This Case is Not Yet Rated

Let’s say you’re watching a film trailer before a movie at the theater (man, we miss going to the movies) or maybe you saw a trailer ad on YouTube. Every movie trailer, whether red-band or green, has at least one thing in common: a rating. Or, the promise that it will get a rating. 

We all know them well: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, Unrated, or not-yet-rated. But, where do these ratings come from, and how did they come to be? What do these ratings really mean in terms of what is or isn’t appropriate for specific audiences? 

Censorship is a big part of film history and the movie-making process. Although the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) does not censor films, many would argue that it is their ratings that determine the success of a film at the box office or whether a film will get marketed at all. The rating process is notoriously mysterious, and the people involved are generally anonymous. Because of this, many filmmakers have voiced their frustration with the process and the power that the ratings have over the film industry. 

Today we will take a look at the history of cinema censorship, and the creation of the current MPAA rating system. This Case is Not Yet Rated 


  • In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that films were not protected under free speech. They saw the movie making business as just that–a business. This ruling allowed the state of Ohio to create a censorship board with the ability to ban any film from being shown in their state.
    • Ohio was not the first state to create a censorship board, but this ruling made the practice more popular. Soon, local censors existed all over the US, and no film was safe from their scrutiny. 
  • The public outcry against indecency in films only increased in the early 1920’s with  scandals from real film actors. Most famously, a scandal involving silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. 
    • He was charged with manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe, a 25-year-old actress that died of a ruptured bladder at one of his parties.
    • This party also included alcohol during Prohibition, which had just passed in 1920
  • This outcry led to even more censorship, and Hollywood needed to come up with a standardized way of of censoring themselves while cleaning up their reputation.
  • So, in 1922 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed by major production studios.
    • The MPPDA, which would eventually be known as the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) appointed Will Hays as its first director.
      • Hays was a well-known politician, the former postmaster general, and an elder in the Presbyterian church.
    • After 1922, general film guidelines existed, but they were mostly optional and usually followed only after local censor boards would ban certain movies in their cities. For example, the film “Baby Face” (1933) was re-edited to have a new ending after it was banned in several cities.
    • Hays developed a system of “Dont’s” and “Be Carefuls” based on the complaints of local censoring boards, and as silent films gave way to talkies, Will Hays helped write a new set of guidelines for the changing medium.
      • This became known as The Motion Picture Production Code, or more commonly, The Hays Code
        • Although the MPAA is most well-known for its rating system, it’s important to note that it also helps studios distribute their films, advises them on taxes, and creates a public relations program for the film industry.


  • The Hays Code was published in 1930, but not enforced until 1934.
    • This is why films made between 1927 and 1934 are considered “Pre-code Hollywood,” as filmmakers got away with more jokes, adult themes, promiscuity, and violence.
  • It cited the introduction of sound in film as one of its main reasons for film censorship.
    • The code reads, “The advent of sound on the motion picture screen brought new problems of self-discipline and regulation to the motion picture industry. Sound unlocked a vast amount of dramatic material, which for the first time could be effectively presented on the screen.”
  • Here is the link to the code so that you can read it for yourself, but it gave a detailed list of what was considered suitable on screen.
  • Some of the outdated rules for the Hays Code are:
    • To not include the depiction of childbirth as painful
    • No kissing that lasts more than three seconds or is too lustful
    • To not have romantic partners without at least one leg on the floor in a love scene
    • No depictions of surgical operations
    • No ridicule of clergy
    • No pity for criminal activity
    • No “toilet gags”
  • In 1934, the Production Code Administration (PCA) required the studios that agreed to the code (most major studios in Hollywood) to submit scripts and final prints of films. If the film passed the standards, it got the PCA seal of approval that ran in the opening credits of the film. If it didn’t pass, it was barred from wide release. 
    • Major studios owned the theater chains that showed films, and because most (if not all) major studios agreed to the code, any rejected film could not be shown in a mainstream theater.
      • Of course, independent theaters might give it a go, but there is very little profit. 
    • If a producer’s film was rejected, they could appeal to the MPPDA board or make required edits. Remember–these were the practices of a censorship organization. 
      • Filmmakers rarely won appeals, and films were often re-edited and sometimes re-named to follow the standards of the Hays code.


  • In 1966 Jack Valenti became the leader of the MPPDA (which was soon renamed to MPAA) in Washington DC.
    • In the first two years of becoming President of the MPAA he was able to rally several different groups to support his idea for a voluntary ratings system. 
      • These groups were; actors, studio heads, Hollywood trade unions, politicians, and religious groups. 
      • Despite the Hays code only being about 36 years old, it seemed hopelessly outdated.
    • This change was certainly needed, as the legality of film censorship had changed a lot since 1930.
      • For example, film studios were no longer the owners of the mainstream movie theater chains that showed their films thanks to a 1948 supreme court ruling.
      • Four years later in 1952, the supreme court overturned its 1915 ruling, and determined that films were in fact protected under free speech.
        • The ruling stated, “It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas.”
      • This meant that local censor boards were being phased out, making the PCA-enforced Hays code the main form of film censorship.
        • However, the PCA didn’t have the same power as it had once before. In the mid 1950’s, they famously banned the film, “The Moon is Blue.” 
        • Because of that 1948 decision, the director was able to use an independent distributor, which then was able to show the film in more theaters than any Non-PCA-approved film of the past.
  • In 1968 Jack Valenti established the MPAA rating system. (It has now been 52 years since the establishment.)
    • He did this in concurrence with the National Association of Theatre Owners.
      • Valenti was also concerned that the local censor boards would revitalize after another supreme court ruling stated that states can adjust the definition of obscenity for films, and thought that a self-policing system would appease audiences.
    • In 2004 Valenti said “One, the First Amendment reigns. Freedom of speech. Freedom of content. The director is free to make any movie he wants to make and not have to cut a millimeter of it. But freedom without responsibility is anarchy. The director will know he can do that, but some of his films may be restricted from viewing by children. Now I thought that was a balancing of the moral compact.” 
      • Instead of censoring the directors and their films, the MPAA system is designed to alert the public to what is in the movie. Ideally the movie-goer then has the chance to see the film based on their own discretion.
      • It’s worth noting that many of the people that argued for film censorship in the 1960’s were also in favor of prohibition in 1920.
    • Jack Valenti marketed his ratings as a public service, and convinced major newspapers to distribute information about the new ratings and what they meant.
    • The ratings were meant to evolve with the times, film-making, and with current parent opinions.
      • The initial ratings were: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences (though all ages admitted), R for viewers 16 years of age or older, and X for no child under 17.
      • Eventually the M rating became PG for Parental Guidance, the R age was raised to 17, and, in 1984, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating. 
        • This came about when Stephen Spielberg, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, showed the removal of a heart during a human sacrifice scene. This angered a lot of parents when the movie was supposed to be rated PG. After talking about it with Spielberg, Jack Valenti created the PG-13 rating.
      • The next big change came when pornographic films began using the X-rating in their branding and marketing, so the NC-17 rating began as a result in 1990. 
      • Along with NC-17 as a rating, the MPAA also began to use “descriptors.” They were originally only used for the R rating but have since expanded and are now used on the others as well. An example of this is when it says “Violence, Language, and frightening images.”
        • In 2007 smoking warnings were added to these descriptors.
      • In 1999 after the horrific Columbine Shooting members of the public, many of them parents, turned to movie violence as an issue. 
        • To combat these fears and “protect” the youth, NATO and President Clinton came up with the plan to have movie theaters check identification to enter an R-rated movie. This has continued on and in recent years The Federal Trade Commission has enlisted secret shoppers in order to discover whether or not theaters are keeping up with the enforcement of an ID check. 
  • The Current Chairman and CEO of the MPAA is Charles H. Rivkin (He used to work for the Jim Henson company!!! He was a former president and CEO.)
    • In a special 50th anniversary report he states: “We could point to many factors behind the ratings’ success. But the clearest one of all comes directly from its founding mission: to maintain the trust and confidence of American parents.”
    • “It should come as no surprise, in a diverse country like ours, that we have heard voices and views from all sides. We are well aware we have our share of detractors and that ratings are inherently imperfect. Some consider us overly permissive; others insist we are prudes. After rating nearly 30,000 films in 50 years, the overwhelming majority of which are accepted by filmmakers and the public without controversy, I believe we tend to get it right.”


  • The ratings are determined by the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) as part of the MPAA.
    • It was established as a means to protect the first amendment, filmmakers rights, and the creative process.
    • According to the MPAA, CARA is a group of 8-13 people unaffiliated with the movie industry, who have children between the ages of 5 and 17.
  • In their 50th Anniversary report, the MPAA said that “The rating board’s job is to reflect standards, not set them. While raters adhere to general guidelines to determine a movie rating, as parents’ opinions on sex, profanity, and violence evolve throughout the years, the board’s ratings have adjusted to reflect those changing views.
  • CARA is notoriously secretive, and the members of its board are not known to the public. It has been compared to the CIA in terms of upholding the anonymity of its members and the ratings process.
    • The only public member is the board’s chair, who is Kelly McMahon who took over for Joan Graves after 3 decades in the position.
      • This is the only film rating system that does not disclose who its rating people are–an issue that has been met with a lot of criticism from filmmakers.
      • A report released by the MPAA in 2018 gave this information: Although the names of a few senior raters are publicly known, the majority of the board continues to operate in anonymity in order to insulate the decision-making process from outside influence. The MPAA said the rating board is composed of eight to 13 raters who are parents. With the exception of senior raters, members must have children ages 5 to 15 when they join, and must leave when their children reach 21. They can serve as long as seven years.
    • In an “All Things Considered” interview with NPR, Joan Graves said that the chair looks for board members that “[are] sensible and that can reflect standards rather than want to set them.”
      • She then went on to say that every time she got a complaint about a movie rating, she would mark where the person lived and how old their children were–she said that parents in the south tend to care more about blasphemy, Midwestern parents tend to challenge sexual content, and parents on the coasts in major cities will complain about film violence.
    • The 2005 documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” explains some of the criteria for specific ratings: 
      • G: No nudity, no sex, no drugs. Violence must be cartoonish and minimal; there may be language that goes beyond polite conversation.
      • PG: Strong language like shit and damn, brief nudity, slight violence.
      • PG-13: Shit can be used more frequently, and only one instance of the word Fuck–as along as it does not refer to the act of having sex.
      • R: Sexual themes, frank sex talk, sexualized nudity, tough language and tough violence.
      • NC-17: Sex in any position besides missionary, oral sex with females, anal sex, fetishes, and “aberrational behavior.” 
        • The documentary also found that four times as many films received an NC-17 rating for sexual violations over violence.
        • Although experts that work with at-risk youth and the surgeon general have voiced opposition to how violence is portrayed in popular PG-13 films, the ratings board has no behavioral experts to weigh in on the possible repercussions of depicted violence.
          • Much of the criticism isn’t about realistic violence, but the no-blood violence of a PG-13 film. Some argue that depicting violence without consequence could be more harmful than showing young audiences stories of realistic bloodshed
    • Having your film rated is technically voluntary, however many theaters will not show a film that is “unrated.”
    • Although Jack Valenti always insisted that a film’s rating did not affect how much money a movie made, box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian states that a PG-13 and R rating could be the difference between a million and tens of millions of dollars.
      • Joan Graves even discussed this further in her “All Things Considered” interview, saying that studios would often have a director sign a contract saying that they would make a PG-13 film. Directors would work with MPAA and CARA before finishing the film to figure out how to tell stories without getting an R rating.
    • The MPAA doesn’t have any published rules governing the decisions behind their ratings, but when a filmmaker doesn’t agree with a rating, they have two options.
      • They can either appeal, OR change the movie based on notes from the ratings board. 
        • HMM, sound familiar?? Remember: this is NOT a censorship organization. 
        • No appeal has ever been filmed or recorded, but directors say that they are not allowed to argue for precedent. For example, if your film was rated R for a scene similar to that of a previous film that got PG-13, you will not be allowed to bring this up.
      • In “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” filmmaker Matt Stone accused the MPAA of favoring major studios over independent ones. For example, he says that when he got an NC-17 rating for an independent film, he was told that he couldn’t receive notes on how to change it, as that would be censorship. But, when he made the South Park movie with Paramount, he was given a list of suggestions on how to avoid the NC-17 rating.
      • What is so wrong with an NC-17 rating? Well, the MPAA won’t help you distribute the film, most theaters won’t show it, and some major retailers like Wal-Mart, won’t sell it. It could be a financial death sentence for your film. 
    • Eighth Grade
      • In 2018, the studio A-24 released the film “Eighth Grade” with an R-rating. Many were critical of the decision, as actual eighth graders could not see the film. The main reason for the R rating was language–fuck is said 5 times.
      • Due to this, 50 theaters across the US participated in a no-rating-enforced screening. This isn’t the first time a theater has released a film without a rating so that younger viewers can see it, but it was notable because AMC, Regal, and Cinemark participated as well.


  • In 2006 Netflix produced the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” with the BBC.
  • However, Netflix would end up joining the MPAA the same year that their film Roma was nominated for Oscars.
    • They are now, according to an Indie Wire article by Steve Greene, yet another “major entertainment entity to become a dues-paying member to the organization.” 
    • They made history by becoming the first streaming service to do so. 
    • Tom Brueggemann from IndieWire said,“The MPAA consists of companies who pursue profits from making feature films, and Netflix wouldn’t be joining them if it didn’t want the same. But this new member tells us that all companies want to supplement what theaters have to offer.”

In a 2012 Entertainment weekly article there were some suggestions on how this system could be fixed. These were some of their suggestions:

  • Focus on the content advisories and not the ratings.
    • The rating system should be taken with a grain of salt. These are not gods or even film experts. Pay attention to why a movie was given a certain rating before you decide to go see it or to let your child see it.
  • End the R-rating for the use of just one word.
    • It’s incredibly arbitrary that the inclusion of one word more than once results in an R rating. When the Hays code was outdated, movie guidelines got a much-needed revision. The MPAA rating system claims to adapt to the times and changing social mores of our society. This is one aspect that feels archaic. 
  • Reform the board itself.
    • Add more experts on child psychology–the board has clergy, why not have scientists as well? 
    • Make the system more transparent, and allow filmmakers to quote precedent while making their appeals; this would require formal decisions by the board that are known to the public, but why not?
      • Maybe we should treat unrated films as if they aren’t so taboo–how about we release them as the director wanted and then we can watch and decide for ourselves? 

The main takeaway is that the system is a guide. It is not the end-all-be-all of whether a film is appropriate or not. Sometimes you will agree, sometimes you won’t–but see the movie yourself if you’re concerned about your child watching. 


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