How We Got To The PG-13 Rating
This is What Happens When You Feed the PG Rating After Midnight
While I was doing research for my two partners on the X rating, I reached the conclusion that the world was a lot simpler after the introduction of the PG-13 rating. The empty space between the PG rating and the R rating created a lot of confusion, and that resulted in movies being put in the same category that probably shouldn’t have been.
The critics demanding an X rating for The Exorcist (1973) were being a little unfair. It’s pretty solidly an R-rated movie. However, it’s also fair to say that the gap between the PG rating and the R rating left a lot to be desired. It’s a little odd that Jaws (1975) received the same rating as Meet Me in St Louis (1944), for instance.
It was also kind of odd that the outcry that led to the PG-13 rating was in response to Gremlins (1984), of all movies.
My knee-jerk reaction is to kind of scoff at that. My entire generation grew up on Gremlins. It has scary moments, but it’s pretty solidly a kids horror movie, in my book. However, the real problem wasn’t that Gremlins was a movie that children shouldn’t watch, but that the PG rating was meaningless. This had long been a point of contention, and Gremlins, as well as Indiana Jones (1981), were simply the movies that came at the end of that road.
There’s a running joke that the PG rating is meaningless now, and while it does sometimes feel that way, we all have a basic idea of the difference between G and PG. A G movie is a movie you might feel comfortable letting a toddler watch, without paying close attention to the film yourself. But, a PG movie is a movie that, at the very least, is not written with toddlers in mind. G movies try to be both appropriate and compelling for even the youngest kids to watch, whereas PG movies are typically targeted towards kids of elementary school age and up. It’s a subtle difference, but it is a difference that matters.
It’s also a recent difference.
In 1968, the MPDA (now the MPAA), abandoned the Hays Code in favor of film ratings. This abandonment of the Hays Code would quickly be combined with increasing improvements in special effects within the film industry, leading to movies changing radically. Meanwhile, movies that were made under the Hays Code were being retroactively rated, which didn’t help. It’s almost impossible to compare a movie made under the Hays Code to a movie made after the Hays Code.
Between 1968 and 1970, the PG rating was actually M for “mature,” which is hilarious, considering what the M rating has come to mean in television. It was changed to GP in 1970, and then PG in 1972. However, despite all of the different names, the rating itself had always been intended to mean what the PG-13 rating now means… that the target audience of a PG-rated film is teenagers.
Why was Jaws given the same rating as Meet Me in St Louis? Because, they were both movies targeted towards teenagers. However, one movie was made during a time period where movies were required to follow a strict set of guidelines in order to be released by the major studios, and the other was not.
Quickly, however, the PG rating became the go-to rating for films that didn’t belong anywhere else. Any movie that wasn’t really meant for kids, but a theater wouldn’t get in trouble for selling tickets to them, was labeled PG.
That’s a lot of movies.
It’s not correct to say that film has changed so much because the viewer’s standards have changed. Pre-code movies (anything made before 1934) show a similar affinity towards grim subject matter, lewd and dark humor, and gore that we see in modern movies. That’s why they’re amazing. What changed wasn’t what the average person was comfortable watching, but what control the MPAA was able to exercise over film.
By the 1980s, things had only gotten more confusing. The seventies had seen a rise in horror and grim action movies, and in the eighties, that rise was accelerated. The eighties were an amazing time for growth in horror movies and action movies, both in popularity and in visual effects.
The 1970s and 1980s were also a time when we saw the release of a lot more movies, such as The Neverending Story (1984), that were clearly targeted towards children, but not young children. I wouldn’t really want to leave a three-year-old alone during that horse scene. I don’t even want to be alone during that horse scene. In fact, I need a hug just thinking about that horse scene.
However, it’s still fundamentally a kids movie, despite the fact that it was a little odd that The Neverending Story still had the same PG rating as Poltergeist (1982), which was clearly targeted towards teenagers and adults. We couldn’t fall back on changing times to explain the difference anymore, as both movies were made post-film code, and within only a couple of years of each other.
By the time Gremlins and Indiana Jones had come out, the controversy had gotten so harsh that Spielberg himself recommended the PG-13 rating. He would then go on to make half of the PG-13 movies we all watched between the mid-eighties and the late-nineties, so it worked out well for him.
On their own, Gremlins and Indiana Jones were probably the most harmless movies to be hit by the ratings controversy. I would have no objection to either being rated PG now. However, they were little more than the straw that broke the camel’s back after 16 years of ratings drama.
Check out the original trailer for “Gremlins” (1984)!