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From G to NC-17

Updated on October 8, 2012

The MPAA Rating System

Since the 1960’s an organization representing the major film studios has assigned ratings to most of the films that are released in the United States each year. It is called the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA and its ratings have often been met with controversy and criticism. There are no specific, official standards for what constitutes a rating. The MPAA is only allowed to give general feedback to the filmmakers. The raters are supposedly all parents with school age children. They are instructed to rate films from a parental point of view. Most of the raters are anonymous.

The MPAA and its ratings have often been met with controversy and criticism. In recent years, they have been accused of “ratings creep”, or being more lenient on films than they used to be 10-20 years ago. They have also long been accused of being more tolerant of violent content than they are with sex and nudity. In addition, they have been accused of being harsher with independent studios and filmmakers than they are with major studios.

Several changes have been made to the ratings over the years. Let’s take a look at the current and past ratings that the MPAA has assigned and how controversy and criticism have altered the system. The following five ratings are used by the MPAA at the present time.


G – General Audiences (1968-Present)

This rating is assigned to films that contain no content that most parents would find objectionable for their children’s viewing. It was not originally solely associated with children’s films. It simply meant that general audiences, kids and adults alike, could view the film without having to worry about graphic content. Like many other ratings, the perception of G-rated films has changed over the years. Back in the ‘60s, adult movies like “Planet of the Apes” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were given G ratings. Frankly, neither of these movies would have a chance in hell of getting a G if they were released today.

Later, of course, the G-rating became associated with children’s films, such as the animated movies produced by Disney. It has experienced a significant decline in recent years because even most kids’ movies today are rated PG. The G has become associated with dull, innocuous films and has developed a reputation for being box office poison. Ironically, the same is true for the opposite end of the rating spectrum, which we will discuss later.


PG – Parental Guidance Suggested (1970-Present)

Like I wrote in the preceding section, this is the rating that films intended for children usually receive these days. The PG rating was created in 1970 to replace the GP and M ratings. Like the G, the PG rating was not originally associated solely with children’s films. Many older PG movies would likely shock parents who purchased them for their kids today. Movies like “Airplane”, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, “Poltergeist” and “Gremlins” all received the PG rating when they were theatrically released. In no way, shape, or form would any of those movies be PG today. They would all easily be PG-13. The same goes for the early James Bond films, which were consistently rated PG despite containing copious amounts of sexually suggestive and violent content. The controversies over the content of some PG films caused the MPAA to create a new rating to fit into the gap between PG and R.


PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned for Children Under 13 (1986-Present)

This rating was created in the mid-1980’s to label films too intense for PG but not intense enough for an “R” rating. It was suggested by Steven Spielberg, whose films often fell into this category. Today, the PG-13 has earned a reputation for being box office gold. It is a great middle of the road rating – intense enough to appeal to adults, but still okay for reasonably mature kids. Most of the top-grossing films of all time either received a PG-13 rating or likely would have if it had existed when they were released (“Jaws”, the original “Star Wars”, etc.). Most of the major summer blockbusters of today are released with PG-13 ratings. PG-13 ratings are allowed to have relatively significant violence as long as it is not exceptionally gory. Mild swearing and sexual content is allowed, and they can usually get away with slipping one “f” word into the mix. There are even rare occasions where there are multiple “f” words in a PG-13, like the ‘90s football movie “Necessary Roughness.”


R – Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult guardian (1968-Present)

This is the most common rating for adult-oriented films. R-rated films can contain relatively graphic violence, explicit sex, and as much swearing as they want. Generally, R-rated movies do not make as much as PG-13 films and producers will sometimes tone down a film’s content to get a PG-13 rating in the hopes of earning higher box office receipts. However, it is certainly possible for an “R” rated film to achieve major commercial success. There have been lucrative series of R-rated films such as “Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Saw”, “Scream”, “Friday the 13th”, “Halloween”, and “Nightmare on Elm Street”.


NC-17 – No Children Under 17 admitted (1990-Present)

This rating was created in 1990 to replace the X rating. The hope was that the NC-17 would have not have the same sigma as the X and mainstream theater chains would show these films. Famous film critic Roger Ebert, among others, argued that some movies with “adults only” content had legitimate artistic merit and should be shown in major theaters. Unfortunately, theaters mostly refused to show these films and the rating proved to be pointless. Also video rental stores (back when they still existed) refused to stock these films. In 1995, the film “Showgirls” was given a wide release in the hopes of pushing NC-17 films into the mainstream, but it flopped (although it has since developed a cult following). More recently, the Matthew McConaughey film “Killer Joe” was released with an NC-17 rating in July 2012. Despite excellent reviews, the film was an abysmal box failure. It will likely perform better on DVD, where unrated and NC-17 films are much more commonly available. It’s interesting that many online DVD rental/purchase companies have no problem selling NC-17/unrated films but theater chains refuse to do the same.

Directors of movies with graphic content routinely feel forced to censor themselves to get an R rating and avoid the NC-17. Often, an “unrated” version of the film will then be released on DVD with the content restored. This is at least an improvement from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when very few stores would stock copies of NC-17 or unrated films.


Former Ratings

M – Mature (1968-1969). This was an early rating for films containing the equivalent of PG or PG-13 content. It was abolished because people were confused about whether M or R movies were more graphic. Movies that were rated M were then re-rated to GP and then PG.

GP – General Public. Parental guidance suggested (1969-1970). This briefly replaced the M rating. It was then itself replaced by PG.

X – Adults Only. No one under 17 admitted (1968-1990). This rating has a long and sordid history. It was not officially trademarked by the MPAA and eventually became associated solely with pornography. However, in the early days, some X-rated films earned respectability and critical acclaim. Films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Last Tango in Paris” were given awards instead of scorn. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s it was possible for an X-rated film to be commercially viable, but the rating quickly became a taboo due to it frequently being self-applied by producers of porn films. Porn would even be advertised with “XX” or “XXX” ratings to give the impression that they contained even more extreme content. Theater chains, newspapers, and television stations wanted to appear family friendly, so they refused to show or advertise X-rated films. By the ‘80s, no major studio wanted to release an X-rated film and they would make cuts so the MPAA would grant them an R instead.


Having a rating system is important – people need to know what they are getting into when they walk into a theater. However, the history of the MPAA rating system is rife with controversy. As stated before, one of the main flaws is the lack of a proper system for theatrically releasing non-pornographic films that have “adults only” content. Before the rating system, the concepts of “adults only” and “porn” were not synonymous. Even the ratings board itself has acknowledged this problem. One proposal is to create an alternate version of the R rating called a “Hard R”. Presumably, this would remove the stigma of the X and NC-17 ratings, since the R is already an accepted rating. But what guarantee is there that theaters would show “hard R” movies?

Hopefully, a proper solution to this problem will be reached in the future. With the decline of the G rating, we really only have three common movie ratings these days – PG, PG-13, and R. This does a disservice to filmmakers and viewers alike. It will be interesting to see how movie ratings develop in the future.


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    • nanderson500 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yeah, that is interesting! I hadn't heard that about Raiders of the Lost Ark before.

    • profile image

      Domenick Dicce 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for the history on film ratings. A lot of fun trivia.

      I though Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first PG- 13 film but then did some research. Found this on IMDB

      " In a 2001 "making of" special, it was revealed that the effects used in the three antagonists' rather gruesome deaths (Dietrich, Toht, and Belloq) were a vacuum machine, heat gun with time-lapse photography, and shotgun, respectively. When the movie was submitted for an MPAA rating, it was given a rating of "R" because of the exploding head. In order to lower the rating, flames were superimposed over this image. The result was the appearance of a head exploding behind a dense curtain of flames. The rating was lowered to "PG"

      Found it interesting and a nice example of the rating "system". I also heard that Saving Private Ryan almost got an NC-17 rating.

    • nanderson500 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yeah, I've seen that movie. It was very interesting. One of the better documentaries I have seen. Thanks for the comment!

    • Thefilmguy24 profile image


      6 years ago

      Great article. It looked like you did some research to write this. It was pretty informative. Have you ever seen the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated?" It's a great film documenting about the MPAA and it's controversy. It may seem a little one sided but if you think about it of how the MPAA is structured and how it works it almost seems like it's a little bit of a conspiracy since the 5 biggest conglomerates in film history pretty much own the world and control what we watch and see. This is just my opinion from watching the film. You should check it out. It's really interesting. Also did you know that the 1969 film "Midnight Cowboy" was initially rated "X" and it won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1970? A year later due to the MPAA controversy, it was later given an "R" rating in 1971. Great article. You should really check out "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." It's really good. Voted up.


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