What Good is PG-13 Anyway?

By  · Published on November 12th, 2013

Study Shows PG-13 Films Contain More Gun Violence Than R-Rated Ones

We’re only human, and it’s completely normal to for us humans to give in to our baser urges every once in a while. Maybe we eat an entire sleeve of Oreos in one sitting, or we half-ass the crossword puzzle in an in-flight magazine and just leave it there, denying the next person in that seat the chance for an unanswered puzzle. And sometimes, we just want to watch people with guns shoot other people with guns. It’s human nature, and for almost all of us there’s a thrill to be found in some well-choreographed Hollywood gun violence.

But a new study from The Ohio State University and the Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that we may be overindulging in America’s new favorite pastime. You can read the full report here, but be advised- it contains several graphs and the word “homoscedasticity.” Parts of the study aren’t exactly a surprise; gun violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13 films has more than tripled since 1985. But here’s the big news: PG-13 films, which initially held “about as much gun violence” as any G or PG flick, now have “as much or more violence” than your average R-rated feature. The study also mentions the “weapons effect,” or the idea that mere exposure to weapons or violence can cause aggressive tendencies in viewers. Naturally, the more violence the PG-13 crowd is exposed to, the more violent they become.

Here’s where a typical pattern kicks in. Group A asserts that violence in the media causes violence in the population, perhaps citing a source or two like this one, which confirms that the number of mass shootings per year in the United States has tripled since 2008. Then, Group B fires back, claiming that the media is far more expansive than it’s ever been, and that it’s not the amount of violence that’s increased, but rather the reporting being done on violent incidents. Perhaps they’ve got a source of their own, which states that despite a small uptick last year, violent crime in the US has seen massive, consistent decreases in the past two decades. Both sides continue to bicker back and forth until they grow tired of the whole ordeal, ensuring that society gains absolutely nothing of value.

Let’s skip all that. The study may make a few intriguing points, like how mass shooters have the tendency to dress up in “a uniform (eg, hockey mask, trench coat, movie costume, military uniform), as if following a script from a movie.” But one more voice pushing for one side or the other won’t provide a definitive end to this decades-long debate. Instead, let’s focus on something that’s now a proven fact- namely, that PG-13 movies are quickly becoming the most consistently violent rating in the MPAA, raising the question of why we even need them in the first place.

The PG-13 rating initially came about as a kind of young-adult classification. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom saw a guy’s still-beating heart torn out of his chest, while Gremlins had a nasty little monster being microwaved to death. Both films were rated PG. For obvious reasons, this didn’t sit right with a lot of people, and so PG-13 was born; a way to distinguish when a film had a few instances of more intense violence, yet wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with ooey-gooey viscera.

That heart-rip may have been just as bloody as anything in a modern-day PG-13 action flick, but it was a single occurrence. That level of violence is now a common affair in what can be called “hard PG-13” movies (that are essentially R-rated films that grease the right palms). The Dark Knight Rises contained neck-snappings, back-breakings, suffocation and a close-up Bat-stabbing. The Wolverine was essentially an endless sequence of impalements. Yet so long as PG-13 violence has some slight degree of fantasy to it, it’s in the clear. It’s one of the more difficult things about our ratings system- while language and sexuality can be easily quantified and qualified (certain words good, certain words bad; certain body parts good, certain body parts bad), violent content is so much harder to categorize. Unless the MPAA is going to start regulating the amount of fake blood squirting out of a gunshot wound, we’re never going to have perfect classifications on movie violence.

Sex and swearing are under siege as well. People may have freaked over the sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color, yet last year’s remake of Total Recall still contained an uncensored shot of a bare-breasted woman. Granted, she had three breasts, so she apparently falls under the same “fantasy explicit content is perfectly fine” rules as AVP: Alien vs. Predator and the multiple beheadings in The Lord of The Rings. Similarly, once it became clear that a PG-13 movie could have one spoken instance of the F-word, endless films started including their one government-allotted “fuck” per film for no other reason than because they could. Yet despite the PG-13 being stretched into a quasi-R already, The Conjuring was given an R rating simply because it was “just so scary”- no sex or swear words required.

The MPAA rating system may be dangerously flawed, but it’s a system that exists for a reason. These ratings are designed to ensure that children are seeing an appropriate level of content. If we keep bumping back the restrictions on violence in the PG-13 rating- a rating that any child can legally see without the presence of an adult- what’s the point of having a ratings system in the first place? Fixing the PG-13 may or may not actually affect the violent crime rates in this country, but it would absolutely ensure that film ratings are actually worth keeping around.