Thursday, March 12, 2015

What's In a Rating?

       Mormons don’t watch R-rated movies...or do they? For modern latter-day saints living in a media-driven culture, this has become an increasingly important question. Church leaders including Richard G. Scott1 and David B. Haighthave counseled members not to see R-rated films. Ezra Taft Benson, speaking as President of the Church in the April 1986 general conference, also told his audience not to see R-rated movies.But Mormons still wrestle with the ratings issue. Many argue Hollywood rates its films arbitrarily and so an R-rated film could actually be more realistic and uplifting than a PG-13 title.
Others argue that President Benson's statement is only the minimum standard. They say it's obvious we shouldn't watch R-rated movies, but since movies are rated to sell we should be cautious about seeing PG-13 and PG movies, as well. (There's also a third group of people who stick to the unofficial but widely-recognized list of "Mormon approved" R-rated movies: Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Gladiator, and Braveheart. No one knows where this list came from, but most of us are in on the secret.)

       Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it's interesting that one argument is being used by both sides: movie ratings cannot be trusted because movies are rated to sell. Whether that means movies are being judged too harshly or too leniently, everyone seems to agree the ratings system is faulty. But is this truly the case? Is a film rated more for profit than content? How is a movie rated, and how did we get the system we use today? Answering these questions can help you make a more informed decision regarding what place a movie's rating should have in your decision on whether or not to see the latest blockbuster.

       The MPAA

       All official movie ratings come from the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. This is an alliance of movie companies who work together to promote freedom of expression in film. The six member companies are Disney, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers.That might not seem like a long list, but remember each of these companies either own or are owned by most of the other big American production companies. (Disney owns Pixar, Touchstone, Marvel, and Lucasfilm alone.) As members of the MPAA, these studios have all agreed that every movie they produce must be given an official MPAA rating before they are distributed. 

       So why are Hollywood honchos so eager to regulate themselves? Easy. So the government won't do it for them. Films were not always protected as free speech under the First Amendment and Hollywood wanted to give the public as few reasons as possible to have their films censored. In 1930, the group that would become the MPAA issued a code of conduct presented by its president, William Hays.The "Hays code," as it came to be called, dictated that "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." The code was pretty Mormon-friendly and if Hollywood still followed it today there would be no R-rated films to speak of. It prohibited profanity, complete nudity, and obscenity, and said "Scenes of passion should not be introduced when not essential to the plot," and even then they should be designed so as not to "stimulate the...baser element."6
       The MPAA changed hands when Hays retired, and with the advent of the '60s, the ratings system was deemed outdated. President Jack Valenti tossed the Hays code out and instituted a new ratings code similar to the one we have today. Movies could now be given one of four ratings: G, M (which would become PG), R, or X.The next major change to the rating system would not come until the 1980s, with the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The movie was very dark and violent, but not enough to merit an R rating, and so it was rated PG. Parents were then shocked when they saw a man's beating heart extracted by an occult sorcerer in what was supposed to be a PG film. Steven Spielberg, the film's director, suggested a new rating be created to fill the gap between PG and R. And so the MPAA created the PG-13 rating.The last major change to the system was the transformation of X into NC-17. Ratings were never meant to box movies into a certain genre (a G rating isn't necessarily a children's movie, for example), but hard core pornography films dominated the X category to the point where the MPAA decided to create a new rating to indicate that all "adult" movies were not necessarily porn films.And thus the current rating system was born.

       The Process

       Every movie from a major studio has to be sent to the MPAA for a rating. That's either because the studio who made the film is a member of the MPAA and therefore has to have it rated, or simply because having a film rated makes it more marketable. NATO (that's the National Association of Theater Owners, not the international military organization), who co-created the ratings system, is also strongly in favor of the ratings system and enforces the rating restrictions in their theaters, so it's best to get a rating on your movie if you plan to distribute it widely.10 Anyone who wants to have their movie rated must simply pay a fee and send their movie to CARA for review. CARA has a board comprised of parents who watch the movie just as it would be presented in theaters. These parents are all Los Angeles natives but none of them are affiliated with the movie industry. They use the MPAA guidelines as well as their own personal feelings to nominate a rating for the film. The review board then votes on the rating and sends the filmmakers their decision. If the filmmakers feel the rating is unfair or incorrect, they can make an appeal. CARA will then usually require the film to be edited and resubmitted.11

       Sounds pretty straightforward. So are movies actually rated to sell? Technically, no. But filmmakers are shrewd. They know which rating will get their film to sell most. Movies are therefore not rated to sell, but they are written and edited to get a rating that sells. The makers of the movie Fly Away Home purposefully inserted a curse word into the movie so they could get a PG rating, knowing a G-rated film would not appeal to older children.12 Sylvester Stallone attributed the financial failure of his third Expendables film to its PG-13 rating, since the first two films catered to an R-rated audience.13 The King's Speech was edited to merit a PG-13 rating in hopes that those who wouldn't see the R-rated version would see it once the strong language was cut out.14

         PG-13 is definitely the most profitable rating around. Year after year, PG-13 films gross more than any other rating category. Because of this, studios push films into this rating whenever possible. Both Draft Day and Philomena won their appeals to the MPAA to have their films dropped from R to PG-13.15 So if you're watching a PG-13 movie and you're surprised at either its mildness or harshness, it's probably because the filmmakers either inserted PG-13 elements to bump it up from PG, or because they appealed to get it bumped down from R. It might seem sneaky at first, but for Hollywood it's just good business. All this has probably contributed to what is called "ratings creep." According to a Harvard study, PG-13 movies released nowadays have a lot more violence than they did before, and it's caused concern among many viewers who see this as a lowering of public standards.16 The MPAA has held a bit more steady on issues like profanity and sexual content, but there is still cause for audiences to be more aware of a movie's content than they needed to be before.

       A Useful Tool

       So what do you do with all this information? Can ratings be trusted or can they not? The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. Ratings are a good guideline, but they are probably not enough. The rating process itself is not an exact science, and movies can earn the same rating for vastly different reasons. There are general types of content that will guarantee a certain rating, but there are plenty of films that could have earned a different rating if it was placed in front of different raters or released in a different decade when the public embraced a different set of values. (Smoking is a lot more of an issue in the ratings world than it was in the '90s, for instance.)17
       So how do you use the ratings when you pick a flick? The best thing to do is use the rating as a springboard. The MPAA is trying hard to make parents more aware of why a film is rated the way it is, and the newest rating boxes list a movie's content issues big and bold for everyone to see. So when you see a film is PG-13 for "thematic elements" you can dig deeper online to find out what those themes are and if you know a film is rated PG-13 for "sexual content" you might decide to steer clear right then or do more research. It's up to you. Just remember a film's rating is a useful tool to get you started in finding out whether a movie is up to your personal standards, which standards should always be informed by your beliefs. 

       I believe Elder M. Russell Ballard said it best:
"Because of its sheer size, media today presents vast and sharply contrasting options. Opposite from its harmful and permissive side, media offers much that is positive and productive. Television offers history channels, discovery channels, education channels. One can still find movies and TV comedies and dramas that entertain and uplift and accurately depict the consequences of right and wrong. The Internet can be a fabulous tool of information and communication, and there is an unlimited supply of good music in the world. Thus our biggest challenge is to choose wisely what we listen to and what we watch."18
        Movies are a big part of our culture, and as latter-day saints we should embrace the "virtuous, lovely and praiseworthy" stuff Hollywood has to offer and reject the rest. If we strive to make good decisions and stay close to God we can discern which movies are appropriate for us to view and what is in line with the values of our faith. So what do good Mormons watch? Do we watch R-rated movies? PG-13? What's the answer? 

...You decide.
1. Scott, Richard G. "Do What Is Right." Liahona, March 2001.

2. Haight, David B. "Spiritual Crevasses." Ensign, November 1986.

3. Benson, Ezra Taft. "To the "Youth of the Noble Birthright" Ensign, May 1986.

4. "Our Story." Accessed March 13, 2015.

5. see “Our Story.”

6. "The Motion Picture Production Code." Accessed March 13, 2015.

7. "WHY: HISTORY OF RATINGS." The Film Rating System (CARA). Accessed March 13, 2015.

8. Pallotta, Frank. "How 'Indiana Jones' Finally Forced Hollywood To Create The PG-13 Rating." Business Insider. April 24, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015.

9. Corliss, Richard. "What Jack Valenti Did for Hollywood." Time. April 27, 2007. Accessed March 13, 2015.,8599,1615388,00.html.

10. "Movie Ratings." NATO. Accessed March 13, 2015.

11.  Sneed, Tierney. "Don’t Expect Any Major Changes to the MPAA Ratings System in 2014." US News. January 7, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015.

12. Minow, Nell. "Introduction." In The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies, 18. 2nd ed. New York, New York: IUniverse, 2004.

13. Sirani, Jordan. "Stallone: Expendables 3's PG-13 'A Horrible Miscalculation,' Expendables 4 Will Be R - IGN." IGN. November 3, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015.

14. Phillips, Michael. "Still Speechless over PG-13 Version of 'King's Speech'" Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. April 7, 2011. Accessed March 13, 2015.

15. McNary, Dave. "'Draft Day' Rating Shifted to PG-13 from R." Variety. January 8, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015.

16. Minow, Nell. "Movie 'ratings Creep' Means PG-13 Isn't What It Used to Be." Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. August 13, 2004. Accessed March 13, 2015.


18. Ballard, M. Russell. "Let Our Voices Be Heard." Ensign, November 2003.


  1. I wanna know what the scoop is on tattoos also...

    1. You mean tattoos and Mormonism, right? Not tattoos in the movies?