movies or games? Do you choose to see or not see a film based on the rating? Did your parents give you grief over movie ratings when you were younger? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Bernstein, Matthew. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Hicks, Chris. A History of Movie Ratings. Familius, 2013.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Vintage, 2012.
The featured image in this article, the Motion Picture Association of America logo, was originally posted to Flickr by joe.ross at https://www.flickr.com/photos/44698774@N00/6695348961. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.