Is the MPAA Rating System Broken? A Brief History of Sex and Violence in American Films

original 1932 scarface posterImagine you’ve made a beautiful, real film about a teenager's nuanced life, but since you dropped the F-bomb more than once, you’ll get slapped with an R rating. Meanwhile, some PG-13 blockbuster about kids killing each other with futuristically medieval weapons is the teen flick of the summer. We take a look at the long history of film ratings and censorship, which started with the Hays Code. Below, how we got the MPAA Film Rating System, coupled with figures recently published on violence in films over the last thirty years, might leave filmmakers asking, what the frack?

Two studies came out at the end of last year from the Annenberg Public Policy Center stating that violence has been steadily growing in the PG-13 category. The main point in the first Annenberg study conducted with Ohio State University, published in the December issue of Pediatrics, was that violence in PG-13 films had nearly tripled since 1985. As The Hollywood Reporter broke it down:

Of the 420 movies studied since 1985, 396 films (94 percent) had one or more five-minute segment containing violent sequences. Those sequences were coded for the use of guns, focusing on using weapons to harm or kill a living being, excluding violence that was not intended to harm and acts like hunting.

The second Annenberg study, this time with the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out violence was increasingly combined with other risky behaviors -- 47.2% of films having violence occur within five minutes of sex and alcohol. (Did I miss the Syd Field screenwriting chapter about how all violent plot points should happen within five minutes of chugging a bottle of Jack Daniels?) Both studies seem to advocate tighter censorship for teenagers, ending with a cautionary statement that the researchers have “serious concerns about the effectiveness of the MPAA rating system for allowing potentially harmful co-occurring content in youth-accessible films.”

So what does this information mean to filmmakers? Before we run screaming to pull our kids from their freshman field trip to the new Hunger Games sequel, let's look at how we got the MPAA system to begin with.

An Abridged Journey to PG-13


1915 -- The Supreme Court rules (in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that First Amendment protection of free speech does not apply to motion pictures, upholding the Ohio law that landed you in the clink if you showed a movie the State didn't like! Film censorship boards popped up across the country.

1927 -- A list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” is approved by the Federal Trade Commission after "pre-code Hollywood" comes out with several boundary pushing films in the roaring twenties. According to the list, films should not depict sympathy towards criminals, childbirth, and ridicule of the clergy, among many other things.

1929 -- Concerned about the effect of the new Talkies on children’s feeble, sponge-like minds, a more direct code of standards is created by a Jesuit Priest and the Catholic editor of the Motion Picture Herald. Needless to say, on-screen mixing of races and extra-marital relations were forbidden; as it said in the newly dubbed Hays Code, art could be "morally evil in its effects." Scarface made it through just before the code got it's teeth, with Hughes shouting "Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible!"

Video is no longer available:

1934 -- Since previous codes went largely unenforced on a national scale, the Production Code Administration is set up, requiring all films to now pass the Hays Code in order to be released. The first issue for the PCA to take up? Tarzan's loincloth!

1934 to 1968 – All films that hope to be released to mainstream theaters in America must submit to and pass the Hays Code.

1952 – When the New York State Board of Regents tries to ban part of Rossellini film L'Amore, the Supreme Court overrules its 1915 decision (in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson) stating that motion pictures are in fact covered under free speech. Hooray!

1968 – The Hays Code starts losing its grip when new films like Some Like it Hot and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf become hits. Under new MPAA president Jack Valenti, the code is finally struck down and replaced altogether by the MPAA Rating System. There is no legal backing to the Rating system. Rather, it’s enforced by the movie theater owners who agree to only play films with appropriate ratings to appropriate audiences.

1984 – After parents concern over violence in films like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the MPAA comes up with the rating PG-13.

MPAA Today

In 2012, The MPAA was in the news over the controversial decision to give an R rating to the documentary Bully -- a film geared at creating awareness amongst teenagers about bullying. (The Weinstein Company eventually agreed to tone the profanity in the movie down to get the MPAA to give it a PG-13 rating that would let teenagers get access to it.)

Then last month there was an outcry when the two Annenberg studies were published about violence, sex, and alcohol in movies for teenagers. So where does that leave the MPAA Rating System today? Frankly, I would love to keep more teenagers out of movie theaters -- for purely selfish reasons -- they are loud and leave popcorn everywhere. On the other hand, the history of film rating and restriction is already full of silly mandates. To play devil's advocate with the Annenberg studies, if R rated movies are being restricted to viewers for no statistical reasons related to violence, sex, and alcohol, why not show them less censorship and let all teenagers see them?

What do you think about censorship and film? If filmmakers could rewrite the MPAA rating system, how would we fix it?


Your Comment


Ask anyone who lived through the "video nasties" censorship conflicts in the UK in the 80s how pointless and ineffective censorship is. It just sends it underground, creates a black market and makes things even more desirable than they were to begin with. Same goes for drug laws. Have we learned nothing since prohibition?

If our society was set up better in terms of education and improved parenting as well as being generally more respectful and tolerant of one another then we wouldn't even need censorship. As for having harsher censorship regulations for something that creates life (i.e. sex) over something that destroys it, that really makes me roll my eyes at the U.S. But then for a country that has "the right to bear arms" written into it's constitution and that has always had violence at the center of its culture, we should hardly be surprised.

As storyteller's and filmmakers, we all have a certain responsibility too... Writing violence into a scene or choosing to shoot gunplay in super slo-mo etc. are things we should give serious thought to. Too many times we glorify and sensationalize violence for the sake of "cool" rather than delving deeper into what it means and how it affects our audience. Using violence to escalate the stakes in a story is easy - maybe too easy... Perhaps we need to work harder at finding more creative solutions to create conflict?

January 9, 2014 at 1:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I knew someone was going to drag the Second Amendment into this discussion, and use it to berate American culture. Practically every country on the planet has censorship laws.

January 9, 2014 at 2:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Mary Whitehouse FTW!! LOL!

January 9, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


i very much agreed until you started conflating everything about what you think our culture is. the reality is that america has many overlapping cultures and, yes, we have some major, mainstream societal issues. the mpaa is the least of these concerns and really has little to do with censoring culture.

January 20, 2014 at 8:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Well it depends on whether you want to screen children from seeing sex and violence, or pay lip service to the cause (while making money). The MPAA and Hollywood want to make money, so you have the current rating system.

Moreover, I don't think most in the industry (versus the American public) see the product they're producing as a problem for society in the first place.

January 9, 2014 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


What really gets me is how a PG13 movie can show people dying as long as it's not gory, so what the ratings system is saying is that it is okay to kill people as long as you look away when someone's brains get blown out. Such a weird society :\

January 9, 2014 at 2:42PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


There is only one way to really protect kids from inappropriate media. That is for the parents to take the time to pre-screen everything the kids are going to want to see, and then exercise parental authority over what they actually do get to see. Rating systems are only to be used as a very general guide, and even then you have to know something about the people doing the rating.

January 9, 2014 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


PG-13 films are LESS violent than the PG films of the 80's, which could show blood and plenty of it. Check out ROMANCING THE STONE, where bullets that hit bodies produce blood and where a man's hand is bloodily bitten off by an alligator.It's insanely gruesome. Today that would result in an R rating, not even a PG-13!

The original RED DAWN was PG-13 but would be R today due to bloody bullet hits.

FIREFOX was PG but would get an R for the same thing.

There is plenty of violence in PG-13 rated films, but it's all nonsense. It's not real.

January 9, 2014 at 3:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

The Rising

You can distribute a film in the US without a rating and for those filmmakers on very low or tight budgets not worth the while anyway.

January 9, 2014 at 11:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


The real problem with the rating system in the US is the's a private organization funded by the studios (to avoid the state being involved), that is, in every respect a closed, secret group of people making decisions that have a direct effect on a multi billion dollar industry (just the BO alone, not to mention the advertising industry and the web) is a monopoly.
Like most people I wouldn't want to see the state getting involved if possible (though the examples of many other countries demonstrate that this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing - however in the US this would be done at the State level, not Federal, which would makes things worse), but what should happen, IMO, is that the MPAA should be as open about what they do and how they do it as possible...
this isn't censorship - it's a very simple matter of consumer protection - we demand content labels on all kinds of products esp. food - because we believe that the consumer is better off knowing as much about the choices they are making as possible, we use the phrase 'informed consumer', so there is nothing new or harmful to American society about providing consumers with the appropriate information to better choose the kind of entertainment that they want.

January 10, 2014 at 2:27AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Why can you say the "f" word once? To me, using it sparingly like that gives it more power.

January 10, 2014 at 3:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I've understood the rule to be a film can use the F word a few times and garner a PG-13 if and only if the uses are non-sexual. So a "f'ing hell" is fine, but "f you" goes straight to R.

January 10, 2014 at 1:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


No, you can say "fuck you," you can't say "let's fuck." The movie W. used the former and got a PG-13.

January 20, 2014 at 9:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


The MPAA can get fucked on sheer principal.

January 10, 2014 at 3:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Not sure if anyones mentioned it but theres a good documentary called "This Film Is Not Yet Rated". It takes an in depth look into the MPAA and how corrupted they really are.

January 16, 2014 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


To make "moral" assessments of films (or anything), an individual has to have a "moral code" or basis for making such assessments. In other words, he has to have a standard against which to compare and make evaluations. If that moral code is simply the product of an individual or group of individuals (no matter how large), that code only carries authority to the degree that the individual or group has power to enforce it, but it carries no binding authority on the conscience of others, for man does not have the authority to rule another person's conscience.

Man, though, is not a "random occurrence" in the universe. He was created and placed here by God in this supremely ordered universe for God's good purposes. This whole issue is summarized and answered in the phrase, "In the beginning (time), God created the heavens (space) and the earth (matter)." The boundaries which He expressed (such as "do not steal" or "do not commit adultery" or "love the LORD your God with all of your heart" and "love your neighbor as yourself") are, in fact, based upon His own nature. That is, the moral code built into the very heart of man is based upon the very nature of his Creator.

Films, therefore, should hold to what God has revealed as right parameters for speech, exposure, violence, etc., but not because of the MPAA. They should do so because we will all give account of ourselves to God one day. Far from being "restrictive," these truths are liberating, for true liberty is only within proper parameters. Just as a car is not "liberated" to drive when its owners are pouring whatever they want to into its gas tank (try coke!) or running over nails, etc. The car is free to drive when its driver learns how the car is made and applies that knowledge to the way he treats his car.

January 16, 2014 at 5:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


"if that moral code is simply the product of an individual... [that code] carries no binding authority on the conscience of others, for man does not have the authority to rule another person's conscience"

you said it pretty well there yourself, then you proceeded to set yourself as an authority on what any filmmaker *should* subjectively do or do not [presumably sola-scriptura, presumably as interpreted by yours truly?], regardless of their faith or as their conscience dictates. personally, i'm seeing quite a stretch to see solid rules set in any scriptures via god about speech, exposure, or violence in moving images... i'll be more than happy to have a theological discussion if you email me, but in everyone's interest i don't think this is the proper forum to impose such matters upon.

i will say that i think there is wisdom for any filmmaker to make what they are inspired to make with some due regard to their time and place, including the people they are making it for and the sensibilities of any ruling body. i think there is even more wisdom in expression that comes from a heart filled with peace and love and grace, whereas 'speaking' solely from a place of fear, hate, envy, anger and the like - while legitimate feelings that deserve expression and representation along with any others - tends to breed more of the same unhelpfulness. that's okay if there are vastly diverse opinions and that's partially what art can be about to challenge our understandings of the complexity of life altogether here.


January 20, 2014 at 9:02PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


thats grate.....

January 17, 2014 at 12:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I studied the ratings system as part of a class. The whole system is subjective. There are no standards it is a group of parents basing it on what they think most people would let their children see. I think the system should be changed from a single rating for the film to a rating for each category of content. That way a film with a few f-bombs wouldn't be in the same category as a gory gangster movie.

I like ratings as a guide but I think it's funny when nearly every big-budget PG-13 action film has the obligatory single F-bomb. It is kind of like the Wilhelm Scream, when you look for it it becomes a fun inside joke.

January 17, 2014 at 9:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Dandy Trooper