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How Does The Movie Rating System Work?

Updated on February 20, 2014

History of the Movie Ratings System

For as long as most of us can remember, when we see a movie poster or a DVD/VHS cover we immediately see a movie rating logo, telling us what audience a movie is suitable for. This has been the case since 1968, when the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) instituted their system designed to give parents the ability to determine whether a movie is suitable for their children to see. This system replaced a prior system known as the 'Hays Code' which acted as more of a strict censorship system, that was eventually deemed out of date and not fitting of the times.

Contrary to popular belief, the rating system is not mandatory, and filmmakers can choose whether or not to volunteer their films for rating. However, the vast majority do so and it was also agreed that in order to be released in theaters a film would need to be rated.

Over the years, the system has evolved and changed slightly to add more detail and give parents more of what they want to know before deciding if a film is suitable for their children to watch. For example, the 'PG-13' rating that we are all familiar with was added in 1984. This is just an example of an ever changing system which will continue to develop.

What Does A Movie Rating Look Like?

An example of what a movie rating might look like can be seen below this paragraph. Looking at the example you can see that a movie rating is made up of three main areas:

The Letter Rating: This is the letter rating assigned to the film by the MPAA, for example 'PG-13' which gives you a basic idea of what to expect from the film.

Rating Definition: Along with this is a short, concise definition of what this particular rating means. For example, for the 'PG-13' rating it reads "Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13".

Accompanying Detail: The last aspect, and perhaps the most useful to many parents is a more detailed description of what is contained within the film itself. This is more than just a generic rating, and it tells parents what to expect in terms of the key areas which include violence, language, sexual content and portrayal of drugs. This is that portion of the movie ratings system that parents will actually use to determine whether or not they want their children to watch the film.

An example of what a movie rating might look like.
An example of what a movie rating might look like.
History & Description
"G" - General Audiences
This is the most children friendly rating, and basically suggests that there is not content in the film that would not be suitable for children to watch
"PG" - Parental Guidance
This rating essentially informs parents that while this film may be suitable for children, it might have some small amounts of content that some parents may think is not suitable. This could be violence, language or brief nudity, but the MPAA states that no drug use can be portrayed in a PG rated film.
"PG-13" - Parental Guidance Strongly Suggested
Added later, this rating enhanced the system to include a middle ground which basically means that the film contains themes or content that force the MPAA to present an even stronger suggestion that parents may want to think about whether the film is suitable or not. For example, the MPAA states that any drug use must lead to at least a PG-13 rating, as well as other things such as extended nudity.
"R" - Restricted
An R-Rated movie is one that the association has defined as unsuitable for children due to the fact that it contains amounts of violence, language, sex or drug use that lies beyond the boundaries of a PG-13 rating. Therefore the rule is that children under 17 years old cannot be allowed into an R-Rated movie without parents or a guardian.
"NC-17" - No one under 17 admitted
Another recent addition (which replaced the X rating) simply states that the film is not suitable for anyone under 17 years old and anyone under this age cannot be admitted.

Is Violence Under Considered?

The category of 'Violence' is one which always sparks controversy in the United States, and a common criticism is that the ratings are skewed heavily toward the other areas but do not punish films for containing high levels of violence. Often times a romantic film with a lot of ba language will receive the same rating as a film which depicts graphic violence, torture, gore and even rape. This is largely surprising considering the current levels of crime and constant news about terrible acts committed by children. It is something that many activists will continue to argue.

How do you use MPAA Ratings?

Do you consider the MPAA ratings when deciding whether to let your kids watch a movie?

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What Factors Determine The Movie Ratings System?

There are a number of factors that go into the current rating system as defined by the MPAA. There are actually some very specific rules and criteria that are defined for what forces a film into a particular rating. These are available for viewing here courtesy of

But for the purpose of this high level description, here is a basic overview of the main criteria considered when rating a film. I have touched on these already throughout this article. They are the same categories which help develop the brief descriptions that accompany a film rating.


This category is one which involves determining how much bad language is used in the film, as well as the specific words that are used. There are some words which are considered worse than others, and words that are considered to be sexually explicit will lead to a heavier rating than others. Certain words have volume caps which help determine which rating a film will get. These have changed and will continue to change as society changes its views and level of acceptance.


The level of violence that is included in a film is also a factor, and the worse it is the higher the rating. This is one of the most controversial of the categories, which is something I will discuss later.

Drug Use

As already mentioned, drug use in a film is a factor which can automatically land a movie into at least a PG-13 rating. This includes the mention, use or depiction of drugs and drug use and the amount or detail of this will determine the rating itself.

Sexual Content

Nudity and sexual content are considered during the rating process and the rating is assigned based on amounts and level of nudity as well as the inclusion of sex scenes and how graphic these are.

Between these four main categories you will see things such as "Brief nudity", "Strong brutal violence" or "Explicit drug use" in the description of the movie rating. This helps give parents a better idea of what to expect and they can use their own judgement based on their opinion of each category. For example one parent may frown upon bad language but not worry about nudity, but another may not want their children to see sexual content or drug use. This makes the movie ratings system very helpful.

Famous Movie Ratings Controversies

Since the current movie ratings system was implemented, there have been a number of controversial decisions. Here are just a few:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Something that many movie fans of one of the greatest and most loved franchises ever, Indiana Jones' are not aware of is that it the franchise caused a lot of stir regarding its rating. The original Indiana Jones movie was rated PG but contained large levels of violence, but because of it's obvious popularity they did not want to start tagging it's sequel, The Temple of Doom with an R rating as this would do a lot of harm to their blockbuster numbers. Therefore they ended up giving it a PG rating, despite a scene involving a man ripping out another man's heart. This is actually one of they key moments that began the discussions which led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.

The famous 'heart ripping out' scene was a large part of the controversy
The famous 'heart ripping out' scene was a large part of the controversy

Bully (2012)

A recent movie ratings controversy revolved around a recent documentary by Lee Hirsch which portrayed the bullying of a young man in a school, and the horrible effects it has on his life. The film contained a lot of strong language, and therefore was given an R-rating, meaning many young people were unable to see it. Most people felt that this completely defeated the purpose of the film which was to make kids aware of the effect they can have on their peers through bullying. The film was eventually knocked down to a PG-13 rating.

Bully was rated R for bad language but this was later changed to PG-13
Bully was rated R for bad language but this was later changed to PG-13

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' was released along with massive controversy initially due to it's high levels of sexual content, horrible violence, strong language and drug content. The film was actually banned in Britain for many years and got the X rating in the United States. Stanley Kubrick managed to re-release the film with an R-rating by making small edits to some of the content.

Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece was considered NC-17 due to it's violent themes.
Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece was considered NC-17 due to it's violent themes.

Blue Valentine (2010)

Another strong controversy existed when Derek Cianfrance's relationship drama was given an NC-17 rating for containing a rather strong sexual scene. However, many including the movie's star Ryan Gosling, stated that the nature of the scene involving a man performing a specific act on a woman led to the rating, but if the man and woman switched roles the rating would have been R. He claimed that this was bordering on sexism, and also asked how movies with violent sexual acts and crimes can be R-rated while this is not. This was again altered to an R-rating.

Blue Valentine's initial NC-17 rating was considered by many to be sexist and unfair.
Blue Valentine's initial NC-17 rating was considered by many to be sexist and unfair.


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    • jmartin1344 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Royal Oak, Michigan

      Thanks My Mind Speaks! I agree with you that they don't - just the Indiana Jones example shows that it is probably about money and popularity more than anything. Dollars will always come first - the filmmakers of something like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games could have put anything in their film and never got close to an R-Rating.

      I agree, parents should take it into their own hands and make decisions based on what their morals tell them. That's true also - the Bully example is just what you described. That's important material for young people to see.

      Thanks so much for reading!

    • My Mind Speaks profile image


      6 years ago from Long Island N.Y

      Great hub! In my opinion the MPAA does not "play fair" and they never truly look at the overall "picture" and how a particular scene, or scenes in a movie (whether it's too graphic, violent or sexual etc for their tastes) can really pull the movie together and ultimately help tell the story. I do think that if parents are on the fence about a certain movie, they should watch it first and then make an informed decision. Perhaps that movie could even provide a great lesson to be learned. Maybe even spark a deep conversation between parents and children about that subject matter.


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