Shannon Thomas thought it would be fun to take her three kids — now ages 7, 10 and 10 — to see Hancock last summer. The movie was rated PG-13. "I'm thinking, 'It's a superhero movie.' The previews looked harmless and funny.
"I was wrong," says the Anniston mom. "The first five minutes into the film, the 'F' word was used. We immediately got up and left the theater and told the manager that the movie was not appropriate even for anyone under 18. He allowed us to pick another movie, and we did.
"As an adult, I don't want to hear that in a movie, let alone my kids."
Or take the case of Amanda Ford. When Spider-Man 2 came out, she took her 7-year-old son. It was also rated PG-13, although some reviewers called it a "lite" PG-13, appropriate for children as young as 8. "He was so excited about it because it was Spider-Man, and then when he saw the movie, it scared him.
"I think that they need to tone movies like that down just a bit. Because after children see them, they like to come home and act them out."
This summer has seen a spate of blockbuster films rated PG-13: Action movies like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Terminator Salvation (the first PG-13 in the Terminator series); Star Trek; X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But also romantic comedies like The Proposal; Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; I Love You, Beth Cooper.
Maybe it's the "PG" in the rating that lulls us. Some of those sure sound like kid-friendly movies.
Over the past decade, PG-13 movies have been getting more violent, more profane and more sexual.
A 2004 Harvard study found that many of today's PG-13 movies would likely have earned an R rating 17 years ago. It's a trend that's been dubbed "ratings creep."
And yet, as PG-13 movies have been growing more mature in content, they are increasingly being marketed to children much younger than 13.
According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, there are 75 toys being sold in conjunction with the new G.I. Joe movie, some of them for children as young as 2. The group also counted 88 Transformers toys, 22 Terminator toys and 82 Star Trek toys.
And that's not counting the toys that come with the kids' meals.
The CCFC also tallied thousands of commercials for these movies on children's stations such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
All of that adds up to a lot of pressure that parents can find hard to resist. In our home, when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out, our 7-year-old son learned all about it from commercials and kids' meal toys and Legos playsets. He begged to see the movie. We said no. But we relented so far as to let him watch the original Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. We remembered the face-melting Nazis, but unfortunately we had forgotten about the heavy drinking, the sexual overtones, the cussing, the shooting, the kicking, the punching and the splattering blood when that bad guy gets his head whacked off with an airplane propellor.
Late last month, the CCFC started an online petition and sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, urging the FTC to stop the marketing of PG-13 movies to young children.
"When PG-13 films come with toys and kid's meal promotions, parents think these films are fine for children to see," says Nancy Carsson-Paige of the CCFC. "But they are not."
PG-13. It's the new R, and the new PG, all at the same time.
Confused? You're not alone. Parents are increasingly looking beyond the traditional ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America, turning instead for guidance to a myriad of websites that offer detailed parental movie ratings, grading on everything from cuss words to blasphemy to cigarette smoking.
Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) is one of the largest. The website offers ratings for movies, TV, websites, video games, books and music. Movies are rated as appropriate for a specific age, not just an age range. Taken into consideration are overall message, violence, sex, language, consumerism, and drinking, drugs and smoking. Parents and kids can add their own reviews.
The website Kids in Mind (kids-in-mind.com) rates movies on a scale of 1 to 10 in three categories: Sex & Nudity; Violence & Gore; and Profanity.
Focus on the Family runs the website Plugged In (pluggedinonline.com), which does much the same thing, but adds a religious dimension.
It's a far cry from the information the MPAA currently delivers. For instance, the new G.I. Joe movie is rated PG-13 for "strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout." That's about the same amount of info you can get in a Twitter update.
The New York Times reported last month that the MPAA is trying to adapt. Ideas under consideration include dividing the R rating into different categories, and developing a rating for movies that are inappropriate for children under 15.
Since their introduction in 1968, movie ratings have always gone with the flow of the culture. There are no hard and fast rules about what separates a G from a PG. The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984.
The ratings board, located in Los Angeles, consists of eight to 13 full-time members. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have some parenting experience.
But not all parents are offended by the same things.
Some object to any sort of violence in movies. Others are OK with stylized violence, figuring it isn't any more dangerous than watching the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Those moms are more concerned about the real-life violence that kids might be exposed to on TV news.
Some parents have objected to the imbibing of butter beer in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (even though nobody knows for sure if butter beer is alcoholic).
A writer for Slate magazine recently complained that her children were traumatized by the cat-on-mouse violence in the G-rated The Tale of Despereaux.
The local moms interviewed for this story were, for the most part, more concerned about profanity than violence.
To that end, the local website BamaMoms (bamamoms.com), which is affiliated with the Anniston Star, hopes to launch its own parental movie reviews in the coming months, written by local moms.
For her part, Amanda Ford and her family rarely go to the theater anymore. Instead they wait for movies to come out on DVD, and she and her husband pre-screen them for their children, ages 1 to12. "Parents need to use their own judgment and go see the movie before actually letting their children see it," she says.
Shannon Thomas and her husband have decided to stick solely to G or PG movies, no matter how "kid-targeted" the others may seem. Theirs is a blended family, which adds another layer to the challenge. "When the children are not with us, we can't control what their other parents take them to see," she says. "We just reiterate to all of our children that there are certain movies that are not kid-appropriate, and that we do not approve of those kinds of movies or TV shows in our home."
Common Sense Media suggests offering up a distraction if your kids are pestering you to see an inappropriate movie. Have a family movie night instead (let your kids choose an age-appropriate movie). Go play miniature golf. Host a game night. Cook something, plant something, scrapbook something. In short, make a concerted effort to do something else with your kids. And remember that you're not letting them see that PG-13 movie because you love them.
In the end, there's only so much a parent can control. The best thing is to teach your children to cope.
Tammy Vinson, of Ohatchee, is trying to do that with her children, ages 8 and 9 months. "It's not just movies," she points out. "Taking your kids out in public has the potential to expose them to all kinds of inappropriate behavior. My son knows words not to say, and when he hears someone else say them, he'll look at me and say, 'Mom, they said a bad word.'
"Raise your child to know right from wrong, and when they see or hear something wrong, they know how to handle it."
What the ratings mean
G: (General Audiences. All Ages Admitted). A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture. The G rating is not a "certificate of approval," nor does it signify a "children's" motion picture. Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated motion pictures. Depictions of violence are minimal. No nudity, sex scenes or drug use are present in the motion picture.
PG: (Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children.) A PG-rated motion picture should be investigated by parents before they let their younger children attend. The PG rating indicates, in the view of the Rating Board, that parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, and parents should make that decision. The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated motion picture.
PG-13: (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.) A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them. A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category. The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture. Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.
R: (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.
NC-17: (No One 17 and Under Admitted.) An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean "obscene" or "pornographic" in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.?