Ratings creep: How did PG-13 get so much gun violence?

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When the PG-13 movie rating was implemented in 1985 by the Motion Picture Association of America, it was supposed to be a reliable guide to parents about the content of the movies their children would see.

In theory, the PG-13 label is a warning that a film contains material some parents would consider inappropriate for young teens. The rating is also an assurance that inappropriate material doesn’t reach the level of the R-rating category.

There should be less violence, not more, in a PG-13 movie than in one that’s rated R. Yet, a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, says the rates of violence in R-rated films have stayed flat since 2009, while violence in PG-13 movies has matched or exceeded the R-rated content.

The study said gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985. Incredibly, there is on average more gun violence in PG-13 than in R-rated films, but sex is still less prevalent in PG-13 movies than in those with an R.

Social scientists are concerned about the increase in gun violence in PG-13 because of a phenomenon they call the “weapons effect.” This theory holds that the mere presence of guns can increase aggression and that guns in the most popular films provide young people with ideas about how to use weapons to which they don’t necessarily have quick access.

Although the “weapons effect” is debatable, especially in a country where rates of minors involved in gun violence are dropping, there is no debate about parents being sold a bill of goods on the PG-13 rating. The study’s findings indicate the rating is now deceptive and should either be abandoned or returned to its previous calibration against the rougher content of R movies. To do the latter would mean re-categorizing many recent PG-13 movies as R-rated.

It would be the right thing to do, but how likely is Hollywood to do the right thing without a fight?


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