Movie rating madness

Originally published in Chicago Parent magazine, August, 2009

The most important questions responsible parents can ask when they take their youngsters to a movie are, “Is this film appropriate for children?” and “Are the Raisinets free when you buy a tub of popcorn?”

The family movie has long been an ideal respite for weary moms and dads and cranky or bored children. The difficulty comes in confidently identifying “safe” family movies free of harsh language, violent images and Adam Sandler.

As the father of two grown sons who were at one time, if I recall correctly, young, I know the frustration of choosing a film appropriate for youngsters:

DAD: “How about we go see a western, Hon?”

MOM: “That might be fun. Which one?”

DAD: “‘The Alamo?'”

MOM: “That’s a war movie. Too much violence!”

DAD: “Yeah, but it’s that good violence where, you know, we win, sort of. Anyway, it’s got Davy Crockett, so it’s educational.”

MOM: “How about ‘Home on the Range?’ That’s a Disney.”

DAD: “What’s it about”

MOM: “The reviewer calls it, ‘An animated pastiche of classic Western plots.'”

DAD: “A ‘pastiche?’ I don’t know. Sounds French and you know how their movies are. What’s it rated?”

MOM: “I never trust the ratings. ‘G’ movies are too dumb and ‘PG’ means they kill off the parents.”

DAD: “There should be an in-between rating, like ‘P,’ or something.”

MOM: “We are not telling our 5- and 7-year-old boys that they’re going to a P-movie. They’ll never stop giggling.”

The movie ratings system as established by the Motion Picture Association of America represents the film industry’s attempt to offer parents some advance information about movie content so they can confidently ground their children for sneaking in.


MOM: “Hello dear. How was the movie?”

YOUNG TEEN DAUGHTER: “Great! Well, g’night!”

MOM: “You did see the one we agreed on, didn’t you?”

YOUNG TEEN DAUGHTER: “Well sure. And let me just say that Adam Sandler is a genius. Disney has another winner.”

MOM: “What did you think of the car chase?”

YOUNG TEEN DAUGHTER: “Car chase? Well it was a little too, you know, pastiche-y.”

MOM: “What was your favorite scene?”

YOUNG TEEN DAUGHTER: “Um, the one with that whole … subplot … thing?”

MOM: (blast from air horn) “Oh sorry, the judges have ruled that an incomplete answer. But as a consolation prize, you’re grounded!”

Reel history
The history of the movie ratings system dates back thousands of years to an early period in the evolution of performance art know as “Grunting at Each Other In an Entertaining Voice,” much like the films of Steven Seagal. Prehistoric “filmmakers” related their harsh antediluvian tales of violence, death and destruction through pictographs painted on cave walls using animal droppings mixed with rotting vegetables, thus giving rise to the term “Filth!” by prehistoric critics.

Nothing historically important happened after that — well, except for maybe the Bronze Age, which was only important if you made stuff out of bronze — until 1922. Movies had become a major source of entertainment for an American public awed by the way silent picture actors walked so fast and jerky. However, many perceived movies as immoral and glorifying violence. Soon a great public hew and cry was raised that could be heard all the way to a sympathetic and responsive Congress.

SENATOR HEW: “Did you hear something?”

CONGRESSMAN CRY: “I’m afraid I can’t hear anything over the loud riffling of cash donated by Hollywood. Now hand me another sack with the dollar sign on it.”

Fearing government intervention, motion picture producers elected to self-regulate. This led to the creation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, or MPPDA, which later became the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, under the Anagram Letters Consolidation Act of 1938.

Selected to head this newly-formed oversight association was Will Hays whose impressive movie industry qualifications were that he had been the campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding (campaign slogan: “Harding. He’s the Reel Thing!”)

Hays quickly established a set of moral guidelines for the making of movies, which the industry, in a unanimous show of support, eagerly disregarded. This Production Code became known as the Hays Code, particularly by Hays who hoped it would secure him better parking. The Hays Code’s draconian restrictions on language and behavior hobbled many popular matinee figures, such as Groucho Marx.

Groucho line before Hays Code: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”

Groucho line after Hays Code: “Gosh, Mr. Hays sure has a great parking space!”

Early Hollywood also saw the first attempt by the movie industry to create a rating system that, like today’s system, attempted to inform an anxious public about movie content. The following is the 1924 Ratings Guide to Movies:

S — Silent

NS — Not Silent, but hard to hear

T — Talkie

T-13 — Talkie, may contain slang

PC — Dialog may exceed Polite Conversation. Inappropriate for all audiences.

Rate this!
By the 1960s, the Hays Code had been all but abandoned due to the invention of foul language. In its place stood two towering safeguards to protect children from inappropriate films: a revised rating system and, of course, my father.

YOUNG DAVE: “Mommy! Daddy! When you go out to dinner, Uncle Joe says he’s gonna take me ta’ see ‘Pinocchio!'”!

MOM: “That’s nice, dear.”

DAD: “Over my dead body.”


DAD: “It’ll give you nightmares.”

MOM: “Now dear, the movie is rated ‘G.’ ”

DAD: “And your brother’s rated ‘NC-17.’ You know as well as I do that if the boy goes out with him he’s coming home with a tattoo.”

MOM: “Well…”

DAD: “And enlistment papers!”

YOUNG DAVE: “I wanna see Pinocchio. I WANNA SEE PINOCCHIO!”

DAD: (soothing) “Look son, you heard your mother say Pinocchio had a ‘G’ rating. Do you know what the ‘G’ stands for?”


DAD: ” ‘Grisly.’ Or maybe ‘gruesome’ or ‘ghastly.’ One of those, for sure. Now, I’m not trying to scare you…”

MOM: “Dear!”

DAD: “I just don’t want the boy to have nightmares. Anyway, David, there’s this scene where Pinocchio is swallowed by a giant whale, which isn’t so scary except that inside the whale is a … a … 10-inch professional table saw like that one down at Soukow Hardware. You know, that three-horsepower beauty with a miter gauge, a five-eighth inch arbor and a 22-and-an-eighth-inch maximum rip?”

MOM: “Dear!”

DAD: “Well, it is on sale, Honey. Anyhow, in the movie there’s this big honkin’ saw. And you know how Pinocchio’s made out of wood? Well, he’s spinning around in this whale’s guts, and the table saw is spinning around. And then SUDDENLY…”

YOUNG DAVE: “Ahhhhhhhhh!”

DAD: “Splinters and sap everywhere. So why don’t you just stay home by yourself tonight. Let’s go, Hon.”

MOM: “I’ll call a sitter.”

DAD: “My little man doesn’t need a sitter, right son?”

YOUNG DAVE: “Ahhhhhh!”

Rate that!
Times have changed since those innocent, horrifying days. According to modern statistics that I’m making up here for the first time, by the age of 7 the average child has witnessed 618 acts of violence. And that’s just from reading Curious George. Movies carry an even greater risk, which is why parents should clearly understand how to interpret the current MPAA ratings: “G,” General Audiences; “PG,” Parental Guidance suggested; “PG-13,” 13-inch deep dish with pepperoni and green peppers; “R,” with anchovies, and “NC-17,” with anchovies and subtitles.

Yet the movie rating system is not without its critics. Many parents and family-centered watchdog groups accuse Hollywood of adding unnecessary inappropriate language or sexual references to “G” rated movies to secure the more potentially lucrative “PG” or “PG-13” rating. Evidence of this artificial manipulation is heard in a secretly taped conversation between studio executives recently revealed before the Senate Subcommittee Investigating Skittles-Related Entertainment Venues:

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 1: “Listen Stu, I can’t move this picture with a G rating. Can’t we dub in the S-word and get it bumped to PG?”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 2: “The S-word will bump it to R.”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 1: “No, that’s the F-word.”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 2: “Same thing.”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 3: “How about the D-word, the H-word, the B-word?”


STUDIO EXECUTIVE 3: “Gee! Well, what about the Y-word?”

There follows a long pause, then a dry cough.

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 1: “There’s a Y-word?”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 3: “Where have you been? I heard my kid say it at breakfast. ‘Pass me the Y-ing toast, ya’ big Y,’ he says to me. My therapist couldn’t believe it.”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 1: “Wha … What does it mean?”

STUDIO EXECUTIVE 3: “The same as the Z-word, I think. Only it involves using seltzer.”

Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of movie content, parents are now ready to explain to their child why a particular movie is inappropriate. This challenge demands that parents engage in an open, sincere dialogue without actually falling into the trap of honesty. For parents with several children who are close in age, it is sometimes easier to talk privately with the oldest. That way if they make a mistake and scar the child’s psyche, parents can take comfort knowing that the firstborn is usually just a practice kid.

It’s an Alien thing
Saying “No” to a child can be emotionally draining for both of you, but remember, you are the adult and as such have access to a variety of potent migraine medications. Maintain your poise when talking with your child by following these psychologist-approved tips:

• Treat your child like a person. A small, weak, not very smart person.

• Remind your child that you pay the mortgage around here! Explain mortgage.

• In case of tantrums, allow your children some space, then calmly advise them to “cut out that Y-ing nonsense!”

Despite the wealth of advice in this article, it is of little value if not backed up with practical examples, and probably not even then. With that in mind let us turn back the clock, like they do in the movies where the hour hands spin backward and the calendar pages fly off, to when my oldest son, Russell, was 11 years old.

Russell loved the monster from the Alien movies. He owned all of the Alien battle figures (“Now with Realistic Acid-Spewing Action!”), an Alien lunchbox (“With Realistic Acid-Spewing Thermos!”), even several sets of Alien trading cards (“With Acid-Spewing Sugarless Bubblegum!”) For someone who had never actually seen the Alien movies, he was their biggest fan.

When Aliens was re-released in a local theatre, Russell demanded to see it. Yeah, that’s gonna happen, kid, I thought, but he was quite determined, constantly bugging me and my wife, spewing acid everywhere. We talked with Russell about the difference between seeing the Alien monster on the movie screen versus seeing it printed on his sheets and pillowcase. He was surprisingly reasonable, claiming that his long interest in the Alien had desensitized him to it.

That he had learned and used the word “desensitized” correctly tipped the scales in his favor, but I insisted that we first watch some Aliens movie previews, then make a decision together. A movie theater friend of mine loaned us a videotape of film clips and Russ, my wife and I held a screening.

“Well, Dave, are you going to take him?” My wife asked in bed that night.

“I am, Hon. Russ handled this whole thing with maturity and he really enjoyed the trailer. Even made jokes about it.”

“He’s so grown up.” She snuggled closer and we lay there in silence. “Too bad little Brian snuck in to watch. Who would have thought he could fit under the couch? He’s going to have terrible nightmares. Isn’t that sad?”

“Hon, it’s a Y-ing shame!”


Dave Jaffe, the father of two boys, is Chicago Parent’s special correspondent, with emphasis on “special,” not “correspondent.”

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