In 1984, the Motion Picture Association of America introduced its first new content rating since its “G, PG, R, and X” classification scheme replaced the Hays Code in 1968. The PG-13 was meant to signal a strong note of caution to parents that a movie might be too intense or troubling for some children, or might inspire some conversations a parent wasn’t ready to have.
But in the 21st century, it’s become the dominant rating for commercial pictures, one studios often insist on as way of protecting their nine-digit investment in any presumptive tentpole. At least among the major studios, the pervasiveness of the PG-13 has finished the job of infantilizing—okay, simplifying—mainstream cinema begun by Jaws and Star Wars almost two generations ago. As nearly every other delivery system for culture or storytelling—from pop music to videogames to network TV dramas to the Internet—has grown more sophisticated and permissive in the decades since PG-13 was introduced, the rating’s ascendancy has only hardened America’s peculiar, specific strain of psychosis: Puritanism (and soft bigotry) about sex matched with shrugging acceptance of violent death. The America we’re exporting to the world through movies that increasingly regard the U.S. as their secondary market has become a grotesque place. How did we get here?
Someone must’ve fed us after midnight.
Arriving two years after Steven Spielberg’s cuddly blockbuster E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins’ ad campaign emphasized Spielberg’s presence as producer, suggesting that audiences could expect a similarly heartwarming creature-feature from Christopher Columbus (who would soon become a director of family-friendly megahits in his own right) and director Joe Dante. But while E.T. is a fundamentally gentle, hopeful film, Gremlins is pretty much one big gag: A spoof of It’s A Wonderful Life, with its faith in the decency of small-town America, and a prank on audiences who showed up hoping for a reprise of E.T.’s moonlight-bike-ride-to-the-heavens magic.
Only two weeks earlier, Spielberg (as director) released Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom—the one wherein Thuggee priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) extracts a man’s still-beating heart from his chest while the victim remains alive and conscious to look on in horror. (Spielberg has since disavowed Temple Of Doom as a bad-faith movie heavily influenced by heartbreak: When the film was made, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend, and his partner George Lucas had just divorced. It’s a weird but fascinating example of a genuinely adult situation coloring a movie that’s basically for third-graders, as L.A. Weekly chief film critic Amy Nicholson pointed out on a recent episode of her podcast The Canon.)
Having created the so-called problem, Spielberg was just as quick to propose a solution. “I remember calling [then-MPAA president] Jack Valenti and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG,” Spielberg told Vanity Fair’s Jim Windolf in a 2008 interview. (Spielberg didn’t actually make an R-rated movie himself until Schindler’s List in 1993.) The censorship body adopted Spielberg’s idea with surprising haste. Only two months after Gremlins, John Milius’ Soviet-invasion war movie Red Dawn became the first picture released under the new PG-13, on August 10, 1984. And a month after that, the National Coalition on Television Violence condemned Red Dawn as the most violent film ever made.
Without lending any credence to that claim, the one thing the MPAA has grown more tolerant about over the years is violence. You know, for kids. At first, the PG-13 worked more or less as intended. Spielberg’s first “serious” film, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple, was released under the PG-13 rating in 1985. Dirty Dancing, which dealt candidly with sexual promiscuity and abortion, got a PG-13 in 1987, the year seven of the 10 top earners were rated R.
That’s unimaginable now. So is the prospect of an R-rated drama like Rain Man becoming the year’s biggest hit, but that’s exactly what happened in 1988. Rain Man is extremely mild, and a reminder that the adult rating was once regarded as a feature, not a bug. Throughout the 1980s, American homes were rapidly filling up with VCRs and cable-TV subscriptions, and viewers were consuming not-edited-for-television movies in their homes at an unprecedented rate. While the MPAA held great sway over what films could be advertised or shown in public, it had less and less influence over what people actually saw.
The first PG-13 movie to top its year of release was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. After Batman’s still-shocking, narration-free first trailer dropped, my friends and I agreed—in sober, furrowed-brow school-cafeteria conference—that the film would obviously have to be rated R, a conclusion that filled us with confidence that the memory of Adam West’s paunch and permanently arched, painted-on eyebrows would at last be overwritten by the brutal, enraged Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One comics.
In the 25 years since Michael Keaton danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, whatever that means, PG-13 films have been the year’s top grossers 15 times, assuming no picture yet to be released in 2014 will out-earn Guardians Of The Galaxy’s $771 million haul. R-rated films have been the year’s No. 1 grossers only twice in the last quarter-century, with Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 and Saving Private Ryan in 1998.
The list of the top 10 all-time biggest grossers and the top 10 PG-13 rated grossers is almost identical, with Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight occupying slots No. 1 through 4 on both lists. Seven of the top 10 all-timers were rated PG-13. Eight of 2014’s top 10 earners so far were PG-13, with the PG releases The Lego Movie and Maleficent as the only anomalies.
The most recent year in which the top-grossing picture wasn’t rated PG-13 was 2010. That year’s box-office champ, Toy Story 3, got a G rating despite its intense climax—wherein the heroes join hands, close their eyes, and wait for death together—and its ability to reduce cynical grownups to quivering tubes of leaky-eyed Jell-O. How that film gets a G while Frozen ends up with the more cautious PG rating is a mystery.
But then, everything about how the MPAA does business is a mystery. Although the needlessly secretive association has long insisted that it maintains no guidelines vis-a-vis what type of content each rating will permit—The Imitation Game’s PG-13 is due, in part, to “historical smoking”—it’s clear enough that no body count is high enough to fetch an R rating on its own. And no tally of gory death will get a picture branded NC-17, as The Raid 2’s R rating makes plain.
But a second occurrence of the word “fuck” will get you that scarlet R. (The Best Picture-nominated, based-on-a-true-story drama Philomena had to appeal its initial R rating last year, on the basis of its two F-bombs.) So will the mere suggestion that gay characters have sex lives, even when the sex is neither depicted nor even described—as G.B.F. director Darren Stein found out when his sweet-natured, demure BUT STILL GAY GAY GAY HIDE THE KIDS romantic comedy got hit with an R “for sexual references.”
Meanwhile, every film about the homicidal, alcoholic, sex addict James Bond released since Licence To Kill in 1989 has carried a PG-13 rating. Even Casino Royale, wherein Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre tortures Craig’s 007 by tying him naked to a bottomless chair and whipping his scrotum. Even GoldenEye, wherein Famke Janssen plays an assassin who shrieks in orgasmic ecstasy while machine-gunning her victims, or suffocating them with her thighs. If she came without killing anyone, though, GoldenEye would’ve earned an R, like the one When Harry Met Sally got for (presumably) Meg Ryan’s famous faked orgasm in the deli.
True to the violence-yes, sex-no spirit of the MPAA, I rented dozens of R-rated action films from my local video store from ages 11 through 15, occasionally smuggling them under my parents’ noses, but more often obtaining their exhausted, reluctant, pre-screening consent. The glorious 1984-88 action-movie renaissance that brought us The Terminator, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, RoboCop, Predator, and Die Hard was one I experienced first through paperback novelizations, then at last on VHS. The only time the proprietor ever stopped me was when I tried to rent Half Moon Street, wherein Sigourney Weaver—Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley to me—plays an international trade expert/escort. (“She’s naked for half the movie,” the store clerk scolded, as though telling me something my dog-earned Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide hadn’t already.) When Twin Peaks hit the airwaves in 1990 and I became obsessed with David Lynch, I rented Blue Velvet and was upbraided by a friend’s mom for bringing “porn” into her house. I was 16 when the unrated version of Basic Instinct came out on home video, including the footage director Paul Verhoeven trimmed after initially receiving an NC-17. I rented it immediately.
I still had to pedal my bike to a video store to get these movies back then. In 2014, the idea of impressionable tweens requiring protection from upsetting material they encounter in a movie theater is a similarly quaint notion. The most lasting effect of the PG-13 rating seems to be that it’s kept most mainstream pictures clear of the profanity and sexual candor that populates critically acclaimed cable dramas. Is it coincidence that while major studios have never been less inclined to invest in movies that won’t sell toys, or open huge in non-English-speaking countries, the quality of television storytelling is the strongest it’s ever been?
One bizarre side effect of PG-13 dominance has been R-rated franchises like The Terminator and Die Hard getting defanged for their third sequels: Live Free Or Die Hard and Terminator: Salvation probably wouldn’t have been any better had they been granted the more permissive R ratings of their forebears, but at least the no-longer-bothering-with-a-toupee John McClane would’ve been spared the indignity of having his own catchphrase neutered by a gunshot sound effect.
What’s puzzling is that these studios believed these pictures needed the PG-13 to be successful, that the younguns supposedly welcomed in by a PG-13 would more than offset the aging fans turned off by the thought of a watery Die Hard picture. Someone born on the day The Terminator came out in 1984 or Die Hard came out in 1988 would’ve been plenty old enough to buy a ticket to an R-rated picture by the time the PG-13 entries rolled around. Exactly how many 16-year-olds did 20th Century Fox imagine were interested in the continuing adventures of a 52-year-old, confused-by-the-Internet Bruce Willis in 2007?
A Good Day To Die Hard, the 2013 sequel, was rated R. By all accounts—I haven’t had the heart to see it—it was even worse than the PG-13 one. 2015’s Terminator: Genisys [sic] is not yet rated. But unless it includes a reprise of the piano-scored Tiki Motel tryst wherein humankind’s savior, John Connor, was conceived, I can guess what its rating will be. If The Terminator taught us anything, it’s that a lowly “Big Buns” waitress might just turn out to be the most important person on Earth—but also, you can get pregnant the very first time you do it. That’s a message 13-year-olds ought to hear.
Spielberg himself has said that Hollywood’s blockbuster economy is broken. The major studios are putting too many eggs in too few baskets, a practice that encourages the artistic conservatism the PG-13 has come to represent. While it started off soundly, the PG-13 rating now represents the insidious idea that filmmakers working above a certain budget level can no longer decide who their films are for. That indecision is more damaging than any number of F-bombs.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week musing over Gremlins and its legacy… and our Movie Of The Week coverage for 2014. We’ll be giving the site entirely over to reviews and year-end wrap-up for the next couple of weeks, before our holiday hiatus. In the meantime, don’t miss the Gremlins Keynote on the ways the film acts as a corrective to It’s A Wonderful Life, and our Forum discussing the film’s perverse take on Christmas celebrations and holiday cheer. We’ll be back to Movie Of The Week in January 2015, with a special guest surprise.