Stopping Movie "Ratings Creep"

Summer is always a big season for movie attendance, especially big, loud, special effects-laden movies. The dominating blockbuster this summer so far is "Spiderman 2," loved by critics this time as well as anticipated by fans. But does the PG-13 rating reflect the movie's content?

Some parents didn't think so. "It's very violent and very disruptive, especially for children," one parent told the New York Daily News. "It's fine to jump over buildings. It's another thing to crush someone's skull," he said, referring to a scene where the villain, Doctor Octopus, crushes a surgeon's head with one of his mechanical arms.

Whether it's the content ratings on television shows, video games, or the granddaddy of ratings, the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings system, parents have to be concerned that the ratings standards are often sloppily imposed and contradictory. Too many parents have taken children to adventure movies they assumed would be light and they find darkness instead. Too many parents have taken kids to see comedies marketed to youngsters (one current example, the playground-inspired comedy "Dodgeball") and find surprisingly adult sexual material.

Professor Kimberly Thompson of the Harvard School of Public Health has assembled another study about the risks we face with children and popular entertainment. In a survey of movies from 1992 to 2003, Thompson found "today's movies contain significantly more violence, sex, and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago." But more importantly, today's PG-13 movies pack about the same dose of sex, violence and foul language that used to earn films an R rating a decade ago, a problem defined as "ratings creep."

Thompson reported that the current movie-rating system is inadequate and unreliable for parents: "Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content, and the criteria for rating movies became less stringent over the last decade. The MPAA rating reasons provide important information about content, but they do not identify all types of content found in films."

She says parents need more content-oriented information from Web sites. One example is, and one single example underlines what parents miss from a simple age-based rating. "Anchorman," the current top comedy with funny man Will Ferrell, carries a very long list of sexual content for a PG-13 film. Parents quickly will learn from this site exactly how much sexual innuendo they're sending the children to see.

In "Anchorman" you get: two men acting as if they're having sex as the credits run; a man getting an erection while talking to a woman and she remarks about it; a man talking about having had sex with a woman while he was on the air doing a news broadcast; a man kissing and licking his dog; a man kisses a man on the forehead; a man and a woman lying on a bed, and she says "take me to Pleasure Town," and "do me"; a man says to a woman "I want to be on you" a few times; a man says, "I am very aroused"; a man talks about doing a "no pants dance with a woman"; a man admiring a woman off-camera, saying "don't wear a bra next time"; a man inviting a woman to have sex with him; another man inviting a woman to a "party in his pants"; a man trying to touch a woman's breasts, and a man talking about a woman's buttocks and making crude sexual remarks and gestures; a woman propositioning a man and drawing attention to her breasts, and a woman inviting a man to join her (presumably to have sex); a man in jockey shorts thrusting his hips toward a woman; a man talking about having named his private parts.

That's not even the entire list. But you get the point: it's machine-gun sexual innuendo, utterly inappropriate for young teens, no matter what the rating says.

Thompson is right that parents ought to pressure the MPAA to have more consistent ratings, and prevent their standards from slipping even further. But parents have a more direct role than lobbying. Summer is the hottest time for the movies, and the Harvard study is the latest proof that children need their parents to take the time to care if popular culture is going to undo what parents try to do in the daily job of forming future men and women of character.