Hollywood 'Ratings Creep' Gets Creepy

HOLLYWOOD — Today's movies contain significantly more violence, sex and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago.

That's the conclusion of a study released last month by the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health that examined 1,906 movies released between 1992 and 2003.

This conclusion led to the study's authors to suggest that the Motion Picture Association of America — the MPAA — “has become increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings.” As an example, USA Today employed the same Kids-in-Mind (www. kids-in-mind.com) movie database employed by the study to demonstrate that 1994's The Santa Clause was rated PG, yet it had less sex, nudity, violence, gore and profanity than 2002's The Santa Clause 2, which was rated G.

Parents are agreeing — and pointing to this summer's hits as further evidence.

Shrek 2 is already one of the most popular movies ever. More than 40 million Americans, mostly children, have seen it. It will be seen by millions more, repeatedly, after its DVD and video release before Christmas, and the movie has been hailed as another example of the supposedly wholesome animated fare that has made billions for Hollywood in recent years.

But how appropriate is it for pre-adolescents to see a movie that reveals Pinocchio to wear women's thong underwear, includes several sexual references, and which Screenit.com rates as violent?

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has given Shrek 2 a PG rating “for some crude humor, a brief substance reference and some suggestive content.” PG stands for “parental guidance suggested,” and ads for the film warn, “Some material might not be suitable for children.”

Despite these caveats, the movie has been marketed primarily to kids, through saturation TV advertising and tie-ins with Burger King and toy and video game makers. Shrek 2 is a particularly lucrative example of “ratings creep,” the process whereby movies that until recently would have been rated suitable only for adults are now rated suitable for teenagers, while movies once rated suitable for teenagers are now rated suitable for small children.

Profits Before Morals

Steve Sailer, a Catholic and the movie reviewer for The American Conservative, said one explanation for “ratings creep” is Hollywood's increasing dependence on young ticket buyers. Children go to the movies more often than adults, and they often see their favorites more than once.

Of course, the most profitable movies are those that appeal to the broadest audience. So, Sailer said, “What the studios were doing up to 2000 was making R-rated films and marketing them like crazy to children.” In 2000, however, “There were congressional hearings on this issue, and (departing-MPAA head Jack) Valenti got the studios to stop advertising R-rated films to kids and got the theaters to do a better job of preventing children from sneaking into R-rated films.”

In response, “The studios started making a lot more PG-13 movies and a lot fewer R-rated movies,” Sailer said.

In theory, this should have resulted in lower profits, as Holly-wood's audience for adult material was smaller. Instead, according to Sailer, “The ratings categories keep getting degraded.” What was once rated NC-17 is now rated R; R has become PG-13; and so on down the list.

MPAA director of public affairs Phuong Yokitis suggests another explanation for “ratings creep.” She said, “The ratings board tries to keep up with the acceptability bar in America. If you ask me if society has changed from 10 years ago, I'd have to say Yes.”

Few would deny American society has been transformed since 1968, when the MPAA ratings were introduced. Certainly not the man who introduced them: 82-year-old Catholic Jack Valenti. Interviewed recently by Catholic News Service, Valenti said he is proud of his role in brokering the end of Hollywood's Hays Office, “which I thought was abominable censorship and could not last.”

Many would argue the lowered “accessibility bar” is what's abominable, but Valenti refused to pass judgment on that. “I don't know whether that's good or bad,” he said. “All I know is that it's change, and I don't fight change.”

According to Valenti, the MPAA system “put[s] the authority of which kid goes to which movie in the hands of parents,” but he admitted the MPAA is only one source of information. He urged parents to consult others, such as the ratings and reviews issued by the Office of Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org/movies/index.htm).

Bishops’ conference media reviewer David DiCerto told the Register, “The MPAA's audience is more pluralistic. Their barometer is what the average parent would like their children to see. Our audience is informed by a faith perspective.”

As for “ratings creep,” DiCerto said, “There seems to be somewhat of a downward trend.”

Ultimately, however, he agreed with Valenti: “The buck stops with parents.”

No Escape

This has always been the case, but Barbara Nicolosi stresses that parents must understand that “We live in degenerate post-Christian times. We are called to be saints and martyrs.”

A Catholic who founded and directs the Act One: Writing For Hollywood program, Nicolosi advises parents who seek to totally insulate their children from the degeneracy of so many movies and TV programs that this is unrealistic.

“Even if you go to the grocery store, they're going to be assaulted by Britney Spears half-naked in the aisles,” Nicolosi said. “There's no way to avoid this stuff. I see many families that are all about protecting their kids, but eventually they leave the family, the home school or Catholic college and must learn to take their place in society as someone who can be a signpost or a hero.”

Added Nicolosi, “We've got to stop all this ‘The way it used to be’ talk. It's not that way anymore. Now is the time for absolute full engagement of parents with the culture and their kids. You don't stop taking them to the movies; this is the art form of their times. They need to know how to read a movie.”

Parents might object that there are hardly enough hours in the day for such engagement. To this, Nicolosi responded, “There's no fix for that. You either head for the caves, or you say ‘We have to make time for this.’ ”

The good news is that Catholics have faced degeneracy before — and triumphed. Nicolosi concluded, “One thing I do know about human history is that it never goes backwards. It goes forwards, and then it crashes and burns, and then a new society comes out.”

Kevin Michael Grace writes from Victoria, British Columbia. (CNS contributed to this report)