Movie ratings: What's a parent to do?

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Tom -- we're not using his last name because he doesn't want to embarrass his three children -- counts himself lucky when deciding which movies his teenage daughter will see. That's because he has a 22-year old son who acts as his personal R-rating alert system.

"My son walked in the house last week from seeing 'Superbad,' " Tom said in a recent interview from his home near Meadville, "and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Do not, do NOT allow my 16-year-old sister to see this movie.' "

Don Anderson, pastor of Hays Methodist Church in Hays, wasn't so lucky. He went to see the R-rated "Superbad" with a friend and her adult son after viewing the trailers, which seemed benign enough.

For a 72-year-old man who peppers his conversation with "doggone," the actual movie was not a pleasant experience.

"We saw the preview and it looked kind of funny, but it didn't suggest nonstop f-words, which the movie was full of. And the theater was filled with families, all these 13-year-olds, who were probably thinking this must be OK because Hollywood is feeding this to us and our parents let us come."

In a summer where raunch is ruling the box office -- from top-grossing gross-out film "Superbad" to "Knocked Up" -- many parents have had enough, and they're blaming the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for not doing its job when it comes to keeping young people out of R-rated, sexually explicit movies.

In part, it's the trailers, they say, which don't convey just how disgusting or inappropriate a movie may be for a young teen. But there's also a sense of parental helplessness as marketers step up efforts to sell sex to young people in movies, media and the mall, from Wet Seal's thongs to Victoria's Secret bubble gum "Pink" line of provocative lingerie -- technically aimed at 18- to 22-year old females, but popular with younger teens, too.

Faced with this general loss of cultural innocence, what's a parent to do?

"My wife and I struggle with this all of the time," said Tom. "This stuff seems much more crude and visual than it used to be. It's right in your face, on TV, on cable, even at the clothing store. Plus, many of my daughter's friends are allowed to attend R-rated movies and there's a great deal of pressure on her and on us to let her go, too. "

Too bad, counters Elizabeth J. Pascuzzi, of Ross and the mother of a 16-year-old girl.

"It's an old cliche, but it starts with the parents," she said. "If parents are concerned, why are they allowing the family to watch 'South Park,' 'Desperate Housewives' and the countless other junk programs on TV? Why do they pay for magazine subscriptions to 'Teen Magazine'? Frankly, I'm tired of hearing people complaining. Turn off the TV, stop being hypocritical, and take the kids to church."

Sometimes, though, the "f-bombs" and crude scenes creep up without warning on cable networks like Comedy Central and FX and other media outlets, said Christopher Newell of Monroeville, the father of a 14-year-old daughter. His daughter understands that R-rated movies aren't allowed, "period. And she knew that on her birthday last year when she turned 13, that did not give her a free pass to PG-13 movies, either.

"The last thing I want to experience again is the uncomfortable feeling, that awkwardness when we watch a scene in a movie that makes my daughter and I look at each other with that 'I can't believe I watched that scene with my father/daughter' look on our faces," Mr. Newell said.

For her part, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA's Classification & Ratings Administration, has a suggestion: check what the R-rating actually says before taking your child to the movie.

" 'Superbad's descriptor says, 'R for pervasive crude and sexual content, strong language, drinking, some drug use and a fantasy/comic violent image.' You can get a pretty good idea of the content from that. 'Superbad' is a very funny and extremely crude movie.' "

Nonetheless, the MPAA's ratings board -- composed of executives from major studios -- has come under increasing fire from both filmmakers and parents, but for different reasons. While parents have complained MPAA is being accused of being too easy on licentious teen comedies, last year it was excoriated for being prudish, secretive and unpredictable in an angry documentary, "This Film is Not Yet Rated."

Ms. Graves noted that the ratings board not only increased the details offered in its "descriptors" of R ratings, it also altered its R-rating advisory earlier this year to caution parents that it is "not appropriate" to bring children to R-rated movies.

Also, the MPAA now offers a "Red Carpet Ratings" e-mail alert system to help keep parents informed on how the most recently premiered movies are rated. And, at a recent conference of western U.S. theater owners that Ms. Graves attended, there was talk "about being more aggressive at the box office when it's an inappropriate movie for children,'' she said. "While theater staff can't prevent a parent from taking a child in with them, they do try to make parents more aware of what's in the film."

Still, "Superbad's'' trailers weren't just shown before audiences at R-rated movies, but also at previews for some PG-13 movies -- "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," for example. That served to increase the buzz about "Superbad" among the early teen set, and the film's videos were posted on YouTube and FunnyOrDie.com, Will Ferrell's comedy site.

However, "just because a parent gives in to pressure, it isn't the studio's fault," says David Huffman, director of marketing and concessions at Cleveland and Pittsburgh Cinemas, which manages SouthSideWorks Cinema. "But I don't think the MPAA has done a good enough job in educating the public about their ratings. Despite all of the recent fixes, they remain very vague."

He still can't understand, for example, why violent films such as "Passion of the Christ" weren't rated NC-17 (no children under 17), recalling seeing parents taking small children into the film, which may have been deeply religious but featured graphic torture scenes.

"It was horrible," he said. "You'd see these 8-year-old children absolutely terrified. I don't care whether it was about Jesus Christ or not, the violence was at the same level as [the R-rated grisly psycho thriller] 'Saw.' "

In England, movie ratings are much more age-specific, he added -- there's NC-13 and NC-15, for example -- but in the United States, parents nonetheless have access "to Filmratings.com and a thousand different Web sites that will tell you why a movie is rated the way it is," he said.

And reducing the amount of screen time your teenager experiences may yield unexpectedly positive consequences.

Gerry Vaerewyck, of West Deer, believes his sons have reaped the benefits of a fairly strict family policy of "no crude programming," most notably two years ago, when he and his wife told his son and a friend that, "since the day was beautiful, to go outside and find something to do," he recalled.

"They went for a walk deep into the woods just before dark, and came across a hunter with a stick in his femoral artery. They saved the man's life. While it's to a great deal just luck that they were there, if they had been typical teens indoors watching some movie, the hunter would have had no chance at all."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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