The History of the PG-13 Rating

A look at the history and impact of the PG-13 rating.  Posted in Q&A format, just for fun.

Let’s talk movie ratings:  Have there always been ratings on commercial movies?

No, although some boundaries on film content have always existed.   Early commercial movies were subject to local censorship boards who approved films for release, but because of differing standards simply obtaining an “approval” didn’t indicate much about a film’s content or suitability for viewers.  Many films were approved in some areas of the country, but not in others.

Filmmakers would surely have pushed for a more consistent approach, correct?

Indeed, the hassle of contradictory requirements – and various lawsuits that followed – drove the film industry to create a general set of standards for films across the country.   Dubbed the “Hays Code” – after Will Hays, Hollywood’s chief censor – the new standard outlined a long set of principles to regulate film content.  Films were forbidden from containing content like profanity, drug use, and criminal behavior, as well as things like interracial relationships, “excessive and lustful kissing”, and “ridicule of the clergy”.

Did the Hays Code streamline the approval process and clean up movie content?

Not at first.   The early Hollywood committee in charge of the approval process had little authority to enforce the Hays standards, so in practice enforcement was left to the studios themselves.  And studios discovered (as today) that films with “unapproved” material tended to attract more attention and sell more tickets.  Thus, the Hays Code was largely ignored by movie studios after it became official in 1930.

What changed?

In 1934, the new head of the Production Code Administration, Joseph Breen, made supporting the Hays Code a priority, and a general requirement for all films to obtain a certificate of approval was enforced more rigorously.  For the next twenty years the Hays Code became the standard for movie content, with very few exceptions.

However, after Breen retired in 1954, the Hays Code started to weaken once again, assisted by competition from television and foreign films not bound by the same standards.  In part to attract business (and in part to reflect changing moral standards in society), studios started again to release films that flaunted the Hays Code more often.

When did the first rating system originate?

In 1966, when the Hays Code was rewritten to drop many of the less-politically-correct standards, certain films were approved with a “Suggested for Mature Audiences” tag, which unofficially became the first ‘classification’ for a released film based on content.  However, it became obvious that a more robust classification system was needed and the first official MPAA ratings system was implemented in 1968.

What were the original ratings?

The 1968 system consisted of G, M, R, and X classifications – referring to ‘all audiences’, ‘parental guidance suggested’, ‘restricted to children without an accompanying adult’ and ‘restricted to children’.  The “M” classification was later changed to “GP” and then “PG” to avoid confusion, and that rating system remained unchanged until 1984.

So how did the PG-13 rating come about?

Historically, changes in managing movie content and ratings have typically involved a large number of people and influenced by cultural trends over a long period of time.  By contrast, the PG-13 exists basically because of one man:  Steven Spielberg.

In 1977, Jaws, his break-through film, became a blockbuster success, but with the violence and other elements straddling the line between the PG and R ratings.  (Modern viewers who revisit Jaws today would likely be surprised that Jaws has a PG rating based on current standards.)

In 1984, he released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (as director) and Gremlins (as executive producer), both with PG ratings.   Both became hits, but both became targets for criticism from parents who were surprised to see fairly graphic scenes in both films (hearts being pulled out of peoples’ bodies, small creatures exploding in microwaves, etc).

Following those two releases, Spielberg himself suggested to the MPAA the current PG scope was too broad and that a “PG-14” rating should be introduced for those films that required even more “parental guidance” than the average PG film.  The MPAA settled upon a “PG-13” designation and later that year, Red Dawn became the first film released with the new rating.  (Spielberg’s films themselves were not re-rated after the fact.)

Was PG-13 a new classification or a subset of an old?

As the name implies, the PG-13 rating was designed to mark a special subset of PG films that were judged to have more “adult” material than standard PG films.  To my knowledge, no film originally rated R was downgraded to PG-13 at the time – only those films originally judged to be within the PG scope under the original system were given the new designation.

What was the reaction to the new rating?

Because the new rating was presented as a reclassification for PG films, it was anticipated that filmmakers and theater owners would be opposed, since the more restrictive rating would (in theory) reduce the potential audience — and thus box office — compared to the PG rating they would have gotten under the old system.   That anticipated opposition and revenue loss, however, never materialized because the PG-13 proved to be a blessing rather than a curse for those films.


Because of a huge, and in hindsight relatively under-served demographic:  teenagers.   Teens were blocked from the R-rated stuff, but had no interest in “kids’ films”.  The PG-13 represented a film with an “edge” – something they could go to with friends without being barred from entry, but also without having their mom tell them to take their 7-year-old brother or sister along with them.  Teenage boys and girls were also found to be the most likely demographic to re-watch films they liked in theaters multiple times, which obviously contributed to higher box office.

While it is true teens (then and now) often purchase PG-13 tickets and sneak into R-rated movies instead – inflating the former film’s ticket haul a little — the numbers are clear that the PG-13 rating was a huge boon for the film industry.

Just how do the PG-13 box office numbers compare to other ratings?

In the movie industry today, PG-13 is *THE* rating for box office success.  Since 1995, PG-13 films have earned over $35 billion more than R-rated films at the box office, despite there being over 1500 MORE R-rated films released during that time period.  Since 1995 PG-13 films have outnumbered PG films two to one – ironic, since the PG-13 was originally supposed to be a smaller, specialized subset of PG films.  The “exception” has now become the “rule”.

If PG-13 is the prime target for box office success, do filmmakers actually add “PG-13 material” to PG films to get the higher rating?

Few will directly admit to doing so (and film content changes frequently from screenplay to production, making content changes hard to track).  However, there are some anecdotal examples:

  • In The Avengers (the 1998 one with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, not the current blockbuster), an “f-word” was somewhat awkwardly dubbed in after the fact, with the film containing PG material otherwise.
  • Flawless, a crime drama from 2007 starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine, contains absolutely no violence, no sex, no nudity, and no profanity…except for one f-word conspicuously placed in the middle.

In both cases, I’m nearly 100% certain those words weren’t in the original script, but were added in later to ensure the movies received a PG-13, rather than the ‘tame’ and ‘wimpy’ PG.  Perception matters, and today PG films are now generally considered “family-friendly kids’ movies”…quite a far cry from some of the films in the past that received PG ratings.  Filmmakers who want to attract not only teens but adult couples on dates and other demographics without kids must seriously consider public perception, and when millions of dollars are at stake, the movie studios are going to follow the money.  Whether it’s a random f-word, a glance at a naked butt, or something else “edgy”, the incentive is there to add something to make sure the movie gets the rating that gives it the most box office potential.

For LDS or others concerned with “decent films” and avoiding objectionable material in movies, is the dominance of the PG-13 rating good or bad?

This is a good question, and the answer is:  it depends.

On one hand, giving films an incentive to avoid an R-rating would seem to work in favor of film “decency”.  Filmmakers now have a financial incentive to cut down on ‘objectionable’ material in order to get the more favorable rating, meaning a theoretical net shift towards “decency” in film content.   If R-rated films made more money than PG-13 films, the logic goes, then the incentive would be the opposite:  filmmakers would be more likely to take PG-13 films and add more ‘objectionable’ material to get their R-rating, making movie content on average more R-rated overall.

However, there are disadvantages for “decent film” patrons as well.  In addition to adding “objectionable” material to PG movies as above, the dominance of the PG-13 incentivizes filmmakers to come as close to the R-rated line as possible, then either cut just enough to get the desired rating, or simply lobby for a PG-13 rating without cutting at all.  This makes the current pool of PG-13 films skew higher in content towards the R side, whereas if the filmmakers cared less about the PG-13 rating, they would be content releasing those borderline films with an R — increasing the number of R-rated releases, but making the pool of PG-13 films cleaner on average.  LDS and other “decent film” patrons might arguably prefer that R-rated movies were more popular, as they could then depend on the PG-13 films having less offensive content (and can just ignore the R-rated ones altogether).

Basically, there is no easy answer for this question:  movie watchers who care about content and film ratings can argue the dominance of the PG-13 both helps and hurts.

What *is* the standard for PG-13 content?

Let me guess:  what you’re really asking is…

How many “f-words” do you get to say in a PG-13 movie before you get an R?

The answer is:  it varies.    Sometimes it’s just one, other times two or three.  Sometimes it matters if it is used as an adjective or a verb.   Some PG-13 movies technically have more than three, with instances that are barely audible in the background noise but show up in the subtitles.  Some films in the 80’s — even after the creation of the PG-13 rating — got away with f-words in a PG movie.

What should the standard be?

That’s impossible to say.  Today, film ratings are strict in that one instance makes a film PG-13, so it wouldn’t really make sense to then say one f-word makes a film R-rated instead.  But once you’ve accepted one instance, does it really make a difference whether you’re hearing the same word two times, or eight times, or eighty?  Then again, eighty instances in a PG-13 movie seems extreme…so where do you draw the line from there?

Many critics rail against the rating system for being inconsistent…which is true, but then those same critics complain about supposed “teen-friendly” films (like the recent documentary Bully) that have ten or more f-words being stuck with an R-rating…even though eventually granting a PG-13 to that film where others received an R for the same content makes the rating system more inconsistent, not the reverse.  You can’t have it both ways.  Should the MPAA be counting instances of profanity or ignoring them?  The best solution is for viewers (and parents) to look beyond the ratings and make the decisions themselves.

What is the current range of content within the PG-13 ratings?

For the reasons mentioned above, the range of content within a PG-13 movie can be very broad.  PG films have the incentive to add just enough material to get a PG-13 rating, while R-rated films have the incentive to subtract just enough.  That means the upper and lower ranges of PG-13 content are pretty far apart, thereby weakening the information for “parental guidance” purposes the rating actually provides.

Using the Kids-In-Mind analysis – movie ratings for Profanity, Sex, and Violence rated on a 0-10 scale – we can quantify this range.  According to the KIM database, the “lightest” PG-13 movies are

  • Lorenzo’s Oil (0-2-1)
  • Jesus Camp (1-2-0)
  • Philadelphia (2-1-1)
  • The Spitfire Grill (3-0-2)
  • Chaplin (2-3-0)
  • Home for the Holidays (3-1-1)
  • Hope Floats (2-1-2)
  • Renaissance Man (3-1-1)
  • Eye of the Dolphin (2-2-1)
  • Rich in Love (3-2-0)
  • Toys (1-1-3)

The “heaviest” PG-13 films are:

  • Disaster Movie (5-7-8)
  • Year One (5-8-7)
  • Meet the Spartans (5-7-7)
  • Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (6-7-5)
  • Remember Me (5-7-6)
  • Beowulf (4-6-8)
  • Limitless (5-6-7)
  • Vampires Suck (5-6-7)
  • The Uninvited (5-6-7)
  • Australia (5-6-7)
  • Scary Movie 4 (5-6-7)
  • Epic Movie (5-6-7)
  • Skyline (5-5-8)

That’s quite a range, from 3 total ‘points’ in Profanity, Sex, and/or Violence to 20.  Obviously, non-PSV factors will often drive movie ratings:  gay content in Philadelphia, religious content in Jesus Camp, and Whale Rider’s [3-4-3] glimpse of a bag of marijuana, for example.   But even from a strict Profanity/Sex/Violence perspective, there is a very broad range between low and high.

So the question, “Should Latter-Day Saints watch PG-13 movies?” is…

…impossible to answer, although I know many LDS who do not.  Comparing a “clean” PG-13 film like Lars and the Real Girl (3-1-2) with the most recent Twilight movie (6-8-3), makes judging PG-13 movies just on the rating fairly difficult.  (And obviously many LDS have watched the Twilight series without having major objections over content.)  LDS and non-LDS viewers are almost forced to consider alternate sources of content analysis other than the rating in order to judge content for PG-13 films.

Should the rating system be done away with entirely?

No, because that presumes the rating system is completely useless — it’s not.  There’s a wide difference between a PG film and a NC-17 film, which viewers have a right to understand.  Giving a film a PG-13 rating provides some information (even if it is just “some body of people I’ve never met judge this film to be appropriate for 14-year olds”)  Any information is better than none, and dropping the rating system entirely gives viewers even less of an idea about what they’re viewing.

Should the PG or PG-13 rating category be split again, then?

That’s one solution.  The UK film rating system, for example, has the equivalent of “PG”, “PG-12″, and “PG-15″ before the “18” R-equivalent, allowing for more divisions in classification.   Other countries have variations on this methodology that provides various benefits in categorization.  However, this still doesn’t answer the real issue…the genuine lack of useful information about film content to make informed decisions.

What’s the ultimate destiny of the rating system?

Well, we certainly haven’t seen the last change in the US rating system.  Current movie releases have already started to include content analysis blurbs (“Sci-fi violence and language”) in addition to the letter ratings, which gives more information than before.  The ultimate destiny of the rating system will probably be the abandoning of the basic system with only five or six classification options and the acceptance of a more wide-ranging system.   The Kids-In-Mind point system, while still arbitrary and subjective, provides over 1300 unique classifications for movies, in addition to breaking out profanity, sex, and violence categories for viewers who may care about one category more than another.  Having more accurate classifications based on content category would preclude the need for letter ratings at all.

But a more comprehensive system would preclude Latter-Day Saints and others from making generalized statements, and having arguments about movie ratings, wouldn’t it?

True.   While some of the recent LDS cultural debates about movie ratings (The Matrix, Titanic, etc…) have been fascinating to witness (and wouldn’t exist without having the rating system to spark the debate in the first place), having a more detailed system that precludes faithful Mormons from making broad generalizations about what other Mormons should or should not be watching is probably a good thing.  (No one is going to give a sacrament talk about “Latter-Day Saints should not be watching anything above a 7 in Profanity…or maybe a 6 in Sex & Nudity…or certainly anything that adds up to 18 overall.”)  A system that both provides more information about content AND encourages more critical thinking about standards and movie content from a personal perspective would be the ultimate goal in any set of movie ratings.

  • Lecia

    My sister and I rate books for cleanliness using a the familiar G, PG & PG-13 rating system, and it can be very hard to determine which category to put a book in sometimes. We try to err on the side of being conservative so nobody will pick up a book we’ve reviewed and get an unpleasant surprise….I’ve had a few such unpleasant surprises in PG-13 movies and no longer feel comfortable watching them with my family unless I’ve gotten a firm recommendation from someone I trust.

  • Lecia

    Sorry, must be tired. I typed in my own web address incorrectly on the above comment, so the link doesn’t work! It’s correct here if you want to see our book reviews for yourself :)

  • Chriccha

    I think it is hillarious that my sisters 2 year old daughter can watch a movie that is Rated “G” in Sweden but that I, living in the US, can not watch the same movie – because it is Rated “R” here.

  • MikeS

    1. “Jaws” was in 1975, not 1977 as your article claims.
    2. The “Kids in Mind” criteria changed over time. There is no way that the sexual content in Chaplin should be considered a “mild” PG-13. In later years, they admitted that their standards had shifted and that their earlier postings needed updating. The widely publicized Harvard study was irreparably flawed because of its unwarranted assumption that the Kids in Mind ratings used stable criteria over a 10 year period. Simply because the KIM web site describes itself as “objective” doesn’t mean that it actually is objective or consistent. Assigning numbers instead of the MPAA letter categories doesn’t remove the subjectivity. There is no “objective” way to say that X seconds of an exposed butt is equal to Z seconds of exposed breast, or that a brief f word is more objectionable than shouted blasphemy. In this regard, the KIM numbers are actually following the MPAA ratings pretty closely (within any given year) but merely providing parents with a bit more breakdown in a simplified form.

  • Kevin Burtt

    1. You’re right — it’s 1975 (remembered incorrectly and didn’t check)

    2. It’s impossible for KIM ratings (or any rating system) to be “objective” in the first place, whether they believe their standards have changed over time or not. In the end it is still arbitrarily judging standards of content and assigning a number. Even if they believed they were applying the same standards every year since the beginning, you would always be able to find perceived discrepancies between films with the same numerical rating because film content is not capable of being judged purely on a numerical basis.

    The point isn’t that it removes the subjectivity (which is impossible) but that a system like KIM allows for far greater variability in ratings. You can differentiate between “light” PG-13 films and “heavy” PG-13 films (even if “light” and “heavy” are still subjective in the end). And you can differentiate between movies that are R for profanity, R for nudity, and R for violence for those people who care about one element of content more than the others — information that the current rating system mashes together without extrapolation.

    In any case, more information about film content (even subjective information) is always more valuable than less.

  • Ethan

    IMDB provides a wonderful “parental guide” link, where people who have seen films and tv shows can simply describe what’s in them without any sort subjective ratings system. These descriptions are about as good as you can get without reading the script, and I find it far more informative than the crapshoot ratings system Hollywood uses.

  • MikeS

    Kevin –
    Agreed about the subjectivity of it all. The significance of brief nudity varies with context, and a person can be completely vicious while using “G rated” language. But the thing is that the KIM site either seems to just be shadowing the existing rating system (i.e. in its judgements about which content is stronger) or else there actually is some sort of overall average (or norm) that judging agencies will adopt in response to national parental requests and pressures.
    In the end, however, it is the MPAA CARA that is the most answerable to everyone (including Congressional investigations!) and that thus has the most at stake – the most pressure to be consistent in order to improve its reputation to the widest variety of stakeholders.
    Ever since the early 1990s, the rating symbols have been accompanied by descriptions of the reason that particular rating was assigned, and these mean a lot to determine the intensity within a rating category. Their weakness is that they don’t describe content that is suited to a lower category. Thus, I might not be concerned with brief language in Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” or in “J. Edgar” – but J. Edgar is in my view a heavier film, made so by the larger extent of PG-13 level content that is below the radar of an R rating and its reasons. For this, KIM and Screen It and IMDB parental guides can all be useful, although they vary in reliability. The thing is that it’s the actual descriptions of content that make them valuable, in my opinion, not the use of subjective numeric categories.

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