PG-13 vs. R: What's the Difference, Really?


Friday, April 13, 2012

In 2011, of the ten movies that sold the most tickets, eight were rated PG-13. Makes sense: PG-13 means any kid in America is allowed to walk in without an adult, and at the same time, the movie is "adult" enough that they might want to. A PG-13 rating maximizes a movie’s audience.

When the documentary Bully received an R rating recently, for strong language used by real children in the footage, distributor Harvey Weinstein fought back, pulling the ratings system into the spotlight. Many parents, experts, and some members of Congress agreed that as many kids as possible should see the movie, which tackles an issue of great concern right now.

After a few judicious edits, Bully was reassigned a PG-13. Just days later, the MPAA gave a PG-13 to The Dark Knight Rises, the forthcoming installment of Christopher Nolan’s gritty, extremely violent reimagining of Batman, which many parents would find inappropriate for kids. “The reason the ratings board does not rate films as harshly because of violence is because most of the films that are PG-13 and violent are making a lot of money,” says filmmaker Kirby Dick. He investigated the movie ratings system in his 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Ratings are determined by the Classification and Ratings Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the trade group that represents the six major studios. Kirby Dick says that the ratings board is deliberately opaque, refusing to identify its members or their criteria. Dick found one strict rule for language — a formula for the number of allowable f-words — but no standards on sex and violence. "They want to make sure that they can get their films to be PG-13," Dick says. "The vaguer the categories are the more they are able to fudge the ratings and push their films into the PG-13 category."

Kurt Andersen wonders if, in the age of the internet, the careful policing of film content is effectively moot. But Dick feels it wouldn’t be difficult to provide parents with better ratings, if the industry wanted to. “They should really break it out by category — sex, violence, profanity, drug use, mature content — and very precisely, but quickly, list what's in each of those categories so parents can decide.” 

The ratings system plays into Hollywood politics, Dick charges, since the major studios are in the position of rating their own films and their competitors’. “That puts them in the position to rate their films less harshly, and allow them make more money.”

→ Who should be responsible for rating movies — and how should they differentiate between PG-13 and R? Tell us in a comment below.

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Kirby Dick

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Comments [5]

Eric Velazquez

The Motion Picture Association of America should follow one rule of video games rated Teen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board: not a single uncensored use of the word "fuck." This means that NO movies rated PG-13 or lower should be allowed to use the F-word without censorship anymore (regardless of definition).

Apr. 17 2014 02:22 AM
Peter from Manhattan

South Park nailed it, as usual: "Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is OK, as long as people don't say any naughty words!"

Apr. 16 2012 06:29 PM
BJ Larson from Salem, MA

They should rate movies the way your guest described... by saying what sexual content, violence, foul language, etc. That would be WAY more helpful than the way it is done now. It is so weird to me that Americans are way more prudish about sex than they are about violence. See someone slash a woman's throat? No problem. See a naked man's butt? God forbid.

Apr. 15 2012 02:17 PM
Jeffrey Hacker from Bethesda, MD


I listened to the report on movie ratings that included the interview with Mr. Dick. He referred to there being an unmet need for movies to be reported on by the different categories of potentially objectionable content, such as violence, language, et cetera. He was insinuating that this specific type of information is not available to parents. I was surprised that as an authority on this topic he did not refer listeners to the website Common Sense Media. This is precisely what they do. They specifically suggest what the minimum age for a viewer should be for any given movie, and why. There are also comments and testimonials that provide even more information. As parents of kids currently 12 and 14 we have relied on this superb website over many years, when deciding whether or not we will allow our kids to see any particular movie. The website also covers books, video games and other areas of great value to parents. The website has no religious bent, is very straightforward, and should be heralded widely as a fabulous parenting resource to combat the altogether inadequate and untrustworthy rating system used by film companies.

Thank you,
Jeffrey S. Hacker

Apr. 14 2012 09:17 PM
David R. DeFilippo from Boston Area

We talk about movie ratings but what about the trailers shown on tv. The depicted violence is way over the top. I need to change the channel at times because I feel the images are too extreme.

The ratings cannot be trusted. The ratings once appeared much stronger when i was in the PG-13 age. I did not see the Graduate until I was in college. I see more flesh on tv!

Parents need better tools to make the decision with our children concerning what they can see

Apr. 14 2012 10:29 AM

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