Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Rethinking PG-13: Ratings and the Boundaries of Childhood and Horror

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Rethinking PG-13: Ratings and the Boundaries of Childhood and Horror

Article excerpt

THE FILM RATING SYSTEM, ESTABLISHED in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has remained remarkably consistent in structure throughout its history. Apart from some minor tweaks, the first-and to date, onlymajor change came in 1984, when a string of controversial features led to the creation of PG-13: "Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13." This new classification was intended to bridge the gap between PG and the restricted R classification. If the rating system is intended to "reflect the current sentiment of parents" and "mirror contemporary concern" ("Why: History of Ratings"), can this amendment suggest important changes in society, particularly in relation to views of horror and childhood?

Regrettably, the importance of PG-13 has been systematically downplayed, often even ignored, in the academic context. In Stephen Vaughn's critical account of the rating system's history, for instance, the author frames the introduction of PG-13 around several cases of rating controversies of the early 1980s, most of which surprisingly refer not to PG or PG-13 films but to the R and X classifications and their "clearly flawed appeals process" (109). The importance of the restricted side of the ratings spectrum is so overpowering that the author concludes his analysis of PG-13 with the caveat "there was still nothing to categorize the area between R and X" (120). In any case, Vaughn does subtly hint at why PG-13 may be important on its own: the violence and horror in Spielberg's family films such as Poltergeist (1982, dir. Tobe Hooper) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, dir. Steven Spielberg), which were awarded the PG rating with minor struggle; the films were key to the creation of PG-13 (Vaughn 114-15) and prompted debates around the distinction "between teenagers and preteens" (Vaughn 117).

This is a point worthy of much deeper consideration, particularly given the heated controversy generated by Temple of Doom upon release. Its violence and gore surprised viewers and upset parents, prompting Paramount to insert a warning in its advertisements for the film ("This film may be too intense for younger children") and leading Spielberg to clarify that he would not let a ten-year-old see one of the film's most violent sequences (Harmetz 48). But if Temple of Doom was "the last straw . . . that broke the back of support for the single PG rating" (Goodman C5), its critical reception was, like that of Poltergeist, mostly positive. The issues around PG-13 become more complex when a third PG-rated, family-friendly film, Gremlins (1984, dir. Joe Dante), is considered as part of the group of PG-13 instigators. Unlike its predecessors, Gremlins provoked strong critical ambiguity and an eruption of anxieties over not only the film's violence but also its tone and ideology, which seemed to be closer to horror than a family film. That PG-13 would then be perceived as "a sop to the pressure, not as an initiative" (Champlin 77), suggests the early to mid-1980s as a period of transformation in social and cultural perceptions in which PG-13 surfaced as the marker of new boundaries for childhood as well as the horror genre.

Debates about the film rating system have been preoccupied mainly with the topics of censorship and child protection, usually discussed separately. Discussions over censorship tend to limit themselves to the restricted end of the ratings spectrum and detail the problems surrounding the X and NC-17 ratings, and authors who focus on child protection largely discuss the system's scope and the competence of its classifications, sometimes defending a change from age-based ratings to detailed content descriptions.1 Although the debates differ, the concerns raised on each side often meet specifically in the questioning of the system's integrity and the MPAA's right to moral authority, as well as the consequences of the power it wields in Hollywood. …

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