What do movie ratings mean?

Learn what movie ratings mean and how to use them to choose movies for your children.

You may be surprised to find out that the movie ratings given to current movies were originally designed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) back in 1968. The current rating system we use was created in response to a previous self-censorship system that was created in 1922, known as the Hays Code, when the MPAA was founded and led by William Hays. The Hays Code was developed to ensure the absence of “offensive material” and prevent government interference in filmmaking.

The current rating system we have in the United States is voluntary and requires a fee for having material go through the rating process. The rating process is handled by the Classifications and Ratings Administration (CARA) by a rating board that is made up of a group of independent parents that is charged with giving ratings to films that “give parents clear, concise information about a films content, in order to help them determine whether a movie is suitable for their children,” according to a CARA brochure

During the rating process, the rating board considers things like language, sex, violence, drug use and other situations that might concern most parents. The ratings board tries to reflect what they think the majority of other parents would give the film in ratings.

Ratings are not designed to indicate that films are appropriate or inappropriate, they are simply a way of saying what kind of content is included in the movie to give parents a chance to make informed decisions on what they are allowing their children to watch. When you are looking at ratings, look at the three parts included in a rating.

  • The rating letter (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17)—this indicates the level of content.
  • The rating definition—this is generally included in the lower box of the rating itself and gives a more detailed explanation of what that rating means. Some statements may include, “Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13” or “Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children.”
  • The rating descriptors—these are usually put to the right of the rating letter. This is always unique to each film, but gives more details about why the film received a certain rating. Some statements may include “Extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images” or “For sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity” or “Mild language and some crude humor.”

What do the movie ratings mean? Take a look below at the information offered from CARA.

G: General Audiences, All Ages Admitted. Contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that the in-view of the Rating Board would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture. It’s important to note that a “G” rating does not automatically make the movie a children’s movie or is an approval of the movie for children.

PG: Parental Guidance Suggested, Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children. The film should be investigated further by parents. There may be some content such as language, violence or brief nudity, but they aren’t so intense that more than guidance is suggested. Remember, the content will vary with each movie, so check the specific movie rating for the film you are researching.

PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned, Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13. This rating is a stronger caution for parents that content included may not be appropriate for children under 13 (pre-teen ages). This may include stronger language, extended violence or sexual situations and drug-use. Remember, the content will vary with each movie, so check the specific movie rating for the film you are researching.

R: Restricted, Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian. This rating means the film contains adult material such as adult activity, harsh language, intense graphic violence, drug abuse and nudity. Most theaters have their own policies regarding R rated movies and some include checking IDs of those who look under 17 purchasing tickets, allowing only parents to purchase tickets and accompany those under 17 into the movie, or just stating it has to be an adult guardian (not necessarily a parent) and that guardian has to purchase the tickets and accompany under 17 ages the entire time. Check with your theater on the policies and other parents about what you will allow your children to watch.

NC-17: No One 17 and Under Admitted. These films are too adult for children. The rating doesn’t mean that they are obscene or pornographic, but that the content is only appropriate for adult audiences.

Michigan State University Extension suggests doing the following when you are reviewing movie ratings.

  • Review movie ratings critically. Start with the movie rating, but look at all parts of the rating. Look at the definitions and descriptions. Use these ratings as a guideline for your family movie viewing.
  • Communicate your expectations. Once you’ve decided as a family what ratings are acceptable, talk about that with your children, their friends and other adults they might watch movies with so everyone knows what is allowed when it comes to ratings.
  • Talk about the movie. It helps kids to process what they’ve just seen if they can talk about it with a trusted adult. Talk about the positive content that you want to give as examples to your kids. Talk about the negative content and how it conflicts with what your family believes or values.
  • Watch the content first. Just like using technology or apps, it’s important for parents to view movies before their children see them, especially when watching PG or PG-13 movies. Watching the movie before your child allows you to see firsthand what content is included and helps you develop a plan for how to talk about it with your child.
  • Be open. Many kids will watch movies their parents don’t want them seeing; however, it’s important to encourage kids to talk to you about what they are watching so you can help them process the content they have seen and answer questions for them.
  • Check out viewer reviews. Sometimes the actual movie rating doesn’t give a complete picture. Many movies will have viewer reviews that you can read online that give more details about content and what’s included in the movie.

For more resources related to movie ratings, check out these websites:

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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