'Ratings Creep' - or a Case of 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy'?

It looked like a classic case of “ratings creep.”

In 2002, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nell Minow — aka the “Movie Mom” and film critic for movies.yahoo.com — went to see the PG-13 movie About a Boy. At one point in the film, Hugh Grant used an adjectival form of what the Motion Picture Association of America calls “one of the harsher sexually derived words,” often referred to as “the f-word.”

“It once was verboten,” the July 16 article claimed, “to utter (the f-word) in a PG-13 film. Then, it was allowed once — as an expletive, not to describe the sexual act.” Minow, knowing the one-use rule, thought, That's it. I won't hear that again. But then the adjective cropped up a second time. “So, now the standard changes,” Minow said. “Instead of one, you can do two. That's how it happens. It's incremental.”

Maybe not. Consider this: All the way back in 1987, Adventures in Babysitting featured not one, but two emphatic uses of the f-word, not as an adjective but as a non-sexual verb, in back-to-back lines of dialogue. It also featured drug references, adolescent boys ogling porn, crass sexual references and young children in recurring life-threatening peril from mobsters. And it got a PG-13. In 1987.

In fact, far from the f-word being off-limits in a 1980s PG-13 film, back then you could actually get away with it in a PG film, both before PG-13 (Sixteen Candles) and after (Big; Eight Men Out).

What ratings creep?

Real or imagined, ratings creep is all the rage lately, in the wake of a recent study by Harvard Kids at Risk Project researchers Kimberly Thompson and Fumie Yokota, who claim that films of a given rating today include, on average, more objectionable content than similarly rated films 10 years ago.

The study has generated a flurry of stories warning parents that PG-13 is the new R, PG is the new PG-13, and G is the new PG. And there's some truth to that. But good luck finding any stories that raise any critical questions about the authors’ claims.

Many stories have reported head-to-head test cases of older and newer films that Thompson says illustrate ratings creep. One such comparison involves the original 1994 PG-rated Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause and the G-rated 2002 sequel The Santa Clause 2, which Thompson says is more violent than its predecessor.

Does this prove ratings creep? Consider:

While Santa Clause 2 does involve some slapstick violence, the original includes a crucial early scene in which the “real” Santa slips off a roof and apparently dies. This could be much more disturbing to children than, say, the sequel's climactic depiction of Scott and Fake Santa struggling for control of the airborne sleigh. Language in the original film includes “hell” and several instances of “oh my God.” The G-rated sequel has no objectionable language of this sort.

The original film includes some mildly risqué references, including lines about sleeping “buck naked,” “freezing my nubs off” and “1-800-Spank-Me.” In the G-rated sequel, a childish bathroom expression is about as risqué as dialogue gets.

The original film includes potentially troubling themes, including marital estrangement, divorce and the legitimizing of the broken family, which for many children could be more stressful than anything in the sequel.

In spite of this, many media sources repeated some version of the claim that, compared with the G-rated sequel, the PG-rated original has less sex and nudity, violence, gore and profanity. (The Register reported on the study in “Hollywood ‘Ratings Creep’ Gets Creepy,” Aug. 29-Sept. 4).

Not that Thompson herself seems to have said anything about sex, nudity, gore or profanity in these films. Her concern was the violence, which she apparently considers to trump all other elements. In fact, Thompson's focus on violence seems to lead her to weight all violence the same, whether slapstick, stylized, realistic or what-have-you. Does this make sense? Should a graphic depiction of terrorists decapitating a hostage, say, be counted as equivalent to Aragorn slicing off orc-heads in The Lord of the Rings?

This tendency to equate all violence is also behind another much-reported one of Thompson's comparison cases: the R-rated A Time to Kill (1996) and the PG-13 The Return of the King (2003).

This comparison was challenged in one of the few articles anywhere to cast doubts on the study. In an article for TheCelebrityCafe.com (“Harvard Study Shows Ratings Creep,” July 14), writer Brian McCarthy points out, “A Time to Kill dealt with child rape, gunning down unarmed men and racial hate crimes (brick throwing, burnings). Granted, there was more killing of creatures in (Lord of the Rings), but A Time to Kill is still more violent.”

None of this is to say that there isn't a real big-picture, ratings-creep phenomenon at work. There probably is — along with counter-trends of ratings getting stricter in some areas, looser in others.

Many older films, were they released today, would in all likelihood get a higher rating if released today. For example, movies with the f-word like Big and Eight Men Out could never get away with a PG rating today. Nor could you have a drug reference in a PG film, as The Goonies did in 1985.

The ratings-creep phenomenon may well be real. However, anecdotal data offered by the study's authors are very unconvincing. And, as the Register has previously reported, questions remain about the study's data and method as well. So far as I know, the Harvard study has yet to be seriously questioned or examined.

Until more information is available, the Register rule of thumb continues to apply: Parents shouldn't count on the MPAA system to do their job for them. No matter what the rating is, parental guidance is always required.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.