The Invention of PG-13

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If you live in the United States or watch many films from the US that haven't been modified for your country, I'm sure you're familiar with the Motion Picture Association film rating system. It goes like this:

  • Rated G: General audiences – All ages admitted.
  • Rated PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for children.
  • Rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
  • Rated R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated NC-17: Adults Only – No one 17 and under admitted.

Occasionally, the rating system gets updated. For example, NC-17 used to be called X. I'm looking at these ratings as I type this and wondering why exactly NC-17 is "Adults Only" when in the United States you aren't legally an adult until the age of 18. Odd.

Another previous incarnation of the rating system didn't even have PG-13 at all. From 1972 to 1984, it looked like this:

  • Rated G: General audiences – All ages admitted.
  • Rated PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for pre-teenagers.
  • Rated R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated X: No one under 17 admitted.

The rating system went straight from not suitable for preteens to requiring an accompanying parent or adult guardian. That's a pretty big gap. A quick Googling tells me that "preteen" is defined as age twelve and below. So, if you were 14 years old, you could watch G, PG, but then anything else required adult supervision. As a content gauge here, the highest performing PG-13 rated films in the world box office of all time (so far) were: Avatar (directed by James Cameron), Avengers: Endgame, and Titanic from 1997.

The PG-13 rating system has been around for a long time now, and it's such a part of film-going life that no one thinks much about it these days. But, it didn't use to exist. So, if it didn't exist now, what rating would give to those three films I just mentioned?

Tough call.

Imagine living in a world where the PG-13 rating didn't exist, and your job was to rate movies. Then you get Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tossed on your lap to rate. You watch and find it's a fun action-adventure that includes the on-screen ripping out of a still-beating heart from a man's chest. A few months later, you then get to rate Gremlins.

A gremlin with a chainsaw tries to murder a boy.
Gizmo the Mogwai. Mogwai may or may not be of Chinese origin, depending on who you listen to.

The film starts innocently enough with cute furry creatures like Gizmo. But then quickly turns into chainsaw-wielding maniacs who get blended, stabbed, and microwaved to death—all on screen.

Is this chainsaw approved for children?

Steven Spielberg was involved in both of these movies, and how they were rated back then caused quite a stir. Do you go for a more restrictive R-rating and likely a smaller take at the box office? Or, do you go for a less restrictive PG-rating and have to cut out all sorts of gremlin/human or heart-ripping violence?

As it turned out, Spielberg went for option #3: suggest the Motion Picture Association add a new rating, PG-13. Although when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins were released, that rating didn't exist, and there wasn't a big controversy over ratings. Both films were released with a PG rating, setting up the world for a generation of young kids who went to theaters for a fun adventure and saw monkey heads served on platters with the skull precut open to eat their brains.

The Motion Picture association sped through the addition of PG-13, and just in time for Red Dawn to be the first film with the new rating. If you're unfamiliar with the film, it's about a group of high schoolers who engage in guerrilla warfare when the Soviet Union invades the United States. It's explosively violent, as you might imagine.

Still-image from the film Red Dawn showing a bunch of high school kids in military garb with tons of weapons.
This is America. Anyone under 18 gets a free rocket launcher with every purchase of alcohol or cigarettes.

As for horror movies, here's a few that were rated PG-13:

  • The Ring
  • Insidious
  • The Grudge
  • What Lies Beneath
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose
  • I could go on hundreds or more of these.

Where would all of these films fit without that PG-13 rating? If Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins are any indications, they might all be rated PG—fun for the whole family!

Have you ever seen a content rating system for a book? I haven't. They exist, mainly in the form of independent organizations, but the ratings aren't widespread. Ratings exist for music, but there's not enough demand for a rating system to get off the ground for literature. What do you think that says about films vs. books?

Let's be honest here, no one in my family paid attention to the rating system. Though, on occasion, they used it to gauge how good a movie might be based on the level of violence, gore, and sex. I never really thought much about it until I came across parents of other kids who were quite strict with what they allowed their children to watch. I went to school with a kid who wasn't allowed to watch most shows made for kids, especially Dinosaurs and The Simpsons. (That kid also wasn't allowed to drink caffeine, eat anything with sugar, or say "swear words" like "dookie" or "nuts" or put ketchup on his eggs.)

Baby dinosaur banging a pot on the dad dinosaur.
Not the Mama!
Still images of random scenes of The Simpsons horror special.
Decades later and I still remember every segment of the Treehouse of Horror episode.