The MPAA ratings board announced some new “check the box” enhancements to the movie ratings system to give parents better and clearer information about the content of the movies, along with an ad campaign, an updated website for checking ratings, and some revisions to the rules about trailers.
I am in favor of any improvement in the information available to parents. If this means the end of the dreaded, “Rated PG-for thematic elements,” which required a degree in semiotics to parse, that’s very good news. As I told The Christian Science Monitor,
It is a step, says Nell Minow, film critic for Movie Mom, a website for family entertainment guidance. “But a very small one,” she says, adding that what parents really want is reliable and consistent information about films. The arbitrariness of a ratings system that allocates a PG-13 to a comedy and then an R rating to a drama with essentially the same content “leaves parents not knowing what to trust,” she says.
However, there are inherent limits to an industry-run rating system that defiantly refuses to consider the expertise of child development specialists or teachers in assigning the ratings. I do not see anything in these announcements that makes me feel any more confident that the arbitrariness so compellingly examined in the Kirby Dick documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated” has been addressed. The MPAA’s absurd view that one or two f-words are permitted in a PG-13 movie as long as they do not refer to sex, the inconsistent standards applied to independent films and documentaries, the appeals process that gives film-makers a chance to ask for reconsideration but not parent groups, and the inclusion of material in a PG-13 comedy that would get an R in a drama are problems that are not addressed by these changes.
It is worth noting that the two key elements of the Boston Marathon bombs were both features of recent movies. “Four Lions” was about a terrorist attack at a marathon. “Act of Valor” explained how ball bearings could increase the damage from a simple, cheap, easy to make bomb exponentially. Both movies had strong anti-terrorist messages, but that doesn’t mean that was how they were received by all viewers.
We don’t know if the person or people who planted the bombs in Boston saw those films. But we do know that there is a multi-billion dollar industry called advertising devoted to the idea that people’s ideas and behavior are influenced by messages in the media. The MPAA should be a part of the conversation about the best way for parents and moviegoers to understand the context as well as the content of films and make wise decisions about what they want to see.