In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)[1] created a ratings board as an arm of the Classification and Rating Administration to review and rate films on content which might be "inappropriate" for children and teenage minors.[2] The president of the MPAA appoints members of the board, which is purportedly made up of people with parenting backgrounds — “purportedly” because the identities of these folks are secret. It is known, however, that the heads the MPAA membership are drawn from the seven major studios: Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.

The underlying assumption of movie ratings (and their entertainment siblings in television, music and gaming industries[3]) is that the criteria for ratings and the ratings themselves are objective, which is to say, independent from a particular point of view, emotion, or perception. The assumption seems to be that the reviewer is impartial insofar as he or she does not have or is not influenced by a preconceived idea of the film’s content. Another possibility is that, even if individual objectivity can’t be achieved, there can be consensus among the group that balances various prejudices.

"Common sense" and "facts" are the widely accepted reference points for supposedly unbiased, unprejudiced and perceptually clear accounts of the world — in short, for objectivity. The idea is that the ratings board members can dispassionately view movies to determine what content is objectionable and what content is appropriate for young viewers. The further presumption at work is that there are ideas, events and situations that are intrinsically beneficial or harmful or become so in certain contexts. So, for example, female nudity is acceptable in some instances, but male nudity is not. That’s why, until recently, anyway, films with female nudity have typically[4] received a PG-13 rating, while films with male nudity received an NC-17. If you find this example problematic, then you already have some idea of how difficult words like “objective” and “impartial” become.[5]

Let’s pursue this problem in terms of obviously contentious content: sex and violence. Given the disparity of ratings applied to films with similar content, it would seem that some sex and violence is appropriate for young viewers, while other sex and violence is not. The ratings movies receive lead one to believe that what they are seeing is likely appropriate for viewers of a certain age. The "stronger" the rating, the less appropriate the content. Here is where the shift from any ostensible objectivity and impartiality to an intense subjectivity occurs. “Appropriateness” is a value term, and regardless of whether or not values have any objectivity (go read your Plato and then your Postmodernists) the inconsistency of the ratings applied by the MPAA ratings board reflects a movement toward subjective, and perhaps arbitrary, decision-making. Such a movement at least suggests that impartiality is undermined. The current system is so vague as to be meaningless. It is similar to that famous comment about pornography, “I can't define it but I know it when I see it.”[6]

The ratings guide itself is of little help when we compare movies that have been released with, say, PG-13 or R ratings but which have little discrepancy in actual content. For example, a nude Kate Winslet appears in the PG-13 rated Titanic (1997), while a nude M. C. Gainey appears in the R-rated Sideways (2004). Equally perplexing are ratings for films with apparently very different content. Consider, for example, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) and Billy Elliot (2000), both R-rated.

In actual practice, ratings continue to stretch ‘to reflect the morals of the times,’ which may or may not have quite the objectivity we might want morality to have, especially if the morality of the time accepts a level of sexual exploitation and violence that many find problematic. In addition, the context in which a scene is placed influences the rating a movie receives. Context and objectivity are not intellectual bedfellows, yet they are forced to co-exist for the purpose of rating films.

What does it mean to be appropriate in one context and not in another? Nudity is not intrinsically good or bad, but sexually construed it supposedly is — unless it is female nudity in a sexual context, in which case it is apparently appropriate for children to see. Why? For one, because female sexual arousal is unseen, whereas male sexual arousal — an erection — is not. It’s not about seeing naked women or men, it’s about seeing sexual arousal.[7]

Moreover, the historical situation explains some of what’s going on. From the traditionally dominant male point of view, women are sex — and sex for men. It is not problematic, then, to view them in their “natural” state. Sexual objectification is part of the process of the impartial reviewers. Yet the fact is that the typical context in which female nudity is shown is precisely sexual, and so arousal is implied if not entailed by the circumstance in which it is portrayed. The female body almost exclusively represents sexuality in “entertainment.” This is a reflection not only of attitudes about women and sex but also the inheritance of history, the hundreds of years of art depicting females as sensual objects for men by male artists. Consequently, such depiction is not viewed as a cultural artifact, a social construct. Instead, this convention is viewed simply as “the way things are” or another way of claiming objectivity — including cases in which the nudity is accompanied by violence, as in a scene in which a woman is raped. How, then, can a ratings system adequately distinguish between a degradingly exploitive rape scene and one that advances the theme, story and character development and, as such, is essential to the film?[8] An even more difficult question to answer is how we are supposed to know what a child can distinguish, which is a way of asking how a context can shape the proper understanding of a scene.

On this line of reasoning, perhaps objectivity is limited to context.[9] It may indeed be true that understanding context comes with experience, and since children have no experience to speak of, it is likely that they have no understanding of something in and out of context. Yet since ratings seem to be based, in part, on what occurs in particular contexts, it seems at best inconsistent to assert that some movies receive a less market-share favorable rating than others simply because similar content appears in different contexts — which brings us back once again to the problem of objectivity.

Well, there are at least two problems. One is that the reviewer is most likely not impartial—is not dispassionate about what he or she thinks is appropriate viewing for young audiences. The second, and related, problem is that the elements of a film are not mere facts — yet facts are just what the objective stance claims these elements to be. At the same time, filmmakers often attempt to present a story or a character in such a way that the film is not a comment but is leaves the meaning up to the audience — yet one meaning is essentially what the ratings are meant to convey, so in effect, the ratings board tells people what is and is not meaningful movie fare. People viewing a film will be hard pressed to be objective about its content when that content itself is almost never objective.

In order to judge what content is appropriate for people of all ages, it would seem one must have a coherent epistemological position—that is, a position about the nature and extent of knowledge. Even then, what we say we know and how we know it is still an open question debated by philosophers, scientists, theologians and others. How is it, then, that the ratings board has managed to resolve such a conceptually sticky problem? Since it is unlikely that ratings reflect a dispassionate evaluation of a film's content, perhaps we should do away with them in favor of a sterile enumeration of the film's scenes: “one scene of violence, x seconds in length; one scene involving nudity, y seconds in length…”[10]

Plato’s Euthyphro offers us an interesting way to look at the difficulties we have when we claim objectivity but, unbeknownst to us, bring to bear our traditions, personal biases and so forth. In this dialogue, Socrates runs into a self-professed theologian, Euthyphro. Long story short, Euthyphro claims to know the meaning of “piety.” Socrates wants a definition that reflects an objective standard, the essential nature of the term. He wants something with the clarity of a mathematical formula, that which can be applied to any action we call “pious,” such that there is no disagreement about it. At one point, he laments the fact that we don’t seem to be able to resolve disputes over moral issues the way we can over mathematical ones — and this is telling. It’s not that he doesn’t think morality is objective but rather that we get so bogged down by our own beliefs, that, unlike what happens when we look at a mathematical problem, we fail to see it for what it is.[11]

So, perhaps it’s not the case that there is no objectivity possible for film ratings but rather that we’re not very good at achieving it. Worse yet, we operate under the misapprehension that we are. “Worse yet,” because, while we denigrate film, television, and radio as mere entertainment, we also have strong opinions on the effect they have on culture, and in particular, on "impressionable" young people. If we took more seriously the idea that these are in fact powerful mediums we might begin to be more respectful about how we use them — even though they have been almost exclusively co-opted by business and corporate interests whose concerns are exclusively financial enhancement. In other words, even if we don’t have a Platonic view of objectivity[12], but we work in a Socratic way to unearth our assumptions about the world, we might have a shot at a more thoughtful approach to the way we evaluate films as appropriate or inappropriate viewing for children.

Various morals, customs, rituals, traditions and politics are infused into the images and stories we experience on a daily basis. The criteria that determine what is and is not suitable for young viewers or the general viewing public should not be constructed for us. The fact is, parents won't know if they want their child to see a film unless they see it themselves. Parents should not need parenting. If a movie is intense in any way for a young viewer, it is the parents’ responsibility to discuss and sort out what the child is experiencing. How we process what we see is a key part of kids’ formation of ideas about what they see.


[1] The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is an independent organization; it is not affiliated with or governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) is the arm of the MPAA that issues film ratings.

[2] The website explains the purposes as follows:

“The Classification and Rating Administration (“CARA”) issues ratings for motion pictures exhibited and distributed commercially to the public in the United States, with the intent to provide parents information concerning the content of those motion pictures, to aid them in determining the suitability of individual motion pictures for viewing by their children. CARA will rate any motion picture at any time before or after it is exhibited or distributed in the United States.”

[3] The MPAA does not oversee television, music, and gaming ratings. These are produced by various organizations.

[4] Combine female nudity with extreme violence, and you likely get an R. See, for example, Hostel 2 (2007).

[5] I leave aside the question of whether or not the ratings system is arbitrary, where two or more films have the same rating but arguably rather different content. The objection here is that there’s no way to discern how the MPAA arrived at the same rating.

[6] Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964.

[7] It is worth noting that it’s increasingly the case we see male genitalia on film in a non-aroused state, but if I’m not mistaken, the relevant film still gets an R rating. Of course, that may be due to other factors, not the nudity itself. See again, Sideways or Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). The Wire (2002) and Oz (1997), both television shows, also depict male nudity in, at times, a non-sexual context.

[8] The problem cuts both ways. There are plenty of films whose NC-17 rating was based on sex scenes — violent or not — deemed inappropriate for children. See, for example, Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Blue Valentine (2010).

[9] Consider the problem this way: if morality progresses, then it is relative to its time and place. Consequently, moral attitudes like viewing women, American Indians and slaves as property or less than human were appropriate in their time. Most of us find this a discomfiting thought. We want to say that these attitudes were always wrong because it is always and objectively wrong to subjugate and otherwise mistreat people. At the same time, however, we have a rather difficult time pinpointing the objective element in acts of subjugation and other mistreatment. So, perhaps it’s not so much the case that children or morality have changed but more that human beings are getting better at recognizing it. Does that mean, then, that MPAA ratings should become more objective (and so also more consistent)?

[10] Of course, even this attempt assumes that we know what counts as violence and what does not. Nudity is likely less problematic, although we’d have to stipulate what exposure of body parts constitutes it.

[11] See Euthyphro, 7c-e.

[12] There are plenty of theories of objectivity that do not rely on a Platonic notion of reality. The point is that we should not take for granted our own stance as objective.