The Problem With PG-13

In 1984, when the Motion Picture Association of America added PG-13 to its list of movie ratings, it was done in order to help parents. A PG-13 film was at a higher intensity level than a movie simply rated PG.

However, in recent years, PG-13 has become so ambiguous, that almost any film, short of a very violent or very sexual film, falls into the PG-13 category.

An example of this summer’s films that fall into the PG-13 rating include Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, full of scenes of violence and sexual innuendo, 2 Fast 2 Furious, more violence and dangerous situations, Pirates Of The Caribbean, with adult situations and some real and some computer-generated violent scenes, and Whale Rider, a beautiful New Zealand family film about a girl’s coming-of-age.

So how can a film like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Whale Rider have the same rating? For that answer, we have to look at the official definition of the PG-13 rating.

“Parents strongly cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. This signifies that the film rated may be inappropriate for pre-teens. Parents should be especially careful about letting their younger children attend. Rough or persistent violence is absent: sexually oriented nudity is generally absent; some scenes of drug use may be seen; one of the harsher sexually derived words may be heard.”

In the case of most of these films, the films do fall within this criteria, but what about Whale Rider? Why is it rated PG-13? If you have seen the film, you may have blinked and missed the reason. Early in the film, as we are being familiarized with the characters, there is a shot of the little girl’s uncle laying down in the sun with a pipe and a haggle on his stomach. As the girl approaches, he takes the items and pockets them, so she won’t see. The offensive visual is on screen perhaps two seconds. Some may argue that the scene is not necessary, and the filmmaker could take it out without losing anything to the telling of the story. However, it is important to establish a small piece of the uncle’s character. The film also has 3 non-sexual references to “dicks”, and one use of the “s-word.”

So, these “offenses” bumped the film into a PG-13 category? Yes, according to the body that assigns these ratings, the Rating Board, located in Los Angeles. The Rating Board consists of eight to thirteen full-time members and is part of the Classification And Rating Association. (CARA). The members all come from a parenting background and rate the films accordingly.

It would seem that films like Charlie’s Angels and 2 Fast 2 Furious are at the “high end” of PG-13, while Whale Rider sneaks in at the “low end.” Maybe PG-13 should be split again depending on the number and intensity of its “infractions.”

So, we can already see that there seems to be injustices in the ratings system. If that weren’t enough of a problem, there is also a problem with the advertising and marketing of PG-13 films.

Recently, Roger Ebert reviewed Whale Rider for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper and for his syndicated movie review show. He said, “Take the kids to see Whale Rider. They’ll see a movie that will touch their hearts…and minds.”

The distributor placed the quote into their print advertisements for the film.

After seeing this, the MPAA got in touch with the distributor and told them that they had to remove the line from the ads, because a film with a PG-13 rating can not be marketed to children.

Ebert responds, “This raises several problems: 1) I said “Take the kids”, not “send them in alone”, 2) Kids can, in any event, attend PG-13 movies by themselves. They only need the parent or adult for an R-rated movie, 3) it is my right any my duty as a critic to make such judgments, and surely the distributor has a right to quote them, and 4) this is a sad example of a system that has lost all reason and now categorizes an inspiring family film. (Yes, family) like Whale Rider in the same category as Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and 2 Fast 2 Furious.”

What is even more hypocritical is that films like Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels have a tine of toys and dolls associated with their film. Certainly that is marketing to children.

And anyone who frequents fast food restaurants can testify, new movies are regularly advertised to children through “Happy Meal” toys and / or positioning of movie posters near Happy Meal posters, which will of course, draw the attention of children. Currently, you can walk into any McDonald’s and see posters for Pirates Of The Caribbean, another PG-13 film. But this is acceptable. Perhaps because none of the quotes on the posters actually say ‘ take your kids to it.’ The critics’ praise is either excluded or it’s simplified. Quotes like “A Great Time”, or “A Fun Movie”, are so vague that it would seem it’s not being directly marketed to anyone specifically.

Anyone can see the playing field is not level here. A film like Whale Rider needs all the exposure it can get, and hanging a PG-13 rating on it is misleading and unfair. And when the distributors cannot even include the praise it deserves in its advertising, it makes it all the harder for a small film to reach a larger audience, or for a child to be touched by it.