The Meaning of Movie Ratings

Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo. 

The movie rating system that film buffs know today has been around for more than 50 years, but Hollywood studios have been regulating movies to one degree or another since the industry's early days. As cultural standards have changed over time, so have movie ratings, even as the process of rating a film remains a closely guarded industry secret.

The Ratings Explained

  • G (general audiences): G ratings are most notable for what the films don’t include: sex and nudity, substance abuse, or realistic/noncartoon violence.
  • PG (parental guidance): Some material may not be suitable for children. The movie may have mildly strong language and some violence, but no substance use or physical abuse.
  • PG-13 (parental guidance-13): Some material may not be suitable for children under 13. Any nudity has to be nonsexual, and any swear words have to be used sparingly. Violence in PG-13 films may be intense, but must be bloodless.
  • R (restricted): No one under 17 admitted without an accompanying parent or guardian. This rating is given for frequent strong language and violence, nudity for sexual purposes, and drug abuse.
  • NC-17 (no one under 17): This rare rating is given to films that feature mature elements in such profusion or intensity that they surpass even the R rating.
  • Unrated: Typically reserved for previews of films not yet officially rated by the MPAA. A green title card indicates the preview is safe for all viewers, while red is for mature audiences. 

Submitting a film to the MPAA for a rating is voluntary; filmmakers and distributors can and do release films without ratings. But such unrated films often find limited release in theaters or may go directly to a TV, video, or streaming to reach larger audiences independent of a rating.

Hollywood's Early Days

The first attempts at censoring movies were made by cities, not the film industry. Chicago and New York City in the early 1900s both gave police the authority to determine what could and could not be shown. And in 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that movies were not considered protected speech under the First Amendment and thus were subject to regulation.

In response, leading movie studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), an industry lobbying organization, in 1922. To head the organization, the MPPDA hired former postmaster general William Hays. Hays didn't just lobby politicians on behalf of filmmakers; he also told the studios what was and was not considered acceptable content.

Throughout the 1920s, filmmakers grew bolder with their choice of subject matter. By today's standards, the occasional glimpse of a bare leg or a suggestive word seems tame, but in that era such behavior was scandalous. Films like "The Wild Party" (1929) with Clara Bow and "She Done Him Wrong" (1933) with Mae West titillated viewers and infuriated social conservatives and religious leaders.

The Hays Code

In 1930, Hays unveiled his Motion Picture Production Code, which soon came to be known as the Hays Code. Its mission was to ensure that the movies depicted "correct standards of life" and, studio executives hoped, to avoid the future threat of government censorship. But MPPDA officials struggled to keep up with Hollywood's output, and the Hays Code was largely ineffectual for its first years.

That changed in 1934 when Hays hired Joseph I. Breen, a lobbyist with deep ties to the Catholic Church, to head the new Production Code Administration. Going forward, every film had to be reviewed and rated to be released. Breen and his team took to their work with zest. For example, "Casablanca" (1942) had its famous ending scene altered to tone down the sexual tension between Humphrey Bogart's and Ingrid Bergman's characters.

In the 1940s, a handful of filmmakers circumvented Hollywood censors by releasing their films independently of the studio system. Most notable was "The Outlaw," a 1941 film starring Jane Russell that gave ample screen time to her famous bosom. After battling censors for five years, director Howard Hughes finally persuaded United Artists to release the film, which was a box office smash. Breen tightened the code's restrictions in 1951, but its days were numbered. 

The Modern Rating System

Hollywood continued to abide by the Motion Picture Production Code into the early 1960s. But as the old studio system crumbled and cultural tastes changed, Hollywood realized that it needed a new way to rate films. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the successor to the MPPDA, created the MPAA Ratings System.

Initially, the system had four grades: G (general audiences), M (mature), R (restricted), and X (explicit). However, the MPAA never trademarked the X rating, and what was intended for legitimate films soon was co-opted by the pornography industry, which outdid itself to advertise films rated with a single, double, or even triple X.

The system was overhauled repeatedly over the years. In 1972, the M rating was changed to PG. Twelve years later, the violence in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" 300 and "Gremlins," both of which had received a PG rating, prompted the MPCC to create the PG-13 rating. In 1990, the MPAA unveiled the NC-17 rating, intended for mainstream films like "Henry and June" and "Requiem for a Dream."

Kirby Dick, whose documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" (2006) examines the history of the MPAA, has criticized the ratings for being too subjective, particularly with depictions of sex and violence. For its part, the MPAA is trying to be more detailed about what the ratings are for. Phrases like "Rated PG-13 for science-fiction violence" now appear in the ratings, and the MPAA has begun offering more details on the rating process on its website. 

Resources for Parents

If you’re looking for independent information about what a movie does or does not contain, websites like Common Sense Media and Kids in Mind offer detailed analyses of the violence, language, and other components of a film independent from the MPAA and any major studios. With this information, you can better make up your mind about what is and isn’t suitable for your kids.