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What Christian parents need to know about the 50-year-old movie rating system

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Here's some advice and resources for picking appropriate films for your kids.

Light the candles, scoop the ice cream and crack out those silly paper horns. The ratings system for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — that familiar litany of letters and numbers, from G to NC-17 —just turned 50 on November 1.

But is anybody celebrating? Almost since its inception, the ratings system has been criticized. And however well-intentioned the creators of the system were, many moviegoers believe that it’s not up to its primary task: Helping parents decide what’s suitable for their children.

It used to not be so hard to pick what to see. Before MPAA ratings came to be, pretty much every American movie — at least those released between 1934 and 1968 — was thought to be kinda-sorta for everybody. The Motion Picture Production Code, often called the Hays Code, made sure of that. Sure, parents still needed to be smart. Moms and dads of the 1960s wouldn’t want to drag their kids into Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But even that harrowing horror story steered clear of profanity, nudity, and gore. Even the film’s famous shower scene was a study in suggestion: We saw skin, but no nudity. We saw the knife, but no actual stabbing.

The Hays Code was a fixture in what we now call Hollywood’s Golden Age. Looking back, it certainly didn’t seem to hamper great moviemaking. But directors were increasingly challenging the old code and the new MPAA President Jack Valenti said it bore “the odious smell of censorship.” It was time to replace the old code, he said. And on Nov. 1, 1968, the MPAA officially installed a new one.

It, too, has changed with the times. The MPAA’s original “M” rating (for “mature” audiences, and for movies that might require parental discretion) gave way to GP (in 1970) which, in turn, changed to PG (in 1972). After an outcry from parents over bloody PG movies like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating in 1984. And after moviemakers complained that the old X rating had become unfairly tied to pornographic flicks, the MPAA changed it to NC-17.

Not that it did much good.

The NC-17 rating was designed to give moviemakers leeway to make quality, adult-oriented films. But many movie chains refuse to screen such films, so the rating, like the old X rating, effectively killed its commercial viability. Directors began to edit their uber-adult films to just barely squeak by with an R rating, which kids of all ages can go to (or sneak into). The NC-17 brand, designed to prevent children and teens from being exposed to stuff way too mature for them, might actually be having the opposite effect.

The ratings system has come under fire for many other reasons: Many accuse its standard-setters to be relatively puritanical when it comes to sexual content, but free and easy with all sorts of graphic violence. Some say the MPAA, whose bills are paid by Hollywood’s major studios, are harder on indie flicks. And most everyone takes issue with the fact that the MPAA’s ratings standards are so secretive, which makes it nearly impossible for moviemakers to know how their films are going to be rated. And because the ratings are so subjective, that makes it hard for parents to make decisions for their own children based on them, too. (The MPAA did just crack the door open on its ratings guidelines a little bit — but not much.)

And then there’s the issue perhaps most vexing to parents — the so-called “ratings creep,” where movies that might’ve landed in R territory 10 or 20 years ago now are now rolled out to families with PG-13 ratings. (A 2004 study by Harvard University suggests that ratings creep is indeed real: researchers “found a significant increase of violence, sex and profanity in films over the 11-year period [between 1992 and 2003], suggesting that the MPAA became increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings.”)

But to me, here’s the saddest upshot of the ratings system: It killed the whole concept of movies made for “general audiences.” Gone are movies like The Maltese Falcon and Bringing Up Baby and Ben Hur — movies that appealed to adults but were suitable for children. Now, G and even PG movies are thought to be kids’ flicks: Moviemakers that want to appeal to adults now stuff in adult-level content — often unneeded and, for large tracts of people, unwanted.

According to a report just released by the MPAA, 57 percent of the movies rated by the association in the last 50 years have been rated R. That’s 17,202 films, in case you were curious: The rating with the second-most movies? That’d be PG, with 5,578 — less than a third of the number of R-rated ones.

While some are calling for the abolition of the ratings system altogether, I don’t think it’ll be going away anytime soon. So what are parents to do? How can they work with the imperfect system in place now to make good, wise decisions for what their families could and should watch?

A couple of suggestions …

First, the MPAA offers a small, extra tool of its own. While most people don’t notice them, each rating actually comes with a box that drills down to more specific content concerns. For instance, the MPAA says Halloween is rated R “for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.” Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, meanwhile, grabbed a PG rating “for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language.” They’re little thumbnails that give more context to a movie’s problematic content, and for some parents, that might be all they need.

‘Course, that’s not wildly helpful, and those MPAA descriptors can be difficult to find, even online.

Thankfully, there are plenty of services, many of them free, designed especially for parents to help wade through a film’s content.

I do some work for an outlet I consider about the best in the biz: Plugged In, which gives some pretty detailed content descriptions of almost every wide-release movie, unpacking its themes and morals and, hopefully, providing some cogent, helpful thoughts for parents, especially Christian ones. (We deal with music, TV, and video games, too.) But Plugged In’s not the only player out there. Other excellent outlets include Common Sense Media and ScreenIt, which tackle the same needs in different ways.

Clearly, the MPAA’s ratings system isn’t perfect. Its creation led to some unintended, and unfortunate, consequences. But for all its faults, the 50-year-old ratings system serves as a first step for parents determining what’s suitable for their families. For true movie discernment, however, they just need to take another step.

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