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FILM ANALYSIS, Film Content & Controversies

The Problem with PG-13 and the Modern Emasculation of Mainstream Films

A common misconception I encounter in today’s movie-going populace is that modern day (circa 2000-present) films are quite explicit, and that films are becoming increasingly violent and sexually charged compared to mainstream films from previous decades. This mindset is, as the above video describes it, complete bullshit. Here are a list of films that received PG ratings prior to the invention of the PG-13 rating with Red Dawn (1984) after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was released as a PG film to parental uproar earlier that year:

  • Gremlins (1984)
  • Poltergeist (1982)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • Dragonslayer (1981)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • Sheena (1984)
  • Ghostbusters (1984)

None of these films would be given a PG (Parental Guidance suggested) rating with today’s puritanical standards. All these listed, and many others like them with similar content released during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, had numerous scenes of violence, blood and gore, frequent foul language, and sexual content including full nudity. For a modern comparison, the standard for today’s PG-rated films is something akin to Madagascar (2005) or Big Hero 6 (2014). There is no way a movie like Jaws would be given anything less than an R-rating (ages 17+) today, and films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (a movie where characters’ bodies are melted and explode on-screen, people are frequently shot with numerous blood squibs, alcohol and drugs are used freely, and there’s plenty of profanity) and Ghostbusters (a film with pervasive and obvious sexual innuendo, casual smoking, and foul language) would both manage at least a PG-13 rating.

For those of you outside the United States, here is a breakdown of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) modern ratings system and its guideline for “age-appropriate” content for films released in the US:

Rating symbol Meaning
G rating symbol
G – General Audiences
All ages admitted. Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.
PG- rating symbol
PG – Parental Guidance Suggested
Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents urged to give “parental guidance”. May contain some material parents might not like for their young children.
PG-13 rating symbol
PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.
R rating symbol
R – Restricted
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.
NC-17 rating symbol
NC-17 – Adults Only
No One 17 and Under Admitted. Clearly adult. Children are not admitted.

This system has been around in its current form since at least the early 1990s, although the PG-13 rating first suggested by Steven Spielberg has been around since 1984. It was implemented as a midpoint between PG and R, or put another way as a rating aimed specifically at the teenage demographic. While studios began to look at R-rated films less favorably with the rapid success of PG-13-rated films during the 1980s and 1990s, that was largely OK given how many films that would’ve been slapped with an age 17+ rating under the previous guidelines were being judged less harshly, and moreover studios had not yet begun to censor their own films to PG-13-friendly content in order to sell it to every audience possible. In other words, Hollywood had not yet started to think solely in terms of marketable ratings, and rather still maintained the artistically responsible mindset of letting a film’s content dictate its own rating, rather than the other way around.

That all changed by the early 2000s. No one is really sure how the contemporary won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children(?) Hollywood culture got started, but in the wake of public scandals like the 2004 Janet Jackson Superbowl incident, something changed in the American movie business and by extension, the MPAA’s mindset. R-rated films have since become economically toxic for most major blockbuster films, and major American movie studios have censored and butchered their own film productions on numerous occasions to get them down from an R-rating to PG-13.

A good example of this is how franchises established in the 1970s and 1980s have been adapted, remade, or continued with sequels in the modern era. R-rated action, thriller, and horror films were mainstream in those decades, not niche hardcore projects. Back then movies were made for adults, a demographic that is increasingly being targeted by basic cable and premium television channels, of all mediums, where as nowadays most wide-release pictures are made exclusively for children or, at their most explicit, “fun for the whole family.” Likewise, properties that originated in less puritanical times have been considerably toned down and PG-13-nized for today’s more virgin-eyed mass audiences. Some notable emasculations of classic franchises are:

  • Robocop (R-rated original in 1987; PG-13 remake in 2014)
  • Aliens and Predator (R-rated originals in 1979, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1997; PG-13 crossover in 2004)
  • Total Recall (R-rated original in 1990; PG-13 remake in 2012)
  • Die Hard (R-rated originals 1988, 1990, 1995; PG-13 sequels in 2007 and 2013)
  • Terminator (R-rated originals in 1984, 1991, and 2003; PG-13 sequels in 2009 and 2015)

Even the PG-13 rating itself has become increasingly neutered since the turn of the millennium. Compare the similarly PG-13-rated Anaconda (1997) and its 2004 sequel, The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, or better yet the PG-13 Doc Hollywood (1991) with any comparable romantic comedy from the 2010s and tell me if you spot any gratuitous, drawn-out nudity or sexually charged situations in the latter. You won’t unless you find an R-rated film! Hell, even older films aimed exlusively at young kids and families (i.e. “all ages”) such as The Bad News Bears (1976) and A Christmas Story (1983) had plenty of foul language that you’d never see within a million miles of a family oriented production nowadays.

For those of you out there who aren’t cinephiles or haven’t seen a movie made prior to 2004, yes, this is bad for film production as an art form. A movie’s content should never be censored for marketability, and moreover the overwhelming need to make films PG-13 in the contemporary era has ruined many of them. PG-13 ratings, especially the PG-13 as we now know it today, severely restricts the extent to which filmmakers can show explicit content and depict gritty, adult stories on-screen. Sure, many films can exist and operate fine within the realms of modern-day all-ages-friendly standards (e.g. The Winter Soldier [2014]), but many couldn’t and shouldn’t (e.g. all the aforementioned remade 1970-1980s titles). Imagine a PG-13 Pulp Fiction (1994) or PG-13 Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or how about a PG-13 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Schindler’s List (1993) or Saving Private Ryan (1998)? They wouldn’t work.

Sometimes, as the video above states, to tell an adult story, you need to go R. Filmmakers should not be restricted by worrying about ratings and how explicit their projects can be before they will be considered financially unviable. If R-rated adult films were marketable in decades past, than they can be made so in today’s world of free internet porn, raunchy music videos, and the modern “Golden Age of Television” where explicit premium programs like Game of Thrones (2010-present), Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), True Detective (2014-present), Homeland (2011-present) and basic cable programs like Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and The Walking Dead (2010-present) are mainstream pop culture phenomenons.

Particularly for action-junkies like me, this trend is frustrating given how modern day genre films must operate within the realms of zero blood squibs, the notorious one-PG-13-“fuck” limit, and complete censorship of any kind of nudity. The first limitation is perhaps the most infuriating for me. Yes, even in this day and age, the puritanical MPAA is most sensitive to sexuality and especially language, but cinematic violence has been neutered as much as anything else compared to previous decades. For my part, if I see people get shot or repeatedly punched and kneed in the face, and there is absolutely no blood, it pulls me out of the movie-experience constantly because it doesn’t look real

pulp fiction what

Say ‘what’ again! Say ‘what’ again, I dare you, I double dare you mother-freaker, say ‘what’ one more gosh-darn time!

It’s sad that in this day and age, something like District 9 (2009) is considered “extreme” or “desensitizing” when twenty years ago that would’ve been commonplace. Movies like D9 or Jaws or The Raid (2011) are not exploitative or gratuitous; they are simply visceral and intense and harshly unapologetic. I don’t know about you, but I can respect that kind of artistic integrity in a film.

What I can’t respect is something like The Hunger Games (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) that depicts a diegesis where kids are torn from their families and forced into brutal kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial combat, but the camerawork is so chaotic and incoherent that most of the horrific acts are shown off-screen or depicted so frantically that we can’t tell what the hell’s going on. It’s “violent,” sure, in the loosest sense of the word, but it’s sanitized and worst of all, dishonest. As Deadpsin’s Tim Grierson explains in his examination of modern Hollywood action films:

They’re loud and frenetic with lots of explosions and crashes and shooting, but there’s very little pain or blood or other things that would make you realize that violence in real life is not this much fun.”

In light of this, don’t ever believe any old fogy or fellow millennial when they say that modern movies have become too violent or sexually explicit. The former has clearly forgotten what movies were like when they were kids, and the latter has absolutely no context. Musical content and basic cable programming, sure, that stuff has gotten a lot more adult-oriented, but what’s playing in the local cineplex every weekend has most certainly not. For some bizarre, inexplicable reason that nobody fully understands, film has gone the complete opposite direction of television and music videos and made itself the audio-visual medium for little kids and their families and no other demographic. That needs to change. Film can’t be allowed to fully operate unless the medium is free from content-censorship and restrictions, regardless of whether those restrictions are economic, legal, or political. Filmmakers can’t be forced to compromise on their artistic vision simply because of age-ratings.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


39 thoughts on “The Problem with PG-13 and the Modern Emasculation of Mainstream Films

  1. The area of film censorship has baffled me for a long time and I’m no wiser. Like you I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, but when there is violence I don’t want my intelligence insulted by gunshots that leave no trace of blood or a punch that doesn’t break the puncher’s knuckle bones.

    I’ve come across this weird approach to ‘real life’ in so many other areas. Bollywood fans who are quite happy to see extended torture scenes and gangland murders, but show the film stars kissing each other in an act of love and you’d think it was the end of the world. And there’s a blog site which could help me promote my novels but it doesn’t allow ‘bad language used to add authenticity!’ (Is there any other reason to use bad language in literature that I don’t know about.)

    The more I read about corporate life the more I come to the conclusion that it exists in order to exist. It has lost sight of what it’s there for: to provide goods and services to a consumer base. In the film world that is entertainment, provocation, explanation, appreciation. I sat down with a friend just before Christmas to discuss the best film of 2014 and I was hard pressed to think of anything outstanding. In the end my choices were Cycling With Moliere (French) and Scafell: Portrait of a Mountain (Documentary).

    Most of what I saw, released in 2014, was pretty much forgettable bollocks.

    Posted by theopeningsentence | December 28, 2014, 6:07 am
    • Yeah I think we’re pretty much on the same page here. Both major industrial cinema houses (Holly/Bollywood) have weirdly puritanical standards when it comes to what’s considered “explicit” and what isn’t, even in this day and age. Essentially, like you pointed out, both mainstream film producers are far more likely to tolerate violence than they are bad language or sexuality. Something like ‘The Raid’ gets the same R (17+) rating as The King’s Speech simply because the latter has some occasional foul language.

      I dunno about you, but I’m a hardcore action fan and yet there’s no way I’d let my 10-year old son watch The Raid before TKS…

      With Indian films it’s even weirder, particularly blockbuster Hindi films. You’re absolutely right, I’ve seen multiple mainstream Bollywood flicks with gratuitous violence, beatings, and even occasional sexual violence, as well as the occasional “shit!” uttered out of nowhere…..but show any sort of honest, romantic, physical kissing or lovemaking between consenting partners? Forget about it! Why is 3 Idiots allowed to nonchalantly depict a student hanging himself yet Aamir Khan kissing Kareena Kapoor is treated like some huge, edgy, raw thing? I don’t get it….

      For my part, I actually think that 2014 has been a pretty good year as far as mainstream cinema goes. Gone Girl came out (R-rated, coincidentally…) as did The Raid 2 (also R-rated) and various PG-13 blockbusters were able to work DESPITE (not because of) their mass-audience-friendly ratings (e.g. Winter Soldier, Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: DOFP, etc.). Honestly, my expectations for Hollywood are so low these days that I actually this year went pretty OK. Boyhood bored me to death and will probably win at least 4 Oscars, but hey, you take what you can get. Violence is pretty sanitized and emasculated nowadays, but as an action-junkie, I would truly be depressed if our standards for cinematic violence were as absurd as they are for language and sex.

      That’s rotten that your ability to market your novels is limited by its “adult” content, particularly something as lame as foul language. Mainstream media and corporations needs to get in touch with reality and accept that things like sex, nudity, and especially language are part of everyday life and that things like children cussing freely when adults around is commonplace from about age 12 onward. I feel like everyone’s still in this sort of socially awkward, religiously conservative mindset where we all know these things happen, but we can’t for the life of us admit what we’re all thinking and just let it all be there out in the open, admit that people have sex, cuss, get naked, and occasionally commit acts of violence with real consequences, and furthermore that it’s OK for popular, widely distributed media and art to accurately portray that.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | December 28, 2014, 8:37 am
  2. I know from reading your reviews that 2014 has had some good cinema releases; I just haven’t seen them yet. I’m looking out for Gone Girl, Birdman and, strangely, Deliver Us From Evil. I was in two minds about Two Days One NIght. It was okay, but I thought the Dardennes did a better job examining a similar theme with Rosetta.

    We could probably tie ourselves up in knots trying to figure out some psycho-sociological reason why a lot of adults don’t want to face up to the liquid side of life when it’s portrayed with honesty. That’s all I ask for from a film maker: honesty. Authenticity of character, context, story. Not some middle class fantasy of wholesome values that only exist in most politicians’ dreams. Perhaps if art portrayed real life properly, ordinary people might be more energised to do something about violence and injustice instead of taking the easy route of blaming it all on minorities and outsiders.

    Having said all that, for quite some time I haven’t seen the ratings tagline ‘contains scenes of mild peril.’ I always wondered what mild peril looks like!

    Posted by theopeningsentence | December 28, 2014, 9:38 am


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