The Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) film-rating system is used in the United States and its territories to rate a film’s suitability for certain audiences, based on its content. The MPAA rating system is a voluntary scheme that is not enforced by law; films can be exhibited without a rating, though many theaters refuse to exhibit non-rated or NC-17 rated films. Non-members of MPAA may also submit films for rating. Other media (such as television programs and video games) may be rated by other entities. The MPAA rating system is one of various motion picture rating systems that are used to help parents decide what films are appropriate for their children.
The MPAA’s rating system is administered by the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA), an independent agency.
Since the late 1990s, the MPAA film ratings have been as follows:
If a film has not been submitted for a rating or is an uncut version of a film that was submitted, the labels Not Rated (NR) or Unrated (UR) are often used. Uncut/extended versions of films that are labeled “Unrated” also contain warnings saying that the uncut version of the film contains content that differs from the theatrical release and may not be suitable for minors.
If a film has not yet been assigned a final rating, the label This Film Is Not Yet Rated are used in trailers and television commercials.
The MPAA also rates film trailers, print advertising, posters, and other media used to promote a film. Green, yellow, or red title cards displayed before the start of a trailer indicate the trailer’s rating.
In 1989 Tennessee enacted a law whereby patrons of an R-rated motion picture were not admitted unless they were at least 18 years old or accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.
Jack Valenti, who had become president of the Motion Picture Association of America in May 1966, deemed the Motion Picture Production Code – in place since 1930 and rigorously enforced since 1934 – as out of date and bearing “the odious smell of censorship”. Filmmakers were pushing at the boundaries of the Code, and Valenti cited examples such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which contained the expressions “screw” and “hump the hostess”; and Blow-Up, which was denied Code approval due to nudity, resulting in the MPAA member studio releasing it through a subsidiary. He revised the Code to include the “SMA” (Suggested for Mature Audiences) advisory as a stopgap measure. To accommodate “the irresistible force of creators determined to make ‘their films'”, and to avoid “the possible intrusion of government into the movie arena”, he developed a set of advisory ratings which could be applied after a film was completed. On November 1, 1968, the voluntary MPAA film rating system took effect, with three organizations serving as its monitoring and guiding groups: the MPAA, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), and the International Film Importers & Distributors of America (IFIDA).
The ratings used from 1968 to 1970 were:
This content classification system originally was to have three ratings, with the intention of allowing parents to take their children to any film they chose. However, the National Association of Theater Owners urged the creation of an adults-only category, fearful of possible legal problems in local jurisdictions. The “X” rating was not an MPAA trademark and would not receive the MPAA seal; any producer not submitting a film for MPAA rating could self-apply the “X” rating (or any other symbol or description that was not an MPAA trademark).
With the introduction of the MPAA’s rating system, the U.S. was a latecomer as far as film classification was concerned. Countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom had begun this practice earlier in the 20th century.
In 1970 the ages for “R” and “X” were raised from 16 to 17. Also, due to confusion over whether “M” rated film were suitable for children, “M” was renamed to “GP” (parental guidance suggested), and in 1971 the MPAA added the content advisory “Some material not generally suitable for pre-teenagers”. In 1972 “GP” was revised to “PG”.
The ratings used from 1970 to 1972 were:
The ratings used from 1972 to 1984 were:
In the early 1980s, there were complaints about violence and gore in films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, both of which received PG ratings. Steven Spielberg, the director of Temple of Doom and executive producer of Gremlins, suggested a new intermediate rating between “PG” and “R”. The “PG-13” rating was introduced in July 1984, with the advisory “Parents Are Strongly Cautioned to Give Special Guidance for Attendance of Children Under 13 – Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Young Children”; in 1986, the wording was simplified to “Parents Strongly Cautioned – Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13”. Around the same time, the MPAA won a trademark infringement lawsuit against the producers and distributors of I Spit on Your Grave over a fraudulent application of its R rating to the uncut version of the film, and forced its member studios and several other home video distributors to put MPAA ratings on the packaging of MPAA-rated films via a settlement that would come into effect by fall that year.
The ratings used from 1984 to 1990 were:
In the rating system’s early years, “X”-rated films such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), the animated Fritz the Cat (1972), and Last Tango in Paris (1973) were understood to be unsuitable for children, but non-pornographic and intended for the general public. However, pornographic films often self-applied the non-trademarked “X” rating, and it soon became synonymous with pornography in American culture. In late 1989 and early 1990, two critically acclaimed art films featuring strong adult content, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, were released. Neither film was approved for an MPAA rating, thus limiting their commercial distribution, and prompting criticism of the rating system’s lack of a designation for such films.
In September 1990, the MPAA introduced the rating “NC-17” (“No Children Under 17 Admitted”). Henry & June – previously to be assigned an “X” rating – was the first film to receive the “NC-17” rating instead. Although films with an “NC-17” rating had more mainstream distribution opportunities than “X”-rated films, many cinemas refused to screen them, most entertainment media did not accept advertising for them, and many large video outlets refused to stock them. In 1996, the minimum age for “NC-17” films was raised to 18, by rewording it to “No One 17 and Under Admitted”.
The current ratings used since 1990 are:
Since September 1990, the MPAA has included brief explanations of why each film received an “R” rating, allowing parents to know what type of content the film contained. For example, some films’ explanations may read “Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Language, Some Strong Sexual Content, and Drug Material”. Around the late 1990s, the MPAA began applying rating explanations for “PG”, “PG-13”, and “NC-17” films as well.
Depictions of violence are generally restricted to PG and above. The violence in a PG rated film will not be intense, while violence that is both intense and persistent will generally require at least an R rating. Violence is not prohibited in G rated films, but if present will be minimal.
Profanity is restricted to PG and above, although G rated films are permitted to use words that are deemed impolite. Use of one of the harsher sexually-derived expletives will automatically incur at least a PG-13 rating, while multiple occurrences will usually incur an R rating. Usage of such an expletive in a sexual context will also generally garner an R rating; nevertheless, the ratings board may still award a PG-13 rating passed by a two-thirds majority if they believe the language is justified by the context or by the manner in which the words are used.
There are at least five known exceptions to the guidelines in which PG-13 rated films contain multiple occurrences of the word fuck: Adventures in Babysitting, where the word is used twice in the same scene; The Hip Hop Project, which has seventeen uses; Gunner Palace, a documentary of soldiers in the Second Gulf War, which has 42 uses of the word with two used sexually; Bully, a 2011 documentary about bullying; Philomena, released in November 2013, which has two uses of the word.
Drug use content is restricted to PG-13 and above. An example of an otherwise PG film being assigned a PG-13 rating for a drug reference (momentary, along with brief language) is Whale Rider. The film contained only mild profanity, but was rated PG-13 because of a scene where drug paraphernalia were briefly visible. Critic Roger Ebert criticized the MPAA for the rating and called it “a wild overreaction”.
In May 2007, the MPAA announced that depictions of cigarette smoking would be considered in a film’s rating. The 2011 Nickelodeon-animated film Rango caused some controversy over its PG rating among anti-smoking advocates. It was argued that the film showed over 60 depictions of characters smoking in the film, and that because of this, the child-friendly PG rating was inappropriate.
Nudity is restricted to PG and above, although only brief nudity is permitted in a PG rated film. Nudity that is sexually oriented will generally require an R rating. As of 2010, the MPAA has added a descriptor of “male nudity” to films featuring said content.
The MPAA does not have any explicit criteria for sexual content other than excluding sex scenes from G rated films.
In its initial years of use, few films with the NC-17 rating were profitable. In 1995, United Artists released the big-budget film Showgirls (1995). It became the most widely distributed film with an NC-17 rating (showing in 1,388 cinemas simultaneously), but was a financial failure that grossed only 45% of its $45 million budget. Some modest successes can be found among NC-17 theatrical releases, however. Fox Searchlight Pictures released the original NC-17-rated American edition of the European film The Dreamers (2003) in theaters in the United States, and later released both the original NC-17 and the cut R-rated version on DVD. A Fox Searchlight spokesman said the NC-17 rating did not give them much trouble in releasing this film (they had no problem booking it, and only the Mormon-owned Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News refused to take the film’s ad), and Fox Searchlight was satisfied with this film’s United States box office result. Another notable exception is Bad Education (2004), a NC-17 foreign-language film which grossed $5.2 million in the United States theatrically (a moderate success for a foreign-language film).
As of March 2007, according to Variety, MPAA chairman Dan Glickman had been made aware of the attempts to introduce a new rating, or find ways to reduce the stigma of the NC-17 rating. Film studios have pressured the MPAA to retire the NC-17 rating, because of its likely impact on their film’s box office revenue.
During the controversy about the MPAA’s decision to give the film Blue Valentine (2010) an NC-17 rating (The Weinstein Company challenged this decision, and the MPAA ended up awarding the same cut an R rating on appeal), actor Ryan Gosling noted that NC-17 films are not allowed wide advertisement and that, given the refusal of major cinema chains like AMC and Regal to show NC-17 rated movies, many such films will never be accessible to people who live in markets that do not have art house theatres.
Legal scholar Julie Hilden wrote that the MPAA has a “masterpiece exception” that it has made for films that would ordinarily earn an NC-17 rating, if not for the broader artistic masterpiece that requires the violence depicted as a part of its message. She cites Saving Private Ryan, with its bloody depiction of the D-Day landings, as an example. This exception is troubling, Hilden argues, because it ignores context and perspective in evaluating other films and favors conventional films over edgier films that contribute newer and more interesting points to public discourse about violence.
Starting in 2004, GKC Theatres (now Carmike Cinemas) introduced ‘R-Cards,’ which parents could obtain for their teenage children, under the age of 17, to see R-rated films without adult accompaniment. The cards generated much controversy; MPAA president Jack Valenti said in a news article: “I think it distorts and ruptures the intent of this voluntary film ratings system. All R-rated films are not alike.” John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, also said that the cards can be harmful. He noted in a news article for the Christian Science Monitor that the R rating is “broad enough to include relatively family-friendly fare such as Billy Elliot and Erin Brockovich (which were both rated R for language) along with films that push the extremes of violence, including Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.”
The film rating system has had a number of high-profile critics. Film critic Roger Ebert argued that the system places too much emphasis on sex, while allowing the portrayal of massive amounts of gruesome violence. The uneven emphasis on sex versus violence is echoed by other critics, including David Ansen, as well as many filmmakers. Moreover, Ebert argued that the rating system is geared toward looking at trivial aspects of the film (such as the number of times a profane word is used) rather than at the general theme of the film (for example, if the film realistically depicts the consequences of sex and violence). He called for an A (adults only) rating, to indicate films high in violence or mature content that should not be marketed to teenagers, but do not have NC-17 levels of sex. He also called for the NC-17 rating to be removed and have the X rating revived. He felt that everyone understood what X-rated means, while fewer people understood what NC-17 meant. He called for ratings A and X to identify whether an adult film is pornographic or not.
MPAA chairman Dan Glickman has disputed these claims, stating that far more films are initially rated NC-17 for violence than for sex, but that these are later edited by studios to receive an R rating.
Despite this, an internal critic of the early workings of the ratings system is film critic and writer Stephen Farber, who was a CARA intern for six months during 1969 and 1970. In The Movie Ratings Game, he documents a prejudice against sex in relation to violence. This Film Is Not Yet Rated also points out that four times as many films received an NC-17 rating for sex than they did for violence according to the MPAA’s own website, further mentioning a bias against homosexual content compared to heterosexual content, particularly with regards to sex scenes.
The 2011 documentary Bully received an R rating for the profanity contained within the film. The decision spawned controversy, as the rating would prevent most of the intended audience, middle and high schoolers, from seeing the film. The film’s director, Lee Hirsch, has refused to recut the film, stating, “I feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, as the person entrusted to tell (these kids’) stories, to not water them down.” A petition collected more than 200,000 signatures to change the film’s rating and a version with less profanity was finally given a PG-13 rating.
Many critics of the MPAA system, especially independent distributors, have charged that major studios’ releases often receive more lenient treatment than independent films. The independent film Saints and Soldiers, which contains no nudity, almost no sex (although, there is a scene in which a German soldier is about to rape a French woman), very little profanity, and a minimum of violence, was said to have been rated R for a single clip where a main character is shot and killed, and required modification of just that one scene to receive a PG-13 rating. Eric Watson, producer of the independently-distributed, NC-17-rated Requiem for a Dream complained that the studios are paying the budget of the MPAA, which gives the studios leverage over the MPAA’s decisions.
The comedy Scary Movie, released by Dimension Films, at the time a division of The Walt Disney Company, contained “strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use and violence,” including images of ejaculation and an erect penis, but was rated R, to the surprise of many reviewers and audiences; by comparison, the comparatively tame porn spoof Orgazmo, an independent release by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, contained “explicit sexual content and dialogue” and received an NC-17 (the only on-screen penis seen in the film is a dildo). As Parker and Stone did not have the money and the time to edit the film, it retained its NC-17 rating. In contrast, Parker and Stone’s second feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, was distributed by a major studio (Paramount Pictures) and, after multiple submissions and notes from the MPAA, received an R rating.
Many critics of the system, both conservative and liberal, would like to see the MPAA ratings unveiled and the standards made public. The MPAA has consistently cited nationwide scientific polls (conducted each year by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey), which show that parents find the ratings useful. Critics such as Matt Stone in Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is not Yet Rated respond this proves only that parents find the ratings more useful than nothing at all. In the film, it is also discussed how the MPAA will not reveal any information about who or why certain decisions are made, and that the association will not even reveal to the filmmaker the specific scenes that need to be cut in order to get alternative rating.
Although there has always been concern about the content of films, the MPAA has, in recent years, been accused of a “ratings creep”, whereby the films that fall into today’s ratings categories now contain more objectionable material than those that appeared in the same categories two decades earlier. A study put forward by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004 concluded that there had been a significant increase in the level of profanity, sex and violence in films released between 1992 and 2003. Kimberly Thompson, director of the study, stated: “The findings demonstrate that ratings creep has occurred over the last decade and that today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex, and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago.”
Slashfilm.com managing editor David Chen wrote on the website: “It’s time for more people to condemn the MPAA and their outrageous antics. We’re heading towards an age when we don’t need a mommy-like organization to dictate what our delicate sensibilities can and can’t be exposed to. I deeply hope that the MPAA’s irrelevance is imminent.” 
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips wrote that the MPAA ratings board “has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language.”