Rated WTF: PG-13 is the industry cash cow, but what does it actually mean?

Nasty lite: In The Dark Knight Rises, Batsy gets a knife twisted in his heart for three and a half minutes. But because there’s no blood, it’s PG-13.

In 1992, the 20 top-grossing films included 14 with an R rating, from A Few Good Men and The Bodyguard to Scent of a Woman and White Men Can’t Jump. In 2012, only two R-rated movies made the top 20, Ted and Django Unchained, with another 12 spots taken by PG-13 blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises and Taken 2.

I bring this up because I turned 13 in 1992, and many of its big-bad-R movies seem more in line with today’s PG-13. That rating, per the Motion Picture Association of America, means we might see nudity—but not in a sexual context—and might hear expletives—but not uttered conspicuously. Violence is allowed, but it can’t be both “realistic and extreme or persistent.” Baffled by the ambiguity, I asked Weekly film critic (and smart cookie) Josh Bell how the MPAA differentiates between side-boob and under-boob these days.

“The MPAA is notoriously secretive, and they purposely decline to give specific guidelines ... so that they can exercise discretion and give out ratings based on overall ‘thematic’ content if they want to,” Bell said. In other words, the boob rules are fuzzy.

He agreed that current ratings feel more relaxed toward violence, especially the bloodless kind, but asserted that the MPAA remains strict on sexual content. The nitty-gritty of how ratings are decided, though, remains a mystery. Bell pointed out that The King’s Speech, which has a handful of expletives, and the recent Evil Dead remake, which one critic called a “constant barrage of injury and fluids,” are both rated R.

“I think that for people without children, ratings are pretty much irrelevant, and should be,” Bell said, adding that despite how racy and gory network TV has become, let alone cable, we’re a long way from animated Disney characters kissing with tongue.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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