The Classic Movies That Led To The Creation Of The PG-13 Rating

The recent debut of the long awaited Marvel movie "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" has added a hefty dose of fuel to the ever-raging fire that is media censorship discourse in the U.S. Due to what some consider to be elements of the film that are too dark and scary for the delicate sensibilities of children, teens, and adults of all ages who have presumably been watching the MCU's finest level entire cities as they beat the everloving crap out of villains since the cinematic universe's inception, prompting discussion about whether or not the superhero movie should have been given an R rating rather than a PG-13 one.

Of course, this is far from the first time that a film has sparked controversy and led to an examination of film content ratings. In fact, long before the film ratings system as we know it came to be, there was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code due to its association with the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922 to 1945, William H. Hays. But how did Hollywood evolve from the notoriously puritanical Hays Code (which didn't even allow for onscreen kisses that lasted longer than three seconds), to the more ambiguously puritanical ratings system that we have today? 

The heyday of the Hays Code

The Hays Code was a set of self-regulatory guidelines for censorship in the film industry that lasted from the early 1930s all the way up to 1968. Rather than functioning as a tool to help the audience identify potentially controversial or inappropriate content like the current MPA film rating system, the Hays Code completely restricted certain types of content, deeming things as either acceptable or unacceptable. Obviously, this allowed for little nuance and was much more restrictive than the system we know today, as it consisted of puritanical and conservative rules that placed heavy restrictions on what could and could not be shown in film.

The Hays Code was based on a list of "Don'ts and Be-Carefuls" that existed prior to the official creation of the code. At the core of these "Don'ts and Be-Carefuls" was the sentiment that movies should not "lower the moral standards of those who see it."

So, what things were considered a risk to the moral purity of moviegoers? Anything that showed the law/law enforcement in a negative light, interracial pairings, childbirth, dances that suggested "sexual actions or indecent passion," and "white slavery" were among some of the things that were specifically mentioned and forbidden in the Hays Code. It's obvious that the Hays Code was the result of moral panic and the belief that audiences should be preemptively sheltered from "questionable" content, but in reality, films that toed the line were often preferred over those that strictly adhered to it.

Audiences can decide for themselves

By 1968, after decades of uneven and diminishing enforcement, filmmakers who pushed the limits of supposed decency by finding ways to work around or completely ignore the code, and public pressure, the Hays Code was formally abolished and replaced by a system designed to inform audiences so that they could make their own decisions about the content they consume, rather than to prohibit certain content outright. Thus, the MPA Rating System was born. From 1968 to 1970, the system consisted of the following ratings:

  • G: Suggested for general audiences.

  • M: Suggested for mature audiences – Parental discretion advised.

  • R: Restricted – Persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.

  • X: Persons under 16 not admitted.

In the years that followed, these ratings would be adjusted and altered until the following familiar categories were created.

  • G: General audiences – All ages admitted.

  • PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for pre-teenagers.

  • R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

  • X: No one under 17 admitted.

Most of us can recognize these ratings, but there's a notable lack of the PG-13 category. This is because, until 1984, the category simply did not exist. Interestingly enough, its creation is owed largely to two films: the 1984 horror-comedy "Gremlins," and the second installment of the "Indiana Jones" film franchise.

Gore and gremlins

You read that correctly: two relatively family-friendly and mild-by-today's-standards films are what led the sweet, sweet middle ground of the PG-13 rating. To be fair, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" does contain a scene in which a man gets his still-beating heart pulled out his chest, and I admit that can make for a pretty shocking visual. On the other hand, I personally suffered far more psychological and emotional distress being forced to watch "The Emoji Movie" as an adult than I did voluntarily watching the entire "Indian Jones" trilogy as a child who enjoyed rifling through her grandfather's extensive collection of VHS tapes, so make of that what you will. 

As for "Gremlins," adults and children were likely uncomfortable with the graphic, if cartoonish, violence inflicted by and upon the film's titular little agents of chaos. Gremlins are incinerated, tossed and into food processors, and stabbed, while humans meet tragic ends in fireplaces (offscreen), and are attacked with chainsaws and syringes. While it looks silly to some, it's understandable that such scenes could have been shocking to younger viewers and parents who didn't anticipate such violence. I mean, just take a look at the kitchen scene from the movie.

"Gremlins" and "Temple of Doom" were both released in 1984, and their depictions of boundary-pushing violence combined with their PG ratings led to complaints and criticism from concerned parents and moviegoers who felt the films should be rated R. This prompted director Steven Spielberg — who directed "Temple of Doom" and served as executive producer for "Gremlins" – to use the weight of his influence in the film industry to push for the Motion Picture Association to once again alter its rating system, allowing for a new category which would allow for films that weren't quite "PG" or "R" material to exist without forcing filmmakers to tone down their art to avoid drawing such strong backlash and outrage from unsuspecting audiences. Although both movies maintained their PG ratings, the PG-13 category was created on July 1, 1984, just one month after "Gremlins" hit theaters.

The first movie to be released with this shiny new rating was writer-director John Milius' 1984 "Red Dawn," which would become subject of some considerable controversy and political discourse for years to come due to various interpretations of the film's intent and themes — but not due to its decidedly appropriate PG-13 rating.