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The US Ratings System

How films are classified and censored in the United States

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In 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (US, d. Mike Nichols) was released to huge critical and commercial success - but it also blatantly infringed guidelines set out by the Hays Code. The release of this and other similar films made it clear that the old system had broken down irretrievably.

As a result, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, met with industry bodies and influential religious figures to discuss a new ratings system that would both satisfy demands for creative freedom and also concerns about moral standards.

The first MPAA ratings were introduced in November 1968. Much like the certificates awarded by the British Board of Film Classification, they recommended age restrictions for certain films, namely:

  • G - General audiences
  • M - Mature audiences
  • R - Restricted: no-one under 16 (later 17) admitted unless accompanied by an adult
  • X - Adults only - no-one under 17 admitted.

After initial confusion about whether it was more or less restrictive than the R, the M rating was changed to GP (General audiences - Parental guidance suggested) in 1969 and then to PG (Parental Guidance) in 1970.

Initially, the X rating was considered respectable, as demonstrated the following year when the X-rated Midnight Cowboy (US, d. John Schlesinger, 1969) won the Best Picture Oscar. But in the early 1970s, the MPAA's failure to copyright the rating meant that it was quickly hijacked by the pornography trade.

As a result, X-rated films were generally considered pornographic, which meant that major studios, cinema chains and mainstream publications refused to handle them - regardless of artistic merit. Distributors of serious but adult-oriented films preferred to release them without an MPAA rating, but found that this provoked similar economic pressure.

In 1990, the X rating was replaced by the more neutral NC-17 (no-one under 17 admitted), but the stigma still remained - Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1999) was digitally modified in the US in order to avoid a commercially disastrous NC-17. In Europe, it was released unaltered with the appropriate adults-only classification.

The other new rating was PG-13, introduced in 1984 following concerns that PG-rated films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (US, d. Steven Spielberg, 1984) and Gremlins (US, d. Joe Dante, 1984) were getting too violent for young audiences. This rating is effectively a stronger PG, with parents advised that the film might be unsuitable for under-thirteens.

Broadly speaking, current British classifications are similar to US ones - G equals U, PG equals PG, PG-13 equals 12A (barring a one-year age difference) and NC-17 equals 18 (though the British version doesn't have the cultural problems discussed above). The only major difference is the R rating, which has no direct equivalent - although most R-rated films get a 15 certificate, in Britain under-15s are not admitted even with an accompanying adult.

A crucial difference between the two systems is that MPAA ratings are voluntary. While this is also true of British theatrical releases (unclassified films being subject to local authority approval), it is not true of video releases, which the 1984 Video Recordings Act require to be BBFC-approved.

It should also be noted that the MPAA and BBFC apply differing principles to films. The MPAA is generally more lenient towards violence but tougher on sex and non-sexual nudity (frontal male nudity in particular), but the BBFC's concerns are often the other way round. This can cause problems in that the BBFC is often asked to vet films already censored to eliminate material the MPAA has problems with - regardless of whether the BBFC would have the same difficulties.

Michael Brooke

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