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Do movie ratings work? Heck no.

Submitted by on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 No Comment

I thought I had merely run into a strange one last winter when a mom was fine with her pre-teen daughter watching a movie about a force so demonic that even an exorcist was scared of it.

“As long as there’s no sex in it,” the mom said.

The notion that extreme violence was OK but even hinting at a perfectly natural act was not boggled my mind.

It turns out that she’s more attuned to the times than I am. According to a paper released last week by the Journal of Adolescent Medicine, violent content in movies is on the rise and along with it is a trend that researchers call “ratings creep.”

“Explicit violence in R-rated films increased, while films that would previously have been rated R were increasingly assigned to PG-13. This pattern was not evident for sex,” the abstract says.

In a related journal article, the authors asked, “are motion picture ratings reliable and valid?”

I’d respond with a loud he … let’s keep this PG and say, “heck no.”

Not that use of the other word rules out even a G rating this days. At one point in “Cars,” Lightning McQueen describes Radiator Springs as “hillbilly hell.” Aside from being inaccurate – I’ve actually been to hillbilly hell, and there aren’t near as many cacti there as there are in Radiator Springs – I was surprised that the word passed muster in G movie.

Are ratings valid? Yes, if they’re geared toward the market of the mom who doesn’t mind if her 12-year-old watches gore. Are they reliable? Yes, in that parents quickly learn to turn elsewhere.

Take the movie the mom let her daughter watch, for example. “Paranormal Activity” carried an R rating in the United States – but PG 13 in some other countries – because of “language.” One user at Internet Movie Database counted 33 F-bombs or variations thereof. Never mind the violence and gore, though the Motion Picture Association of America rating system does account for that, albeit in a way that still allows children to go to the movie as long as they’re with an adult.

Common Sense Media, however, rates it “iffy” for ages 13 to 18. So do the parents or, for that matter, the children who reviewed the movie.

On the other hand, Common Sense Media also rated “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” as “iffy” for children 12 to 13, and Big Guy in particular enjoys this one immensely.

I knew about the rating before he watched the movie, and it was enough to convince me to poll my friends before ordering the Netflix DVD. Their input convinced me that he probably would be OK seeing it though I should watch it with him because of violence with the skeleton pirate crew in particular.

He handled it well. I think he’s already developed his mother’s inclination against voluntary suspension of disbelief. “Mom! Everyone knows they’re not real.”

Compare that reaction, however, to “Best of the Best,” another PG-13 movie that Dad had remembered from decades back even though he’d forgotten some of the salty language. Not so his oldest son, who uttered a hearty “g– d— it!” a few weeks later as he did homework.

Two movies, same rating, different reaction.

The bottom line: No rating system is going to be perfect, particularly not one with a predilection toward violence even as it overlooks other things parents would rather not have their children see or hear.

Do your research. In addition to Common Sense Media, other organizations such as Kids In Mind also offer very detailed reviews built around what parents want to know.

Ask friends, particularly ones with children though those without can be helpful as well. It was a childless former co-worker who raised the skeleton pirates as a possible issue in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

And then watch the movie with your kids, so you can field questions, calm fears or pull the plug if necessary.

But whatever you do, don’t rely on a rating system back by an organization with the goal of selling tickets and DVDs.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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