In April of this year, the Motion Picture Association of America (hereby referred to as the MPAA) unveiled its “Check the Box” campaign. The purpose of this undertaking was ostensibly to encourage parents to pay attention to the descriptors in that little ratings box that appears in movie ads and on posters and DVD boxes. This way, they said, parents would know exactly what kind of potentially objectionable content was in the films their children might want to see. A great idea, right? Not so fast, Slappy. The “Check the Box” campaign is yet another example of the MPAA doing what it does best, which is to say, not much of anything at all. The ratings descriptors have been appearing since 1990, but “Check the Box” has created a whole new problem, in that it brings added notice to how they are often uninformative, non-specific, contradictory, confusing, or just plain stupid. The campaign as a whole has been a failure of epic proportions. We’re talking New Coke levels of failure here.
For a prime example, look no further than the recent Blu-ray release of The Fugitive. The now-prominent MPAA box notes that it has been rated PG-13 for a murder and “action sequences in an adventure setting.” If you’re scratching your head right now, good; come scratch mine, too. Imagine you are the parent of a ten-year-old who wants to watch The Fugitive. What exactly does this phrase tell you about objectionable content? Is there any parent who will think, I don’t mind my kid watching action scenes, but that adventure setting is just too much for him at this age! The whole notion of “action scenes” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. One person chasing another on foot could be an action scene. So could two people trying to stab each other with hunting knives. Big difference between them. This vague phrasing leaves parents completely in the dark as to what specific material will be found in the film.
A lot of the MPAA descriptors are similarly nonsensical. “Thematic elements” is one that gets used with shocking frequency. Don’t all movies have thematic elements? I took my four-year-old to see The Smurfs 2 this summer. Even it had thematic elements! “Thematic material” is sometimes used instead. Again, these are general, all-encompassing terms that provide nothing of value to concerned parents. Some of the movies to have earned this peculiar phrase are Juno, 42, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Frankenweenie. The themes those pictures dealt with are, respectively, teen pregnancy, racism, mental health issues, and dead dogs. A parent who believes their child isn’t ready to deal with the idea of a depressed teenager struggling with suicidal ideation may wish to avoid renting The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The logical, obvious thing to do would be to simply specify the nature of the thematic element in the ratings box, whether it be child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, rape, or whatever. Does the MPAA do that, though? No, it creates a generic-sounding catchphrase to describe anything potentially troubling or difficult to explain to a child.
Other inane, senseless descriptors include “historical smoking” (as though smoking in a period setting is different from smoking in current day), “pervasive language” (a trait shared by all non-silent films), and the laughable “mild rude humor.” Since different parents object to different forms of rude humor, why not be specific? Despicable Me 2 earned a PG for this reason. A recurring joke involves a bunch of little yellow creatures using a “fart gun.” Instead of “rude humor,” a descriptor of “flatulence jokes” — or, even better, “Minion farts” — would let parents know exactly what to expect, rather than having to guess.
Even when the descriptors seem straightforward, the distinctions between them can be tough to differentiate. Some movies get an R for “nudity,” while others get it for “graphic nudity.” (In the MPAA’s eyes, “graphic nudity” refers to a male being nude.) One also wonders what the difference is between “intense violence,” “strong violence,” “strong bloody violence,” and “disturbing violence.”
Another way the MPAA’s ratings box confuses parents is through inconsistency. Certain movies are rated more harshly for things that don’t really seem as bad as other things. Back in May, a coming-of-age comedy called The Kings of Summer was rated R for “language and some teen drinking.” A week later, White House Down was released with a PG-13 rating for “prolonged sequences of action and violence, including intense gunfire and explosions, some language, and a brief sexual image.” So let’s get this straight: the first movie has a few uses of the F-word and teenagers drinking beer. The latter has virtually non-stop shooting, death, and stuff blowing up, coupled with a few uses of the F-word and somebody visibly getting laid. Any parent looking at these two movies would be utterly perplexed. Similarly, on the weekend of August 16, the thriller Paranoia opened with a PG-13 for “some sexuality, violence, and language,” while the documentary Cutie and the Boxer earned an R for “nude art images.” Heaven forbid children be exposed to art!
The MPAA has long been hesitant to publicly reveal its reasons for doling out specific ratings. It’s often been said that it is more lenient to major studio productions than to independent films. And it’s a fact that it rates sexual material more harshly than violence, even though 99 percent of the people in the world think sex is awesome and violence is appalling. Worst of all, the MPAA purports to do its job in service of parents. If it truly wants to benefit parents, it should start a “Check the Website” campaign instead. Its current website, FilmRatings.com, lists the same descriptors found in the ratings box. It should have detailed breakdowns of potentially objectionable content: “Movie X – Rated R for 126 uses of the F word, a decapitation, a sex scene with male and female body parts visible, and a subplot involving abortion.”
Unlike the current setup, which is useless beyond measure, something like this might actually be of value to conscientious parents. And that would be a win/win situation for everyone.