How Does the Film Rating System Work in America?

How Does the Film Rating System Work in America?

As you settle into your seats with your popcorn and drink, a film obviously intended only for adults begins to play on the big screen. This is pure horror to you since you decided to bring your entire family, including your little kids, to watch this movie. Now all of you are sitting stiff as a rock. No one even dares to turn their neck throughout the excruciating two hours of runtime.

How were you to know? The poster didn’t give you a clue. Sure, you saw an NC-17 rating while booking the tickets, but that was as good as gibberish to you. Well, if you had known, you could have saved yourself some discomfort and embarrassment.

If terms like “PG-13,” “R,” and “NC-17” sound confusing, you have happened upon the right page on the internet. Especially if you have kids.

Films may contain content that is unsuitable for children, or triggering to adults. That is why the American film rating system implements such intricate terminology. It is supposed to clue in viewers as to what they can expect from a movie.

Familiarizing yourself with the Motion Picture Association (MPA) is beneficial if you are a movie fanatic who is new to the States. First off, we will take a look back at the past to locate the origins of the American film rating system. Then we’ll learn how American film ratings work.

The Motion Picture Industry Rating System: A Brief Introduction

It all started in 1968. The Motion Picture Association (MPA) introduced a rating system to help parents decide which films are appropriate for their children. These ratings are determined by the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), and a board of an independent group of parents is involved in the process.

The MPA represents the five major American film studios—Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros—and Netflix. This means all films released by these studios and platforms have to get an MPA rating. The scheme is voluntary for other nonmembers of the MPA. Films can even be exhibited without any rating.

Although this is not a law-enforced rating system, the MPA is today’s dominant American film rating system. A bad MPA rating might lead to the refusal of screenings from movie theaters.

Since 1968, the MPA has gone through a myriad of modifications in terms of its rating system. The American film rating system we know today is the outcome. Let’s get familiar with the latest MPA rating terms.

Types of MPA Film Ratings

1. G (General Audiences)

The safest rating a movie can get. People of all ages are admitted to the theater. There is nothing offensive for either children or adults in G-rated movies. Popular examples are Cars and Ratatouille.

2. PG (Parental Guidance)

PG films contain material that may not be suitable for children. This means parents are urged to provide “parental guidance,” as in accompanying their kids to the movie theater. However, this usually applies to films sensitive only for very young children.

These films are usually safe to watch with families. Interstellar and the Harry Potter series fall in this category.

3. PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned)

A PG-13 movie is considered inappropriate for children under 13, so parents are advised to exercise caution. But, other than pre-teenagers, these movies can be enjoyed comfortably by all. Think of movies like Avatar and La La Land.

4. R (Restricted)

This is where the trouble starts. R-rated movies may contain violence, adult situations, or both. Parental guidance is compulsory for anyone under 17. It’s best not to go to these movies with the family. Fifty Shades of Grey and Joker should ring some bells.

However, not all R-rated movies are guilty of the same offense. Parents should ideally learn more about the film before taking their children to the theaters.

5. NC-17 (Adults Only)

Often referred to as the “kiss of death” for any film, the NC-17 rating limits a film’s prospects of being marketed, screened in theaters, and sold in major video outlets. Movies with this rating often face financial failures. Kubrick classics like Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange fall under this category.

An NC-17 film is for adults only. No one below the age of 18 can watch these films at the theater, even with parental guidance. Children are strictly prohibited inside. Needless to say, you would be taking your family to watch such a film at your own risk.

6. NR/UR (Not Rated/Unrated)

As we have mentioned before, not all films need to be reviewed and rated by the MPA for exhibition at theaters. Such unrated films are displayed with an NR or UR rating. This also happens when an uncut or recut version of the film is played.


Film ratings are accompanied by content descriptors that justify why a film got a certain rating. You can spot these in trailers and posters. So, if you are unsure about a certain film, read the film rating content descriptors.

You will exclusively see these for PG to NC-17 rated films. Since G-rated films’ content is suitable for all audiences, they don’t have content descriptors.

Criteria of Judgement for American Films

It’s not enough to simply know the rating terms. You must also know what the basis of this judgment is.

Say you are taking your grandparents to a movie. You may think strong language is not a problem in their company, but extreme violence may be over the line. How can you know which ratings are indicative of less violence and full language freedom?

After assessing the usual criteria for judgment in the American film rating system, you might have a clearer picture.

1. Violence

Violence is permitted, but in progressively ascending intensity in accordance with the ratings. Mild to moderate violence is allowed in G to PG-13 movies. Anything beyond that receives the R and NC-17 rating, since excessive violence can be triggering even for adults.

2. Language

Language is a sensitive issue in the G and PG movies. Only some snippets of speech that go beyond polite conversation are permitted in G-rated films; don’t expect anything stronger than that.

Profanity is allowed in PG-rated films, but the use of a harsh word with sexual connotations will incur at least a PG-13 rating.

An R rating is given only in cases of paramount use of explicit language. However, language is rarely a major factor for getting an R or NC-17 rating.

3. Substances

Films portraying substance abuse are restricted to PG-13 and above. This can be even in the form of language, as in a drug reference. From 2007 onwards, depictions of cigarette smoking have also started to be considered in a film’s MPA rating.

In extreme cases, R and NC-17 ratings are also doled out on the basis of drug use. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream received an NC-17 rating for its explicit portrayal of narcotic drugs and addiction.

4. Nudity

No nudity is allowed in G-rated films. It is restricted to PG and above, but that too in a brief and non-sexual context. Any prolonged nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating.

If nudity is sexually oriented, the movie will generally require an R rating. Of course, there is the NC-17 rating for outrageously graphic sexual content.

5. Sex

Sex scenes are excluded from G-rated films. Just like with violence, it is allowed in increasing degrees and periods as per the ratings.

Although there are no explicit criteria for sexual content by the MPA, the system places too much emphasis on sex, in practicality, all the while letting films with massive amounts of gruesome violence pass through with a mere PG-13 or R rating. The Exorcist is a case in point.

There is an uneven distribution of what is considered appropriate by the American film rating system. This has largely to do with persisting orthodox tendencies of censoring sex.

What Should You Take Away From A Film Rating?

Ratings only speak of the nature of the content; not for the quality of the film. There are plenty of clean G-rated movies that are insufferable, and equally as many R and NC-17 rated films that awe the audience. Therefore, it is best not to judge a film before you watch it solely based on how much “indecent” content it is rumored to have.

The American film rating system has been developed for parental supervision; it should be used for that purpose alone. MPA ratings are not the same as movie reviews, and should be treated with due distinction. Movies are made with a lot of time, effort, and money. The content they include is relevant to the context. Maybe don’t take your kids with you, but give it a try, nevertheless. You are the final judge.

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