How Do You Rate, Part III: Do It By The Numbers

The single biggest flaw in our current movie rating system is that shoehorns vastly different levels of content into the same rating. The R rating can cover everything from the gentle Lost in Translation, with one brief scene in a strip club to a Friday the 13th movie in which a half-dozen nude women get decapitated or meet some other graphically depicted and gruesome fate.

The MPAA has tried to help recently by publishing a brief summary of their reasons for applying a rating, but these are often ambiguous at best. What exactly is a “Sexual Situation”? How much violence is “Strong” violence?

So what do I propose? Nothing less than taking G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 and tossing them on a bonfire. We can do better. One thing we modern Americans are good at is digesting information either graphically or numerically. A barchart or the phrase “4 out of 5” can tell us a lot more than a brief, vaguely-worded phrase.

Also people respond differently to different types of content. Some are offended by violence but have no problem with graphic nudity and sex, some can’t handle either and still others seek them both out.

My proposal is really pretty simple. We take the various components of what the ratings board evaluates and rank them individually. Rather than simply have G or R, we have separate levels, from zero through five, for sexual content, violence, language and what I call subject matter or content, which would be kind of a catch-all for the general intensity of the situations in the film. A movie like Saving Private Ryan might get a 5 in the violence department but barely register in sex or nudity. Each component could then be displayed in a bar graph where the old MPAA rating used to go, like this:

Click here for details.

The other part of this system would be to establish and publish as objective a standard as possible for each “level” so when someone saw that the sex/nudity rating was a 4, that would mean something like full-frontal female nudity or simulated intercourse, rather than having to guess what a 4 meant. Another possible refinement would be separate ratings for sex and nudity, because it’s very possible for a naked person to be completely unerotic or for two fully clothed people to go at it like a couple of crazed badgers.

I, for one, believe that more information is a good thing and this system would, by giving you more information more quickly, take away a lot of the guess work for parents and audiences in general.

10 thoughts on “How Do You Rate, Part III: Do It By The Numbers

  1. L.

    Amen, brother. I, for one, don’t have any use for the MPAA and their arbitrary letters, especially since it seems to be more of a political tool than anything else. Plus, it borders a little too close to censorship for my tastes, but that’s another story

  2. mike

    great blog.. will be back again.

    We seem to have a far more relevant ratings system in the UK, including text descriptors which usually give you an idea of the content. My all time favourite being the one for Team America.. rated 15+ for strong language, violence and sex all involving puppets

  3. - jude

    I, too, had to laugh when “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” received its rating because of “quirky situations.” The problem here is that we’re trying to objectively categorize something that’s subjective in nature.

    Take your sex/nudity rating. If the full-front nudity is for one second, would that have more impact than if the nudity was for 10 seconds? And how would those two relate to full-front nudity that was for five seconds?

    My point is that you don’t want the ratings board acting like censors, saying, “Well, I counted. It was five seconds so that will be less than Movie X, which had 10 seconds.”

    The first poster was right – the fact that you can appeal a rating and that certain directors seem to get PG-13 when they should really get R makes the whole thing driven by money and politics. It’s corrupt, sure, but it’s the system we’ve got for now. It should change, but I’m not sure a ranking systems, as you’ve proposed, would actually make things easier or harder.

    Also, what would a change do for the thousands of titles already on the market? Would they have to be recategorized? And who would do that?

  4. Paul McElligott

    Also, what would a change do for the thousands of titles already on the market? Would they have to be recategorized? And who would do that?

    No more than the hundreds of films released before the MPAA rating system had to be reclassified.

  5. angrylib

    Well said, Paul. I’ve actually been an advocate for removing the current ratings syst for several yrs now. Ebert’s right, there are too many variables & too much cash power flying around. What the hell, if Austin Powers 2 can get away with a PG13 rating & has overt sexual references & a scene where the title character drinks excrement onscreen, then why is there such a huge flap over films like Clerks & The Aristocrats in which language is the only objectionable factor? Drives me nuts!!

  6. happylittlebunny

    YAY! There are other intelligent movie watchers! I love this blog and have bookmarked it. As for the rating system I say get rid of it completely and simply state: “this movie contains _______ ” (where ____ = profanity, nudity, sexual encounters, drug use, etc etc) and let the moviegoer make up his or her own mind. If a movie had a label on it that read “This movie contains cutesy little critters that are enslaved in a little ball and forced to fight against each other at the whim of their captors” I think I would be more leery of seeing it than I would of a movie labeled “This movie contains portrayals of historical wartime events and casualties” … at least I know that some animator’s doodles aren’t being repressed, heh.

  7. Gleezus

    I couldn’t agree with you more… Bravo! I look forward to seeing the MPAA taking your thought and running with it (doubt it will ever happen, but optimism only hurts those who truly believe in it…). Once more (since positive remarks these days are as hard to come by as gas under $2.50 a gallon), great post and keep up the good work!


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