Call for Comments: Content Ratings and Parental Ratings Guides

From Mav: I’ve gotten into a couple conversations recently with different people about movie ratings. Not the kind of whether they’re good and bad… stars… thumbs up and down and all that. I mean MPAA ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17… or at least here in the United States, that’s what they are. Curiously, it seems that different people have varying degrees of belief in the legitimacy and usefulness of such ratings. That is, some people think that they’re very good guidelines. Some people think that they have actual legal backing (they don’t… at least not in the US). Most people seem to think that they’re way more standardized and meaningful than they actually are. And pretty much EVERYONE thinks they basically suck because they don’t match up with the way THEY would personally rate a movie for appropriateness for their own children. And there’s a good reason for that. Mostly, they’re kind of bullshit.

One of the most interesting things to me about these ratings system is that there are so many of them. Each major media type has they’re own… or even a set of them. There’s the MPAA ratings for movies. There’s the TV Parental Guidelines (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, TV-MA) and for video games there’s the ESRB (EC, E, E10+, T, M, AO). Add on to that the RIAA’s binary “Parental Advisory” label. It sort of becomes weird because the guidelines don’t really match up. Why is the same movie set to 13yos or older for theaters, and then, edited to censor some content to match FCC guidelines (another whole issue) suddenly now for 14yos?

This gets even weirder when you look at stuff like comic books. For a long time they worked under a binary system, like the RIAA, called the Comics Code Authority (CCA) which we’ve mentioned on the show before. This was almost silly because almost EVERYTHING easily commercially available was CCA approved, with the exception of Disney comics which were tamer than anything else. And then anything else that wasn’t CCA approved was likely an underground comic and essentially “R-rated” or more. Of course, the CCA was abandoned in 2011 and now the major publishers use their own in-house rating systems which is actually much more confusing because they don’t match. Marvel uses All Ages, T, T+, Parental Advisory, and Explicit Content. DC uses E, T, T+, and M. Note that both of them have a T and T+ but they don’t mean the same thing. Marvel’s T is closer to PG in movie ratings. It means “made for everyone but may be a little too much for really young kids” and T+ is their teen line for 13+. In DC, T means over 12 and T+ means over 15. And honestly, good luck even noticing the content warnings on the books anyway. They’re mostly very understated and hard to find in the current day.

And really, I’m not sure how many people ACTUALLY pay attention to any of these content warnings. I talked to a few different parents when planning out this episode and I’ve seen people looking at everything from the content warnings varying sources including the IMDB, Common Sense Media, MovieGuide, Parental Guide, and the Parents Television Council. A lot of these are “better” in that they try to give more in depth reasoning than just slapping a letter on something, but you have to be willing to read the reviews to understand WHY something got a rating. And you have to sort of accept that whichever guide you are looking at has the same moral sensibilities that you do as a parent. Of the ones that I just mentioned two of them are HEAVILY Christian influenced… which… could be a good or a bad thing depending on who you are. But if you don’t know that… good luck figuring it out from the name. And if you are NOT Christian… then you might be upset to learn that a lot of the “official” ratings systems I mentioned earlier were developed specifically to promote Christian values too.

These things really matter to people. But the fact that no one has the same sensibilities or understanding of them makes them more complicated. Several years ago, I remember my sister-in-law complaining that there was an R-rated trailer before the documentary March of the Penguins that she had taken her young son to. She felt that this shouldn’t “be allowed” because “there are families there” and she went on an on about how there should be trailer guidelines. Except there are… there are Green trailers and Red trailers. Turns out, apparently a lot of people don’t know that. But this becomes confusing because since there are only two levels. And Red and Green meant something different before 2009 than it does now. And I bet most people reading this don’t really know either. Prior to 2009, green trailers meant “all audiences” and red meant “adult audiences.” Since 2009 green now means “appropriate” instead of all. Mostly this means, the movie that this trailer is for rated no higher than the movie you are about to watch. The problem here, of course is that March of the Penguins was rated G, but despite how my SIL felt about it, wasn’t really a “kids” movie. So under the new system, pretty much all of the trailers that accompanied it would have been red-band thus still not providing any useful information to parents.

Personally, I used to be very fond of the Cable TV content advisory system which a lot of the networks just started voluntarily using back in the early 1990s. They have more specific notes for any given content. Rather than an arbitrary rating it just says “AL, AC, N, V” and you had to decide if those things are appropriate for your kid or not. You know, assuming you can figure out what they all mean. It’s more work, but it’s more value once you do it. Of course, the problem there is that it’s still somewhat subjective. And now that content comes from essentially a million networks, not to mention private individuals on youtube and podcasts, there’s no way to really do this effectively. Honestly, I’ve never found a way to really classify our show. Apple Podcasts only gives us two possibilities. “Clean” and “Explicit”. Neither really sounds “right.” We certainly aren’t “clean”… being the “pseudo academic pop culture analysis roundtable with drinking and swearing,” but I honestly think that if you took the way we talk as “explicit”… well, you have issues. I’d never want to call our show G-rated. But I think a reasonable discussion could be had as to whether or not it was PG or PG-13.

Given the amount of arguments we see as to what is appropriate content on Youtube channels and social media posts, I’m not convinced that content rating is a reasonable thing to even have anymore. I get why it’s needed, but it’s nigh impossible to decide if a photo is “adult content” or not on the internet. Even our decisions about what SHOULD and SHOULD NOT merit a rating is so entirely tied to individual ideology and politics that the very act of doing it becomes problematic. What happens when you post a selfie to social media. You have to ask: Does it have a boob in it? Does the boob being attached to a male make it less problematic than it being attached to a female? Does it matter how big the boob is? What if the boob is attached to transwoman? A transman? How much nipple is showing? Is it suddenly more ok if there happens to be a baby reaching out to suckle at it? What about a drawing of a boob? If it’s a photo of a naked female boob in a totally sexual context, BUT I happen to put a little black box right over the nipple, that’s now totally safe for work, right? The kids will love it! I know these questions sound silly, but I’m also quite sure that many people reading this who are even fans of our show will have SLIGHTLY different ideas of where the lines are. I have similar problems with people trying to do Content and Trigger Warnings. Sure your heart is in the right place, but honestly, at this point it’s mostly noise in the system that doesn’t really accomplish anything that anyone wants.

So, I’m interested in what people know about ratings systems. How much of the history of them are you aware of? And I’m especially interested in how parents view them. Do you pay any attention? Do you think they’re useful? Are kids too individual in tastes and sensibilities for ratings to mean anything? What do you look for? How would you change them? And for non-parents, the same thing… and do you think they’re useful at all?

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13 Comments and 4 Webmentions for “Call for Comments: Content Ratings and Parental Ratings Guides”

    1. Chris Maverick In all seriousness I do believe the existence of ratings does carry value but too often is utilized in the absence of judgement on the parents part. And as a parent I can attest that what’s appropriate for one isn’t for another because we all mature at different rates and no rating system can be 100% accurate, so yeah, BS. The MPAA like violence but nudity is naughty!

  1. As a pretty avid consumer of culture, I simply use these as guidelines and evaluate the product myself. A good example of this is the recent Harley Quinn cartoon, which I first became aware of thanks to you. Knowing it was a cartoon, I nearly watched it with my 5 yr old, but I glanced at the ratings and decided to watch it with my wife instead (good call, as there are approx. 5 f-bombs in the first ten secs.). But having seen it now, I don’t think there’s anything too objectionable for my 17 yr old.

    That said, I think the other side of the sword applies to the recent Harley Quinn/Birds of Prey film (I refuse to type the whole title). I think they hurt themselves by taking an R rating, especially as there wasn’t anything there that was too offensive, other than 100 minutes of cartoon-like violence. No nudity (not that offensive, IMHO), no sex (could be inappropriate for kids), a thinly veiled drug reference and some adult situations. Between the R rating and the February opening date, they sabotaged their own film by not trying for a PG-13 rating, which is much softer and would have opened up their audience significantly.

    Growing up in the 80’s, I used to have an “objectionable lyrcs” t-shirt based on Tipper Gore’s efforts. But even back then, I never knew anyone who paid any heed to music industry standards. In this day and age of digital delivery/storage, I have no idea how I’d enforce this with my kids, other than simply paying attention. Of course, I find “Baby Shark” more offensive than NWA.

    1. Chris Maverick, oh, I’m sure you did. I just forgot.

      Kind of a shame, because my almost 5 yr old would LOVE the Harley Quinn cartoon. Just the type of irreverent humor that appeals to him. And me, come to think of it.

  2. I actually find the ratings on common sense media way more helpful. They take the AL, N, V type labels and rate the severity of their categories. Their ratings were how I decided to take my 13yo to see 1917.

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