The PG-13 Rating Has Become Meaningless

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" has created some online hubbub with regards to its rating, with some viewers claiming that the film was "too dark" and violent for its PG-13 rating, while others felt it was perfectly appropriate. Here's the thing: regardless of whether the latest MCU entry should have been rated PG, PG-13, or R, the ratings system is inherently broken.

The ambiguous and often arbitrary decisions of the ratings board, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), mean that PG-13 has become a meaningless designation that doesn't actually offer much help to parents. Not only that, but much like the Hays Code that came before it, the current rating system claims to be voluntary when it's truly mandatory for theatrical releases, which turns the ratings system in a crude form of censorship. The identities of the members of the board are kept secret, though they tend to vote in line with specific (read: straight white Protestant) ideals that can often appear discriminatory when foreign or independent films are held under much stricter scrutiny than big blockbuster popcorn fare. There's also a tendency to excuse violence but more heavily condemn sex, sexuality, and foul language, which seems counterproductive when our nation has a serious violence problem

If the ratings were entirely voluntary, for both productions and audiences, this wouldn't be so much of an issue. Parents could use the guide to inform their decisions and that's that. Unfortunately, a Restricted (R) rating means that no one under the age of 17 can even buy a ticket for the movie. An R rating can be a box office death sentence for films trying to appeal to broad audiences, and sometimes the choices behind an R can be political or even personal. The rating system has changed throughout the years, starting with the pre-Code days up through the decision to include content warnings like "violence" and "nudity" in 1990. It's about time for an overhaul that is actually informative and helpful instead of just seemingly about personal politics. 

The history of the Hays Code, CARA, and the MPA(A)

Despite the fact that the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," they nonetheless routinely make laws informed by Christianity. Christian morality is upheld as the moral standard for the nation, and that unfortunately extends into the commercial and entertainment sectors as well. The first big example of this in entertainment is the Hays Code, created by former Postmaster General Will Hays and adopted by the Hollywood studios, which contained a long list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," which set up a standard of practices for allowing films to be released to the public. The Code not only banned things like graphic violence and sexuality, but also things like interracial relationships, revenge, and suggestive dancing. The "Be Carefuls" warned that certain subjects had to be handled in such a way that no film ever "lower the moral standards of those who see it," but here's my question: whose moral standards? Depictions of homosexuality were verboten because of certain Evangelical beliefs, and that decision still haunts us today both at home and overseas as gay characters are censored again and again. 

The Hays Code was abandoned in favor of a ratings system in 1968, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, changed to MPA in 2019) developed the first set of guidelines to help audiences make appropriate choices for themselves and their families. It has been changed several times since then, including changing the Mature (M) rating to Parental Guidance (PG), in 1972, adding the PG-13 rating in 1984, and changing the X rating to NC-17 in 1990. Despite the many changes to the system over the years, many of the decisions still seem to boil down to subjective morality and not a true set of guidelines.

The ambiguity of the PG-13 guidelines

The Classification and Rating Rules updated through 2020 are available on CARA's website, and they include the rules for a PG-13 rating. There is a lot of ambiguous terminology, however, that leaves a lot of wiggle room for personal interpretation. For example, part of the rule states that "the theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture," but it doesn't define "mature themes" anywhere in the document. Once more, "mature themes" are entirely subjective, based upon personal experience and religious and cultural beliefs. Some are more obvious, like sexual violence or child abuse, but people's beliefs with regards to things like nudity and swearing are much more varied. Puritan attitudes towards sex are a bizarrely American preoccupation that don't always apply to our massive melting pot of a nation and frequently restrict people's rights on the assumed basis of morality. 

According to the rules, the following automatically require at least a PG-13 rating: 

  • Any drug use
  • More than brief nudity, though it cannot be sexually oriented or that's an automatic R
  • "Realistic and extreme or persistent violence"
  • A single use of "one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive" — more than one is an R, and if the word is used in a sexual manner, that's an R

Here's the kicker, though:

The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.

That's right, it's all about how the Raters feel. There aren't rules or guidelines, they just want to trust the feelings of an assembled group of secret strangers that have no public oversight but control how movies can be distributed. There's no way to ensure diversity among the Raters, whose opinions on morality can make or break movies, and frankly, that sucks. The documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" helped shed some light on just how shady the secret organization of the board is, and revealed the heads of the board to the public. As of 2005, the Chairperson and Senior Raters are all disclosed to the public, but the rest of the raters are kept a secret. 

Ratings as a form of censorship

Because "mature themes" and ideas of what American parents would find "appropriate" are both completely subjective, the Raters can use the wiggle room to impose their own beliefs on everyone. Depictions of feminine sexuality, homosexuality, and any deviations from gender norms are held under much stricter scrutiny than depictions of straight romance focusing on masculine desire. There are many coming-of-age queer stories that are given an R rating despite being intended for adolescents simply because the Raters have regressive ideas about sex and sexuality that often hearken back to the Hays Code. Movies like "But I Was a Cheerleader" and "Moonlight" could help young people battle the alienating experience of being young and LGBTQ, but they're banned from the very people who they would help most because queer love is viewed by some as "deviant." 

The rules for swearing, too, reveal the puritan and faith-based decisions behind what's acceptable. Strong curse words are fine as long as they're not used sexually, though children are just as likely to mimic them either way. The word "damn" cannot contain the word "God" alongside it or it becomes a much stronger curse word, too, because this arcane system is more concerned with perceived blasphemy than unnecessary censorship. Films have even pointed out the ridiculous rules, like John Travolta explaining why someone can only say "f***" once in a movie. Some use their single f-bomb as a little in-joke, like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) telling Magneto and Charles Xavier to "go f*** yourself" in "X-Men: First Class." If anyone's going to get to drop the one f-bomb, it's Wolverine, right? Funny enough, in "Days of Future Past," Xavier quoted it back to him as "f*** off." Did the MPAA have a problem with the sexual implications of Wolverine's statement, or is it just a continuity error? (I mean, it is "X-Men.") Because the rules for ratings are so poorly specified and left up to the Raters' personal discretion, it's entirely possible that they deemed one appropriate and the other one not, just because. After all, they are the arbiters of morality.

The reason this is all so insidious is because films pretty much have to submit themselves for a rating in order to have theatrical distribution. The National Association of Theater Owners works closely with the MPA, and any member of either organization cannot screen an unrated film. While the advent of streaming has created a way for unrated films to get distribution, many are still ineligible for the industry's big awards because they require at least a limited theatrical release. 

It's time for an overhaul

Filmmakers can always appeal a ratings decision and re-submit their film with suggested cuts, but that too feels like a form of censorship. Without knowing any of the qualifications of the Raters, it's hard not to imagine them as a clucking cluster of soccer moms, and why do they get to decide what's appropriate for anyone to engage with? While something like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determines what can be broadcast on television, which is theoretically available to all, people have to choose to go to a theater, buy a ticket, and see the movie. Someone isn't going to accidentally stumble across disturbing content while looking for "Sesame Street," for example, because there is a clear decision to go see the movie. 

If the ratings system is truly supposed to be a way for parents to determine which films are appropriate for their children, it needs a major overhaul. There should be outside oversight with regards to who assigns ratings, because right now they're all chosen by the Chairperson of CARA. There are promises for "attempts to select a group of Raters who represent the diversity of American parents," but there's no real way to hold them to that. There also need to be better rules for what is and isn't appropriate, because clearly the "gut feelings" of some Raters are clearly out of line with many of the American parents they claim to represent if the recent "Doctor Strange" kerfluffle is any indicator. Transparency all around would help people trust the system more, and clearer definitions could help them make more informed decisions. After all, this is about the parents making decisions for their kids, not CARA making decisions for parents.

A possible solution could be something like the TV ratings system and make the kinds of content included even clearer: something like "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" could be rated PG-13 V, because it contains violence. Something like "But I'm a Cheerleader" could be PG-13 S, because it contains sexual situations (and shouldn't be rated R.) Just give parents choice and information, CARA. That's literally your only job.