What to do when the MPAA ratings fail you
Reprinted from MLive – Published: Thursday, July 12, 2012, 10:19 AM
A co-worker and I have a long-running joke about what exactly the MPAA means when it deploys the phrase “thematic elements,” which pops up often in its ratings descriptions: Isn’t a theme a primary component of a movie? Doesn’t every movie have a theme? And therefore, wouldn’t said theme be comprised of “elements”?
Of course, the MPAA – which does not reveal its inner workings or the names of its members – defines “thematic elements” on its website as being “content in a film that does not necessarily fit into the traditional categories such as violence, sex, drug use and language, but may be of particular concern to parents. Thematic elements may include death, coming-of-age issues, verbal abuse, illness, abortion, and other serious subjects or mature discussions that may concern parents.”
Why the MPAA doesn’t just come out and say a movie is, for example, “rated PG-13 for language and abortion themes” is beyond me. By that token, why the MPAA doesn’t just come out and say that a movie is, for example, “rated PG-13 for language including the F-word and abortion themes” is beyond me. Their descriptors never seem to be specific enough for those concerned about the content of films, who are usually parents of young children.
What to do, then? You could consult your friendly neighborhood film critic (ahem), but keep in mind, we first and foremost review films on highfalutin’ guidelines, judging them for their artistic merit. We don’t tally profanity or violent instances. But some do.
Grand Rapids-based organization the Dove Foundation is a vocal critic of the MPAA, and one of the first groups to provide in-depth information about movie content. (Notably, Dove, an organization built on a Christian foundation, wields some influence with a seal of approval it stamps on films it decrees to be quality viewing for families. Dove also recently published a study about the financial success of family-oriented films compared to movies with more “adult” content.)
Dove is not alone out there, and that’s why I’ve compiled this helpful list of websites for moviegoers who may want to know how many occurrences of an F-word are in a movie, how graphic scenes of sex and violence are, or specifically what “thematic elements” they may not want to expose to young eyes.
Founded in 1991, Dove dices up its information to report instances of sex, violence, language, drugs, nudity and “other,” which includes “Lead characters that exhibit disrespect for authority, lying, cheating, stealing, illegal activity, witchcraft or sorcery.” Note that Dove’s harshest grades for language involve “Biblical profanity.” The site is simple, straightforward, descriptive and easy to use.
“Unlike the MPAA, we do not assign a single, age-specific rating and we do not make recommendations. Instead we assign each film three distinct, category-specific ratings: one for SEX & NUDITY, one for VIOLENCE & GORE and one for PROFANITY,” reads this site’s methodology. The three categories are graded on a 1-10 scale. A recent review of “The Amazing Spider-Man” notes 16 incidences of violence in much detail; curiously, the “profanity” category in this review lists “Indian people” and “Tokyo monsters.” This is probably the most detailed site I visited.
This might be the most helpful site I perused. In addition to featuring a clean and attractive layout, the site features its own reviews as well as those crowdsourced from parents and children. It also points out instances of “consumerism,” which includes product placement (something many of these sites tend to overlook). There are also resources for educators on the site, which touts “we believe in media sanity, not censorship” among its 10 core beliefs.
This site gives letter grades for violence, sex, language and drug content, which is a little confusing. You have to click around a lot to get detailed reviews, content description and “video alternatives.” The site is fairly thorough, but poorly organized, and cluttered with ads and pop-ups.
Descriptions are divvied up on a graph ranking language, violence, sex and nudity as “light,” “moderate” or “heavy.” All reviews are written from a distinct Christian perspective, and are lengthy and repetitive. Other content includes editorials, one of which was titled “Why political subtext in children’s movies doesn’t work” and struck me as anti-intellectual; it trots out tired socio-political arguments by comparing the “civil rights concerned political mind” unfavorably to the “morally minded point of view.”
Oddly, this is primarily a shopping site for children’s clothing, toys and furniture, with a section dedicated to movie reviews. I like the thermometer-type scale that ranks where a movie stands between MPAA ratings – for example, the PG-13-rated “Rock of Ages” is a “harder” PG-13, ranking closer to an R than the PG-13 “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Reviews are so-so, and not as detailed as those on other sites. (One example of the prose here: “This family movie review thinks that The Amazing Spiderman is an amazing action movie that would be amazingly fun for the whole family, all cautions considered.”)
The Internet Movie Database, the one-stop spot for movie information, has a “parents guide” link buried at the bottom of every movie’s primary page. The guide is a wiki with user-provided content, and comes with a disclaimer: “The content of this page was created directly by users and has not been screened or verified by IMDb staff.” Because the comments aren’t vetted, sometimes the content is helpful, sometimes it’s biased and sometimes it’s curious – for “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” under the violence/gore category, someone entered, “At a Japanese restaurant, Katy eats a large live crayfish in close-up.” (Is there a large segment of the moviegoing audience that will find close-up consumption of live crayfish objectionable?)