History of MPAA Ratings

Here at PG-13 for Ugly Cast, we look at the MPAA ratings for upcoming films, and venture our best guess as to what mysterious orifice these ratings have been pulled from. Like the oracles and mystics of millennia past, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is shrouded in secrecy and bureaucratic decision-making, so I offer this brief historical synopsis to shed some light on the process:

1922: The MPAA is Founded

The MPAA (then saddled with the even clunkier acronym MPPDA) is founded with the high-minded purpose of cementing the big three studios’ stranglehold on the movie industry. Mission swiftly accomplished.

William H. Hays, former U.S. Postmaster General and distinguished old white guy, is brought on as head of the organization, to help restore dignity and credibility to the motion picture industry, which was then seen as a corrupting influence on society. How could they have guessed that a mere 80 years later, society would be the corrupting influence on Hollywood?

1930: Hollywood Finds Its Moral Compass

Afraid of the federal government stepping in to censor their films, the MPPDA instead chooses the road of self-censorship, and adopts the Hays Code.

The Code enumerated three general principles, the same ones that lie at the heart of any good frat party or rock concert:

  1. Never lower the moral standards of the audience by throwing their sympathy to “the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.”
  2. Present only “correct standards of life.”
  3. Never ridicule any law, be it “natural or human.”

Lest these rules leave cracks through which moral ambiguity could ooze, the Code also forbade specific items, such as showing a crime that goes unpunished, depicting clergy members as clowns or villains, or showing the mixing of the races. (Remember, this was a different time, before science proved conclusively that interracial babies are the cutest.)

1930-1934: Hollywood Promptly Loses Its Moral Compass

The Hays Code is openly flouted by all major studios, who see their profits plummet as a result.

Just kidding! While the country muddles through some kind of economic downturn, studio executives happily toss fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills from their mansion balconies, then retreat indoors to bathe in gold and honey.


1934-1967: The Golden Age of Censorship

Emerging all sticky from their gold and honey baths, the studio executives find that the Hays Code has been amended to fix the infamous You-Don’t-Have-To-Follow-These-Rules-If-You-Don’t-Want-To loophole. The studio executives unleash a string of expletives, which are swiftly censored, a dark prelude of the decades to come.

Because art cannot survive under commercial constraints, no good movies are made during this time. Audiences settle instead for watered-down sludge like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and 13 of the other top 18 films from the American Film Institute’s list.


1968: MPAA Ratings are Born

MPAA head Jack Valenti decides to replace the Hays Code following the success of films such as 1967’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was forced to cut the inflammatory verb “screw” but was allowed to keep the innocuous phrase “hump the hostess.” For some reason, people get all huffy, as if this isn’t perfectly consistent, and write off the Hays Code as obsolete.

Valenti replaces it with the MPAA’s first ratings system:

  • G, for general audiences
  • M, for mature audiences
  • R, for restricted (children under 16 admitted only with an adult guardian)
  • X, for adults only (people under 17 not admitted at all)

This system, like the ones that follow it, is voluntary. This means that if you want your film to be eligible for wide commercial distribution, it is mandatory. See? Totally voluntary.

1970: “GP” Replaces “M”

The MPAA substitutes “GP for “M,” in response to the complaint that it’s unclear whether “M” or “R” films are smuttier.


1972: “PG” Replaces “GP

The MPAA substitutes “PG” for “GP,” in response to the complaint that “PG” sounds cooler.


1984: Steven Spielberg Invents the “PG-13” Rating

Still head of the MPAA, Jack Valenti is surrounded by a mob of pitchfork-wielding parents, who are incensed by the misleading PG ratings for gruesome films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – which featured a human heart being manually ripped from a guy’s chest – and Gremlins, which featured cute little fuzzballs getting all toothy and mean.

The solution comes from – who else? – Steven Spielberg, who proposes an intermediate rating that will apply to films too cool to be PG, but too commercially viable to be hampered by an R rating. And so PG-13 is born.

1990: The MPAA Realizes that Everybody Thinks “X” Films are Pornos

Like someone whose friends are too embarrassed to point out the broccoli caught in their teeth, the MPAA takes until 1990 to realize that its X rating has become synonymous with pornography. To fight this association, the MPAA replaces X with NC-17. Now freed of the burdensome X, intelligent and provocative films targeted at adults are finally able to find commercial success.

Ha ha, no. The NC-17 rating remains a death sentence for mainstream films.

2001 – Today: Explaining the Inexplicable

Seeking to provide guidance for parents in the bewildering post-9/11, post-Britney Spears, post-Phantom Menace world, the MPAA begins providing brief explanations for each of their ratings. These enlighten no one, but lend themselves to easy parody.

[SOURCEWhere else?]

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