If you see that a movie is rated PG-13, what does that tell you?
If you're a parent, it may suggest to you that the film is OK for your kids, or at least your older kids. If you're a kid, it may look like a wink, telling you that, despite the approval of your parents, it's still the edgiest content you can see at the cineplex without the movie earning a restrictive R.
In other words, PG-13 is a marketing tool. What it's not: an "advance cautionary [warning] to parents, so that they can make informed decisions about which films their children see." Unfortunately, that's the exact purpose it's supposed to serve, according to the MPAA ratings board.
The ineffectuality of the PG-13 rating has become especially apparent in recent months, argues Fred Schruers at The Wrap, who cites the increasingly violent content of such recent PG-13 movies as 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' 'Fast Five,' and 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.' Given such content creep, how can anyone take PG-13 seriously anymore?
Sure, the rating is accompanied on the poster or in newspaper ads by tiny print listing very briefly what sort of content (violence, language, adult themes) has earned a movie its PG-13 rating. But does the PG-13 give you any indication that 'Apes' will feature scenes of electrocution, animals being tortured, dismemberment and full-on battle between apes and mounted police? Or that 'Potter' will be marked by nonstop grimness and a high body count and show the corpses of several beloved characters? Does it tell you that 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' features frequent profanity (but not in a sexual context, so that apparently makes it OK for kids) and extreme violence, including pulverized bodies and exploding skulls? Does it tell you that 'Limitless' will show its hero stabbing a gangster in the eye, then killing another gangster and drinking his blood?
Schruers notes that, while PG-13 movies are showing such extreme violence and profanity, an otherwise tame and even educational movie like 'The King's Speech' gets an R for one scene with a whole lot of F-bombs that are actually crucial to the plot. Which only seems to prove that the ratings system as a whole is marked by misplaced priorities.
It certainly seems true, as many parents and filmmakers have complained, that the ratings board is a lot more lenient toward violence than it is toward sexual content. Of course, that has been true for years. There's also plenty of evidence (as shown in 'This Film Is Not Yet Rated,' Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary about the ratings board), that the MPAA is more lenient toward films by the major studios (who pay the MPAA's salaries via membership dues) than toward films by independent distributors. After all, the studios depend on the PG-13 rating to sell big-budget films to kids and parents, and when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, people tend to do what they think their bosses want, without even having to be asked.
That PG-13 is a marketing tool is nothing new; that was built into its DNA. The rating was created at the urging of Steven Spielberg in 1984, after he was stung by parental complaints over the violence and gross-out content of 'Gremlins' and 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.' As a solution, PG-13 didn't actually restrict any kids from going to the theater (like the R did, or later, the NC-17), it merely warned parents that a movie might be inappropriate for younger kids -- while telling older kids it was still OK for them.
Schruers notes this part of the PG-13 rating's history, but he ignores the fact that there was a time when PG content was as violent and profane as PG-13 content is now. Back in 1975, Spielberg's 'Jaws,' extremely scary and bloody, was rated PG. A year later, the potty-mouthed kids of 'The Bad News Bears' also earned a PG. (I should add that I saw both movies as a pre-teen and somehow managed to avoid being emotionally scarred or adding frequent profanity to my vocabulary.)
So there needed to be some intermediate rating (as exists in other countries throughout the world) between PG (not suitable for the youngest children) and R (not suitable for any kids under 17 unless they're with their parents). But the PG-13 hasn't really filled the bill. Now, it's little more than what PG was in the 1970s, a way to squeeze as much violence and profanity into a movie as possible without earning an R. Read the descriptions of what each rating means at the ratings board's website. The description for PG-13 is the longest and most complicated, and the one filled with the most hedging over context and exceptions that might make extreme content excusable.
Unfortunately, short of the same mass outrage by parents (and a nudge from someone as powerful as Spielberg) of the sort seen 27 years ago, the ratings board isn't likely to make any improvements. Next year, Schruers notes, we'll see 'The Hunger Games,' in which teens fight each other to the death as televised mass entertainment. The movie's not even finished yet, but can anyone doubt that it will be rated PG-13? And that rating will tell you what, exactly?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.