2013: The Year PG-13 Broke

THE WOLVERINE kills dozens while THE CONJURING foregoes violence. Guess which one is rated R?

The PG-13 rating turns 30 next year, but it won’t get there unscathed. 2013 is the year PG-13 finally, truly broke. Over the last few weeks a number of films have been released that have called into stark clarity the silliness and uselessness of the rating. Movies with little violence and almost no offensive language have been slapped with Rs, while films where the hero massacres dozens upon dozens of humans with his claws get a PG-13. It doesn’t make sense anymore.

I won’t argue against the MPAA and the rating system; back in September I wrote a detailed history of censorship in American cinema and explained why I thought we needed the MPAA. At the end of that piece I outlined what I thought would make a good replacement rating system for the one we have now. It looks like this:

E - Everyone. This would replace the G rating. It’s not much of a rating, as G movies are essentially death (even animated films try to get PGs so as to not seem too much like movies for babies), but changing the lowest rating signifies a shake-up of the whole system.
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested. Let’s keep this old standby.
T - Teen. Replace the PG-13 with this rating, lifted from comics and video games.
R-15 - Restricted - No one under 15 without parent or guardian. Here’s where we make the big changes. This rating applies to the softer R movies, the movies like last year’s documentary Bully or this year’s The Dark Knight Rises. These are films with some violence and sex and language, but not terribly much more than you would see in an evening’s AMC TV viewing. I think the MPAA needs to give up on the language stuff, so this rating would have all your fucks and everything.
R - Restricted- No one under 17. And now we have a top of the line adults rating that still has the same name as the old rating. Shame would be R. 300 would be R. Saw would be R. NC-17 goes away, we’ve created a middle ground for less explicit, less heavy movies, and now movie studios can make films for adults without worrying about stigma.

It’s similar to what some other countries already have in place.

Summer 2013 proves the system needs to be changed. In just the month of July we’ve had:

- The Lone Ranger get a PG-13 despite a scene where the bad guy eats the hero’s brother’s heart and a scene where an entire Native American tribe is massacred,
- Pacific Rim get a PG-13 despite having almost no human-oriented violence and one use of the word ‘shit,’
- The Conjuring get an R for simply being scary, despite having little violence and possibly no offensive language,
- and this weekend The Wolverine gets a PG-13 with claws graphically going through necks, dozens upon dozens of people savagely stabbed to death, some more shot to death with arrows, your usual gunplay, a graphic hanging and lots of shocking violence visited upon the hero.

None of this makes sense. I’m not mad about the content of any of these films. I don’t necessarily think that younger people should avoid The Wolverine. I just think it’s actually insane that The Wolverine and Pacific Rim are considered to be equally age-appropriate. Pacific Rim is a PG movie. The Wolverine... well, it’s harder than PG-13 that’s for sure. At least harder than what PG-13 is right now. If anybody had actually bothered to go see The Lone Ranger we might be having this discussion on a national level, as that movie presented itself as a family film and ended up being much darker and uglier than most would expect from a Disney production. And don’t get me started on how absolutely bizarre it is that The Conjuring got stuck with an R. The movie did well with that rating, but it’s a film aimed right at the teenage date audience. Why shouldn’t 15 year olds be able to see this but should be able to see Wolverine burned to a crisp in an atomic bomb blast*?

ADDENDUM: While this editorial is really about the July movies as examples of the broken PG-13, it's worth noting two movies that fall on either side of the month. The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now are both wonderful, well-made movies about teens that should be seen by teens. They also both got R ratings - for language in The Kings of Summer and for alcohol use and language in The Spectacular Now. These are ridiculous ratings. Both films are very suitable for 15 year olds.

A big part of the problem is ratings creep. PG is seen as a wimpy rating, and you lose the older teens and adults when you have that classification. That means PG-13 is THE sweet rating; you can get kids in but older teens and adults see it as something worth their time. Studios fight tooth and nail (and probably dollar and cent as well) to secure a PG-13 for their film, whether the movie is softer than that - see most of the Marvel movies, for instance - or much harder. That’s where the more nuanced rating scale comes in, allowing multiple gradations of movies in that ‘not quite kiddie stuff’ area.

This has been a problem for a long time, but July 2013 is the month that highlights it like no other. Every single weekend has seen a movie released that has the wrong rating. Let’s celebrate the 30th anniversary of the PG-13 by getting rid of it and instituting a rating system that actually makes some basic sense.

* That’s not a spoiler. It’s the prologue to the film.