The History of MPAA Ratings

By Michelle Donnelly · January 18, 2015

It was September 5th 1921. Silent screen star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his friends were throwing a party in a hotel room in San Francisco. There was music, dancing and plenty of bootleg alcohol. Twenty-five year old actress Virginia Rappe was there with her manager and a friend. Days later, Arbuckle would be in jail accused of her rape and charged with manslaughter after her death on September 9th. His was a sensationalized trial that included Rappe’s bladder being introduced as evidence, testimony about her many illegal abortions and a star witness with a history of charges including extortion, fraud and racketeering. There were accusations of prosecutorial intimidation and tampering with evidence. Across the country, Randolph Hearst’s chain of newspapers covered every salacious detail. Three trials and $700,000 in lawyer’s fees later, Arbuckle was acquitted. It was just one of many scandals that rocked Hollywood around the period. Fearing government reprisal for its transgressions, the movie studios turned to former Postmaster General and Presbyterian Church elder, Will H. Hays for moral guidance.

Hays took great exception to the Arbuckle case, feeling it symbolized the erosion of Hollywood. After becoming President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922, Hays banned all showings of Arbuckle’s films. While the ban only lasted eight months, Arbuckle’s career would take over a decade to recover.

Eight years into his tenure, Hays instituted what would become known as the Hays Code. In 1934, Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), began to enforce the code in earnest. Its stated aim was to “maintain social and community values in the production of silent, synchronized and talking motion pictures.” Concerned with the moral effect movies had on the viewing public, it contained clear guidelines about what should be portrayed on film. On sex: “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” On dancing: “dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.” On profanity: “pointed profanity or vulgar expressions, however used, are forbidden.” On religion: “no film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.” On national feelings: “the use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.”

In 1968, after years of lax enforcement of the Code and the increasing use of profanity in films, studios once again began to fear government intrusion. The Motion Picture Association of America (the new name for the MPPDA) made the decision to replace the Hays Code with a film rating system. Administered by the independent agency the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA) and adhered to by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the system is purely voluntary although typically observed by filmmakers who know it’s necessary in order for their films to receive exposure to as wide an audience as possible. Classification and Rating Administration board members are bound by strict eligibility rules. Each is required to be a parent and “may not have any other affiliation with the entertainment industry.” Further, once a member's youngest child reaches twenty-one, they forfeit their post. In order to avoid undue influence from industry professionals among others, says the MPAA, all members are anonymous.

Perhaps as a backlash after years of stringent censorship promulgated by Hays code, the new classification system instead focused on rating movies as a means to inform the public of a film’s content. The self-regulated system is meant to reflect social standards and in reality, is the motion picture industry’s vigorous and determined attempt at avoiding government regulation.

From 1968 until 1984, only minimal modifications were made to the rating system. Then, in the early 1980's, a string of Steven Spielberg films (Poltergeist, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), were strongly objected to by parents for their intense use of blood and violence. While Spielberg agreed that quite possibly a PG rating was too lenient, he complained that an R was too stringent. Appealing to then MPAA President Jack Valenti, Valenti agreed. Spielberg suggested the MPAA adopt another rating that could represent something in between PG and R. Valenti was instrumental in the creation of the new rating, which was established on July 1, 1984. The first film classified a month later as PG-13 was Red Dawn.

Increasingly, the MPAA rating system and CARA have come under criticism as being ineffective and misguided. Film critic Roger Ebert complained about the system’s preoccupation and strict classification of sexuality while at the same time it allows for copious amounts of violence in PG and PG-13 films. A comparison to a like system illustrates this point.

Nations across the world have systems that range from censorship to voluntary classification systems. Of these, Britain’s is markedly similar to the United States. Also established by its film industry, Great Britain’s British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), like the MPAA, is an independent, non-governmental entity. Established in 1912, its board rates with six classifiers, in a considerably more nuanced approach. These classifiers include U (universal), PG (parental guidance), 12A, 15 and 18, which labels whether films are suitable for those ages and over.

Similar to the MPAA ratings, the BBFC relies on public standards to shape their classification system. At regular intervals, the British Board reaches out to the public to conduct extensive interactive discussions about current attitudes. The two key principles they abide by while developing their guidelines are to protect children and at risk adults, and to “empower consumers” with information as it makes decision about what to watch. Unlike CARA’s board members though, BBFC examiners are identifiable and in fact interact regularly with the public by giving talks to educational institutions to inform them about the classification system. Further, the BBFC guidelines are an easily accessible and detailed document that not only explains its classification categories, but also provides thorough explanation about its rationale.

A cursory evaluation of 2014 films shows some interesting patterns. The Grand Budapest Hotel: MPAA rated R, BBFC rated 15; Birdman: MPAA rated R, BBFC rated 15; Top Five: MPAA rated R, BBFC rated 15; Boyhood: MPAA rated R, BBFC rated 15. In perhaps one of the most telling scenarios, the BBFC rated The Other Woman 12A (for “infrequent strong language, moderate sex references). On the other hand, the MPAA originally rated the film R (for “some sexual references”) and only on appeal did it change the rating to PG-13 (for “mature thematic material, sexual references and language”). Then there is Unbroken, rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language,” yet the BBFC rated it higher at 15 for “strong violence.”

Leading authorities on violence and cinema have likewise been vocal in their criticisms of the MPAA rating system. In 2013, the Annenberg Public Policy Center called out the MPAA for the fact that gun violence shown in the top grossing PG-13 movies has increased threefold since instituted in 1984, and actually surpassed the amount of gun violence shown in top grossing R rated movies. The Center for Media Literacy argues that the current MPAA categories are insufficient and do not address the effects of violence and sexuality on a child’s developmental progress. It recommends reforming the system to include more categories and advises the MPAA begin to view violence in a larger context. Specifically, if its aim is to protect children, the MPAA should begin to understand the subtleties inherent in the portrayal of violence, such as the reward and punishment of violence, whether the violence is justifiable and how realistic it is portrayed. 

Recent high profile appeals have raised the calls for reform. The 2013 film Philomena originally received an R rating due to its use of the word “fuck.” Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it’s a compassionate story about a mother searching for the son who was taken away from her as a teenager. Incensed at CARA’s rating, Harvey Weinstein (the Weinstein Company distributed the film) appealed and took on an ambitious campaign to have the rating changed to PG-13. Having similarly appealed, albeit unsuccessfully, CARA’s rating of The King’s Speech three years earlier, Weinstein consciously waged a very public campaign that included his appearance on CBS’s Good Morning show. In the end, Weinstein won the appeal and the film was released with a PG-13 rating (of note, the BBFC rated the movie 12A). More recent, was the controversy over the 2014 film Love is Strange. While the BBFC rated the movie 15, the movie received an R rating here in the U.S. Supposedly the rating was due to language, but it is more likely that its portrayal of a homosexual couple was the reasoning behind the film not receiving a PG-13.

In responding to criticisms, the MPAA counters that its ratings reflect the standards of parents who rely on the system. It claims that its classifications are true to what parents do and don’t want their children to see; that profanity and sexuality are high on the list of those things that bother parents the most. In 2008, MPAA President Dan Glickman admitted that they were constrained by regional preferences. Per Glickman, Southerners are more apprehensive about language, Midwesterners about sexuality while Coastal residents worry about violence.

Critics have called the MPAA’s rating system hypocritical and “arcane.”

The lack of independent theaters (who are willing to screen non-rated films) means that the National Association of Theater Owners, who abide by the MPAA ratings, hold studios and filmmakers captive, financially speaking. Further, the issue of transparency is one that continues to plague the MPAA and CARA. They refuse to make their research public or publish detailed rating guidelines, the ten CARA board members are anonymous and the rationale for their decisions is not always clear. After losing an appeal to have the R rating for the film Bully overturned, Harvey Weinstein threatened to leave the MPAA. My sense is that any real and lasting changes to the MPAA will only happen after a dramatically significant event, such as The Weinstein Company abandoning the MPAA.