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Are MPAA Movie Ratings Obsolete?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system is used to determine the suitability of mainstream films for American audiences. Begun in 1968 and revised repeatedly throughout the years, the MPAA movie ratings have been continuously controversial with the filmmaking community and general public. Many believe that the ratings system is skewed to particular belief systems, rendering them a potentially obsolete guide for modern audiences.

Currently, the ratings system comprises five categories, generally broken up by age. “G” ratings are suitable for general audiences, and most frequently are given to movies made for children. “PG” ratings suggest that some material may not be appropriate for young children and should be watched with parental guidance. “PG-13” ratings claim that the film content is unsuitable for those under 13, while “R” rated films are considered inappropriate for those under 17. “NC-17” ratings are rare for widely-released films, and instruct that no one under 17 is permitted to attend the film at a theater.

Despite misconceptions, these movie ratings are not laws, being constitutionally unsound. Many theaters choose to enforce MPAA ratings under their “right to refuse service” protections, and may require valid ID before admitting patrons to R or NC-17 rated films. While some consider this a violation of First Amendment rights, theaters are within their legal rights to enforce the MPAA ratings requirements.

The ratings are determined by the amount of questionable content in a film, including foul language, violence, and depictions of sex, drug paraphernalia and alcohol or drug abuse. While the exact rules are fluid and have never been publicly released by the MPAA, certain guidelines do exist that may push a film from one category to another. This refusal to announce exact guidelines has lead to considerable controversy, as many claim the decisions are somewhat arbitrary and not accountable to a published standard.

Some believe that the ratings are skewed to give harsher ratings to films that portray sex. The NC-17 rating is used almost exclusively for films that contain graphic sexual scenes, whereas extremely violent films are more often given an R rating. Film critic Roger Ebert is notable for his criticism of the system, and many others against the MPAA movie ratings system suggest that the organization tries to enforce an outdated attitude about sex in films. The issue is an extremely important subject for many filmmakers, as an NC-17 rated film will almost never be shown in mainstream theaters, thereby seriously limiting the opportunity to return a profit.

The movie ratings system in America is considered by many to be severely flawed, and based on guidelines that are obsolete to a 21st century audience. Resolutions for the concerns are not forthcoming however, as most agree that a ratings system is extremely beneficial to parents in determining what films their children may see. While the movie ratings system has been amended repeatedly throughout the years, the controversy continues to rage; what some believe is a valuable tool in choosing appropriate films is to others thinly disguised censorship of film.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Musical Expert. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon993161 — On Oct 26, 2015

I'm 17 years old right now, but I clearly remember my middle school years. Based on what I saw and heard, I believe most people 13 years old and older can handle any amount of sex, nudity, or swearing and that's actually being conservative. In middle school, I heard strong language used every day. Not only that, but some people at school were having sex, including doing surprisingly sexual things inside the classroom and watching porn was extremely common. I myself started watching porn when I was 12.

Even elementary schoolers curse and make sexual jokes now though, usually starting around third or fourth grade. Because of that, I think PG-9 should be the new PG-13 and R-13 should be the new R for sexual content and swearing. Even then, I assure you there will be plenty of rule-breaking.

Violence is a different thing though. There are plenty of adults and teenagers who are bothered by images of explicit violence and gore. I think after R-13, the ratings should only concern violence, R-15 would be containing normal R rated violence right now and NC-17 contains the really graphic and extreme violence that you apparently can see even in R rated films right now.

The G-rating has become completely useless. I don't even remember the last time I saw a commercial for a G-rated film. They should just use PG and that be considered appropriate for kids 8 and under.

By anon972435 — On Oct 03, 2014

I think there are only two MPAA ratings that mean anything anymore, and those are PG-13 and R. I haven't seen a G rated movie in years, and I'm not sure that "family" movie companies like Disney even care to make them these days. A PG-13 movie rating mostly means some of the bad language has been edited, and there won't be nudity. That's about it.

By animegal — On May 05, 2011

I don't think the ratings should be taken away completely. Does anyone think that there should be a softer rating system in place? Perhaps a simple warning label like used on album covers?

I think if there was just a sticker on boxes or posters that said, contains violence, contains sex, than people could better judge what to see. This way, parents still get their warnings, but it doesn't make the item impossible to sell.

By wander — On May 05, 2011

I think with the popularity of downloading movies at home that the ratings should be eliminated. There is no one at your house to check your ID when you're surfing from your computer or buying movies online.

There are already child safety programs available for parents who want to censor what their children see. As parents, it is their responsibility to choose what their children view.

Having ratings in place that affect everyone by preventing films from being made or sponsored should be abolished.

By drtroubles — On May 03, 2011

I would say that MPAA movie ratings are not just obsolete, but they are very much a powerful platform for censorship of material in the United States. The financial impact of receiving an NC-17 rating is so great that studios will often refuse to produce the movie, let alone see that it is released in theatres.

While I think it is a good idea to mark films child friendly, I believe that what the general public views should be up to personal judgment. What we watch should not become the responsibility of a board that arbitrarily decides that graphic violence against women is more acceptable than a sex scene between loving partners. The MPAA ratings are prudish and belong to an era long past.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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