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Deciphering the film ratings system

Sherri Kuhn writes about raising teenagers, the perils of a clean home, wistfulness over babies, and anything else that makes her laugh (or cry) in the years between changing diapers and wearing them. With a son just starting college and...

Family-friendly or forget it?

As a parent, it can be difficult to judge which movies are appropriate for your kids at various ages. The Motion Picture Association of America is responsible for assessing movies and assigning ratings to them.
Family at the theater | Sheknows.com

What do these ratings mean, and how can you be sure the movie you choose will be OK for your child to watch?

The latest thriller is out, and your tween is dying to see it — but is it OK for kids his age? Unfortunately, without previewing the movie yourself, it can be difficult to judge whether or not that movie is appropriate for your child. We dug a little deeper into the movie-ratings system so you can be better informed when choosing movies for your family.

Who rates the movies?

Sure, we know movies are rated — but who is in charge of that process? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in conjunction with the Motion Picture Association (MPA), is the voice and advocate of the American motion-picture, home-video and television industries in the U.S. and around the world. The six major U.S. motion picture studios make up the membership of this organization, which not only rates movies for consumers but also fights for Movie reel | Sheknows.comintellectual property rights and freedom of expression in motion pictures. The history of this group goes back to 1922, when presidents of major motion picture companies banded together to stand strong against proposed U.S. government censorship of films and to promote a positive image of the industry to the public. In 1968, what started as a framework for moral censorship guidelines (known as the Hays Code) morphed into the current ratings system, which is more of a parent-focused ratings system.

Three pieces to the rating

The Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) is responsible for rating not only the movie but also all other advertising and trailers associated with the movie, including posters and billboards. When you watch a movie preview in the theater or purchase a movie to watch in your home, you will see the familiar ratings box with the rating for the film and some qualifying language as well. There are three pieces to this description to help you decide if the movie is appropriate or not.

  • Rating: The rating assigned to each film (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17) indicates to parents what degree of caution they should exercise in choosing a particular movie for their children to watch.
  • Rating definition: This is the sentence right below the rating that gives a more detailed explanation of what that rating means to parents.
  • Rating descriptors: At the bottom of the ratings box, there are descriptors unique to this particular film that tell parents exactly why the rating was chosen for this film — whether it was due to language, violence, nudity or drug references. This is important information since the rating alone doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the film.

What the ratings mean

G: General audiences, all ages admitted

A G-rated motion picture is as clean as they get. It contains nothing deemed offensive to parents in the areas of theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters. But don't assume the G rating is a label that signifies a motion picture is made for children. There may be a small bit of language that you may feel doesn't belong in polite conversation but that is considered a common, everyday expression. You will not find any stronger language in G-rated movies, and there will be no sex scenes, drug use or nudity. Violence, if any, is minimal.

PG: Parental guidance suggested, some material may not be suitable for children

A rating of PG indicates that parents need to look into the movie a bit more before they bring younger children to see it. The PG rating indicates to parents that some material may be unsuitable for their children — and it's up to the parents to decide. PG-rated motion pictures tend to have more adult themes — including some profanity, brief nudity or depictions of violence — but not themes that are intense enough to require a strong caution. A movie with a PG rating will have no depiction of drug use.

PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned, some material may be inappropriate for children under 13

Note: The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984, so use caution when viewing films made prior to that date, as PG-rated films made prior to 1984 might be considered PG-13 today.

A film that receives a PG-13 rating is more likely to contain material not suited to children under 13, and this rating is a sterner warning to parents to investigate the film. A motion picture with this rating may have more nudity, sensuality, violence, language, adult activities or other elements than films rated PG. Any film depicting drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. While films with brief nudity may be rated PG, more nudity than that will require at least a PG-13 rating. But generally, nudity in a PG-13 film is not sexually oriented. Violence in a PG-13 film will usually not be realistic or extreme. In terms of offensive language, a PG-13 rating allows one use of one of the harsher sexually derived words, though it can only be used as an expletive. But the use of more than one such expletive requires an R rating, as does the use of one such word in a sexual context.

R: Restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian

An R-rated motion picture may include sexually oriented nudity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, drug abuse or other elements. Parents should take this rating very seriously and are strongly advised that films rated R contain adult themes and activities. Children under 17 are only admitted to an R-rated motion picture if they are accompanied by a parent or their adult guardian. Young children — even when accompanied by an adult — should generally not view an R-rated motion picture.

NC-17: No one 17 and under admitted

A rating of NC-17 means that the film — in the view of the Rating Board — would be considered by most parents to be too adult for children 17 and under. No children 17 and under will be admitted to the theater, whether they are accompanied by parents or not. Contrary to what many believe, the NC-17 rating does not imply that the film is pornographic, nor does the rating imply a negative judgment of the film. An NC-17 rating simply alerts parents that the motion picture contains material that is only suitable for an adult audience. The rating can be based on violence, drug use, aberrational behavior or any other adult element that most parents would consider too strong for their kids.

Other resources

There are also other resources for parents who are trying to decide if a movie is appropriate for their children. Used in conjunction with the movie-ratings system, these resources provide additional information to help parents make an informed choice for their family. Find a list of film resources on the CARA website.

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