The Reign of the PG-13 Rating: Sanitized, Safe, and Worth Shitloads of MoneyS

It's a great time for PG-13. Seven out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars were rated PG-13. Eight of the Top 10 grossing films of last year in the U.S. sported that rating. It's become something of a badge of honor: This Means War was edited to qualify (not that it made a difference in its paltry box office take), The Expendables sequel is being tailored to be a PG-13 "barbeque of grand scale ass bashing [that] will not leave anyone hungry" (according to Sly Stallone) and high-profile outrage met the MPAA's decision to slap Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully with an R instead.

PG-13, it's where people want to be.

It's simple math, really: Movies rated PG-13 make more money on average ($42 million per picture versus G's $38.5 million, PG's $37 million and R's $15 million). Getting blessed with PG-13 ensures that the odds are ever in your favor. In this economy, who wants to gamble?

During its opening last weekend, The Hunger Games—another PG-13 conformist—made $155 million domestically, placing it at No. 3 on the tally of biggest opening weekends of all time (in the Top 10 domestic openings of all time, it's joined by nine other PG-13s –- Shrek the Third is the PG-rated oddball). Games director Gary Ross was upfront about targeting PG-13 before the film began shooting, and despite it telling the story of 24 kids who are made to fight each other to the death, its depiction of violence didn't betray the book's depiction too drastically. The film could have gone farther out, but that it didn't is no surprise.

The modern movie almost always runs the risk of being diluted by virtue of the -13 advantage. PG-13-conscious cinema that is avoiding an R-rating almost always seeks to tone itself down so as to cast as wide of a net as possible. The parameters for what exactly determine PG-13 status are, like anything that has to do with the MPAA, nebulous—but here's how the association's site breaks it down:

A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them. A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category. The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture. Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.

Typically, the board of parents who determine the ratings allow each PG-13 movie one "fuck," but no fuck-ing. (Although Adventures in Babysitting and Soapdish are early-ish examples of movies that gave two "fucks.") Violence is brief, and so are boobs. If you're after a real trashy time, you're better off looking somewhere else.

The sweet-spot status and overall prominence of PG-13 is reminiscent of the mass-sanitizing Production Code that spawned the MPAA in the first place. We get away with more now, but seem to be agreeing as a culture that we prefer the tepid to the graphic, the suggestion to portrayal.

It wasn't always that way. The great irony of PG-13 is that while today it suggests a sort of conformity of standards, it came from a place of boundary-pushing. It emerged in 1984, after the heart-ripping intensity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and monster-microwaving carnage of Gremlins sent parents complaining that these were way too intense for their PG ratings. "I created the problem and I also supplied the solution…I invented the rating," says Steven Spielberg, who directed the former and produced the latter, with every ounce of the modesty you'd expect from him.

Two months after Gremlins came the first PG-13-rated movie, Red Dawn. The Woman in Red, Dune, Johnny Dangerously, and The Flamingo Kid soon followed. I remember being a kid while this middle ground was solidifying and being really excited by it all. Seeing my first PG-13 movie (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) felt like a rite of passage, but a gentle one: A hop to racy instead of a leap to explicit. The innocence was reflexive, too — before PG-13 was something to aspire to, it's just what those movies were.

The middle ground makes sense for user-friendly comedies with a sitcom sheen, optimistic portrayals of high school and comic-book action that has little chance of coming off as realistic anyway. In this light, The Hunger Games makes even more sense as PG-13, as its protagonist Katniss is essentially a superhero who just can't lose.

But with time, PG-13 came to signal a muting of the senses, specifically those in which violence takes center stage. This is because sex can barely be portrayed at all in PG-13, but violence is more open to loop-holing. The wave of PG-13 horror that followed the Scream-spawned slasher revival of the late ‘90s was so widely reviled, the subgenre of torture porn emerged as a response (or as a punishment, depending on your view). It's rare that horror, in particular, doesn't come off as anything but castrated within the confines of PG-13. Exceptions include Cloverfield (which used the found-footage genre's amateurish camera work as a sort of self-censorship) and Drag Me To Hell (which horrified with things typically off the MPAA's radar like vomit and extreme sound effects). These movies don't merely conform to PG-13 lameness; they exploit it to their creative advantage.

For as important as a cultural force as PG-13 is, its meaning isn't always straightforward. We often overemphasize the importance of film ratings, forgetting all those Nightmare on Elm Street movies we saw opening weekend when we were way below the prescribed age. The truth that goes beyond industry and to the essence of free will is that if a kid wants to see a movie, a kid is going to get to see that movie. Conversely, the Bully hubbub ignores that kids aren't going to see a documentary unless they're made to. It might as well be Rated R, since it's an adult who's inevitably going to be dragging them through the swinging doors. (And furthermore, the R-rating didn't prevent Schindler's List from becoming a field-trip destination when it was released in 1993. They bused eighth graders in my school to the multiplex in droves.)

The Weinstein Company has ultimately decided to release Bully unrated, not that it will make kids want to see it more or less. If anything, the explicit connotation that an R-rating carries should make it more appealing to those in the typically rebellious phase of adolescence. Kids indulge in the forbidden.

As for us adults, PG-13 will continue to signal that what we're getting is only part of the story. The PG-13 label signals that we'll be seeing something that is most likely compromised for the sake of another demographic, that unfounded fears of early exposure to depictions of sex and violence are guiding mainstream entertainment. The village that it takes to raise a child has installed a multiplex.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.