The MPAA’s Greatest Hits: Exploring the vernacular of movie ratings

Posted on 10 August 2009 by ShepRamsey

The movie industry is a funny place.  It seems like a land where bad, ponderous decisions are made everyday without fail.  Among those peculiar areas of interest within the motion picture biz, one of my favorites has always been the Motion Picture Association of America (or MPAA, to the layman). 

Yes, these are the folks that decide which movies are the G’s, and which are the PG’s, the PG-13’s, the R’s, and—god forbid—the NC-17’s.  And after they’ve madratingse such decisions, they take it upon themselves to provide Americans with the reasons for such decisions.  A good idea—account for yourselves and keep the public informed so that they can better make their own personal viewing decisions.

And while it is, in fact, a kind and goodly sentiment, once we start to delve into the specific vernacular thought up by these strange ladies and gents, that’s when all rational thought seems to slip away.  Personally, I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “sexuality” and “sexual content,” and why some violence is “strong,” some is “brutal,” some is “graphic,” and why some is “strong brutal and graphic.” 

And we all know about their little one-fuck, two-fuck rules that bump a PG-13 straight up to an R.  But why does Reservoir Dogs have “strong language” while The Departed has “pervasive language,” and Pulp Fiction has “pervasive strong language,” when they really all seem like they might as well be about the same?

They have some strange habits, ranging from being so specific it damn near spoils major plot points, to being so vague you’re not sure what it is you’re being expected to shield your child from.  Throughout their years they’ve sure gone and made some strange calls, and wouldn’t ya know it–I’ve got a few of them for you right here.  Some are funny, some are just peculiar, but they’ll all probably make you question your faith in the self-appointed parents of the film industry. 

1. The MPAA vs. Batman

The Dark Knight – Rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and some menace.”
Remember Dennis the Menace?  As logic would dictate, he was so cataclysmically menacing that it provided the very foundation for the kid’s namesake.  (Like, remember that one episode where he showed Mr. Wilson his disappearing pencil trick?)  Now, I’m not here to dispute the validity of his label as a “menace,” but are the creators of this character underestimating the meaning of the word “menace” or is the MPAA overestimating its meaning when they characterize the Joker’s mass-murdering mischief as “menace?”  And what’s this “some” business, too?  They can’t even throw him his due credit for creating what should have been phrased as “one colossal fuck of a lot of damn menace.”  Or am I reading the syntax incorrectly? Do they mean to say “some (douchebag who is indeed a very large) menace (upon Gotham City and its inhabitants)?”  And how does Batman Begins get flagged for “disturbing images,” but nothing in The Dark Knight is formally deemed “disturbing?”  They get bonus points here for some much-needed brevity, but it certainly doesn’t line up in favor of consistency.

Batman Returns – Rated PG-13 for “dark, brooding violence.”
The MPAA has always enjoyed modifying the term “violence” by throwing the name of the film’s genre in front of it.  There’s “horror violence,” “sci-fi violence,” “western violence,” and even this summer’s Public Enemies contained “gangster violence.”  Many comic book adaptations get off with something along the lines of “stylized violence,” but Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman sequel is probably the only time I’ve ever seen “dark, brooding violence” busted out.  Does “brooding” even make sense in this context?

2. The MPAA vs. David Fincher

Se7en – Rated R for “grisly afterviews of horrific and bizarre killings, and for strong language.”
This one’s awfully specific.  I feel like with this one, they came dangerously close to actually giving away plot details.  It’s like if There Will Be Blood had been “Rated R for that scene where he beats Paul Dano’s head in with a bowling pin.”  I feel like I can pretty much hear the entire conversation that led the this description:seven
BOARD MEMBER 1:  Okay, there really isn’t much actual violence, so I guess we can’t say violence…
BOARD MEMBER 2:  Well, we could go with “disturbing images.”
BOARD MEMBER 1:  Yeah, but these images are really disturbing.
RATIONAL-MINDED BOARD MEMBER:  Well isn’t that why it’s rated R?
BOARD MEMBER 1:  You’re fired, Bill.

Fight Club – Rated R for “disturbing and graphic depiction of violent antisocial behavior, sexuality, and language.”
Another time where I guess just saying “violence”—or even “strong” or “brutal” violence—just wasn’t enough.  It’s almost as if the MPAA was trying to flag the movie for being about something.

3. The MPAA vs. Weather

Twister – Rated PG-13 for “intense depiction of very bad weather.”
This one’s a classic example of “are they fucking serious?” reasoning from the MPAA.  This is a case where I’m not at all inclined to dispute the MPAA giving this film a PG-13—it’s probably appropriate (although by 1980’s rating standards, it would’ve been a quick PG), but to actually say out loud “very bad weather”…don’t we all just feel kinda silly now?

The Day After Tomorrow – Rated PG-13 for “intense situations of peril.”
I don’t know why they didn’t resurrect the Twister Classic for Roland Emmerich’s global warming disaster yarn, because “intense situations of peril” sort of sounds even dumber.  The first Ice Age movie suffered the same reasoning by being flagged for containing “peril,” which makes it feel like a movie can be deemed inappropriate if it presents any kind of imminent conflict.  Look forward to rereleases of The Little Mermaid being “Rated R for that bitch Ursula.”

4. The MPAA vs. Brevity

Saving Private Ryan – Rated R for “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.”
When you’ve reached the point where you’ve felt it necessary to use seven entire words to modify “violence,” do you really even need to bother mentioning profanity?  Isn’t it kinda arbitrary at this point?

The Fugitive – Rated PG-13 for “a murder and other action sequences in an adventure setting.”
I’ve read this ocharlie-and-the-choco-factne over and over again, and it’s not getting any less weird.

5. The MPAA vs. Creativity

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Rated PG for “quirky situations, action, and mild language.”
I know a kid.  He saw one too many of those “quirky situation” movies and now he’s really fucked up.  Why the quirkiness of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn’t merit at least an R-rating is something I can’t quite wrap my head around.  Parents, keep an eye on your kids.  Don’t let them get caught in any quirky situations.  You’ll thank me later.

Lost Highway – Rated R for “bizarre violent and sexual content, and for strong language.”
The use of the word “bizarre” kind of rubs me the wrong way.  I can’t fully deny that much of what’s presented in David Lynch’s Lost Highway isn’t a tad disturbing in nature.  But there’s a derogatory connotation to “bizarre” that I simply don’t care for.  It feels like the MPAA’s way of trying to Trojan horse in a way of saying “This movie was weird and I didn’t get it.”  Other movies they’ve used the term “bizarre” for include the aforementioned Se7en, as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre and Tarsem Singh’s The Cell.

6. The MPAA vs. Things They Don’t Understand

An Inconvenient Truth – Rated PG for “mild thematic elements.”
Remember back in the day when newspaper listings and HBO would list objectionable material as “adult content,” but that really could have been damn near anything?  That is kind of what this feels like.  Something about this movie rubbed the MPAA the wrong way and they just didn’t know how to put it into words. 

Oh, these characters!  They’re well-meaning, sure, but they can really make some peculiar calls from time to time.  Now let me put on my Dr. Phil pants and say that I think, at the end of the day, maybe the only parents you can depend on to take care of your kids are yourselves.  Pull back. Roll credits.                           

Categorized | Commentary, Featured

20 Comments For This Post

  1. Mark Says:

    I love it.

  2. Quaid Says:

    Great fucking article, Shep. Laughed out loud multiple times, and not it a “ROTFLMAO” way, but in an honest “noise came out of my mouth” way.

  3. John MAck Says:

    The MPAA is a JOKE. If everyone would boycott anything MPAA and hit them where it hurt, their attitude would change!


  4. clare Says:

    Great fucking article! Thanks

  5. Jeff Says:

    MPAA vs Kevin Smith

    Zack & Miri Make A Porno – Aside from having to argue it down from NC-17 to R one of there posters was banned for – “Suggestively placed backs of heads”

    Clerks – NC-17 for strong language. A movie that cusses like a Lebowski I agree but no nudity no violence only potty language and it was enough for NC-17.

    Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back – NC-17 reduced to an R after editing.

    Every film the guy does gets an NC-17 and then after arguing with the MPAA they reduce it down to an R. But seriously an R for strong language. Dogma got busted for frontal nudity and the entire point is that the characters lacked sexual organs. If your showing nudity to show that the characters are ken and Barbi who’s eyes are you protecting.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Great article but how could they not include Team America in this list???

    Rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language – all involving puppets.

  7. Caleb Says:

    You forgot 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, which is PG-13 for “non-stop ninja action”


  8. Quaid Says:

    Nice. Thinking maybe we should do more of these articles…there is comic gold in each MPAA decision.

  9. Alfred Says:

    My favorite was “Universal Soldier 2,” rated R for “non-stop violence”

  10. Quaid Says:

    The Universal Soldier one is pretty much an ad for the movie.

  11. Matt D. Says:

    This article was amazing, first of all.

    and my favorite rating I’ve seen in a while is for the upcoming movie gamer. it’s rated R for “frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language.” I had to look up “frenetic” on urbandictionary just to find out what it was.

  12. mos Says:

    u forgot blue crush. rated PG-13 for teen drinking and a fight

  13. Debbie Says:

    FANTASTIC!!! I have worked in the motion picture entertainment world for 15 years…and always wondered the same thing about the rating system…WTF!!! “Language”…what the heck does that mean…without it it would be a silent film…can i get an amen?! Shep you ROCK!!!

  14. Ben Says:

    Dirty Work has a PG-13 rating for “ribald humor”, among other things.

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    I like Your Website theme and would like to know where to download it.Thank.

  16. Giovana Says:

    I completely agree with your point of view. As a mother and teacher, I find “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” such a disturbing movie (even when compared to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and I believe Tim Burton “did it again” with Coraline, which is so highly rated by all, but so disturbing. My 8 yo can’t bear the sight of stuffed dolls anymore.

  17. Giovana Says:

    By the way, I know Tim Burton doesn’t have anything to do with Coraline (directly), but that is totally “his kind of world”: that dark, stop-motion animation…

  18. Andrew Says:

    I stopped trusting the MPAA when I saw “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”. They’re the only privatized movie ratings system in the world and they fail.

  19. Brandon Says:

    My copy of Bolt (2008) says PG: For some mild action and peril, lol wtf?

  20. Brandon Says:

    My copy of Bolt (2008) says PG: For some mild action and peril, lol wtf?

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