“A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.” So declared the Hays Code, a production code adopted in 1930 by the film studios in Hollywood. A new body, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), was established to rehabilitate an industry that had become corrupt and morally questionable.
Preferring self-regulation to the threat of government censorship, studios voluntarily abided by the rules of the code, which detailed the moral obligations of film art and included guidelines on which subjects should be avoided in films and which should be handled respectfully. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Easier said than done, of course.
For a body set up to police moral standards in Hollywood, it was always going to be an uphill battle. The code was effective until the 1950s. By then, the new technology of television began to threaten the film industry’s hold. Studios began pushing the limits of the code to offer audiences something they couldn’t get from their TV sets. Foreign films and independent movies that did not abide by the Hays Code became more widely available in American theaters. By the end of the decade, brazen producers in search of success began challenging and even disregarding the MPAA. In 1959, Billy Wilder’s risqué comedy Some Like It Hot was released without a certificate of approval. It was a box office smash. Other films followed suit. By the late 1960s, the MPAA had switched from enforcing a code of standards to merely classifying films by their content. Its power was gone.
In 1968, four single letters were all that remained of the code: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted and X for sexually explicit content. A few years later, M was changed to GP and then to PG. The system helped identify the two extremes—general audience and mature audience films—but what about the muddy waters in the middle? Enter Steven Spielberg, visionary filmmaker and irritator of parents with pre-teens. Uproar over violent scenes in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (remember that pleasant scene where the priest literally tears a man’s heart out?), Poltergeist and Gremlins, prompted Spielberg to recommend a new rating to then MPAA president Jack Valenti. In 1984, the PG-13 rating was introduced between PG and R for material that “may not be suitable for children under 13.” And by the late 1990s, short descriptions accompanied each rating explaining the type of content for which the film was rated.
But is this enough for Christians to make informed choices about movies? And who makes these ratings decisions anyway? This year, the MPAA is working hard to get its message out and dispel the reputation for secrecy and mystery that has surrounded the industry group for years. A new campaign designed to increase awareness of the ratings system includes improved ratings boxes and trailer tags, a spruced-up website (www.filmratings.com), and even a Twitter feed (@FilmRatings). And Joan Graves, chairman of the ratings board (now known as the Classification and Rating Administration, or CARA), appears in a video at mpaa.org explaining the ratings process in her own words.
In the video, Graves makes a comment that highlights one of the main problems of the ratings system for Christian families. “The system is built to evolve, since it’s administered by a board of parents who are reacting to the current parental outlooks; it’s bound to change over the years … ” For those trying to abide by God’s standards as set out in His Word, standards that change over time are not dependable. “Ratings creep” is a phrase used to describe this gradual change of standards.
In a recent article on FoxNews.com, Parents Television Council president Tim Winter comments on a 2004 study from the Harvard School of Public Health showing evidence that today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex and profanity than movies of the same rating a decade ago. “In other words, the content in a film rated PG today is comparable to what you might have seen in a PG-13 movie a decade ago, and today’s PG-13 is more like yesterday’s R. And the line keeps moving.” Winter argues that in order for a ratings system to work, “that system must be accurate, consistent, transparent and ultimately accountable to the public. The current MPAA system fails this standard. The only ability to challenge an MPAA age rating is afforded to a film’s producer—and they seem able to negotiate a lower age rating almost 100 percent of the time.” In order to avoid a slippery slope of ever-changing values and standards, we need more than a secular system like the MPAA can give us.
Using the MPAA ratings as a starting point, there are several Christian sources to turn to for more information and advice on a movie’s content. For a detailed breakdown of a film’s positive and negative content, try Plugged In (pluggedin.com or mobile app), a service of Focus on the Family. No stone is left unturned, with detailed reviews of spiritual content as well as sexual, violent, drugs, alcohol and crude language content. Another good resource is Movieguide (movieguide.org or mobile app), a family guide to movies and entertainment from Dr. Ted Baehr and the Christian Film & Television Commission. Color-coded, numbered reviews rate films’ acceptability on a range from Exemplary to Abhorrent. In addition, Movieguide provides detailed coverage of the entertainment industry from a Christian perspective. Other places that offer Christian insight into movie content include Crosswalk (crosswalk.com/culture/movies), Hollywood Jesus (hollywoodjesus.com), and Christian Spotlight on Entertainment (christiananswers.net/spotlight).
In an age of technology that makes movies more visceral and realistic than ever before, we must be careful to maintain high standards. The Apostle Peter reminds believers that we are set apart: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The next time you’ve got two hours to spare and want to catch a flick, Philippians 4:8 may be a good place to start: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Andrew is a media relations specialist at the Discovery Institute. He writes film reviews, interviews, profiles, historical and informative pieces for a variety of publications. He also also writes and produces a podcast called Simply Scottish, available on iTunes and at simplyscottish.com.