Quick, which is more violent: a PG-13 movie or one that’s rated R?
Common sense would tell you the answer is obvious: R-rated movies, by definition, have more objectionable content, including violence, than their less restrictive brethren.
But definitions can turn topsy-turvy in the film industry’s funhouse mirror, and a PG-13 rating no longer means what you think it means. A study released last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Ohio State University revealed that the amount of gun violence in the top-grossing PG-13 movies has more than tripled since the rating was instituted in 1985. Moreover, in 2012 it exceeded the gun violence in the top-grossing R-rated movies.
That’s right: A character is more likely to get shot at in a film designated for teenage audiences than in one supposedly aimed at adults.
The ensuing uproar has been as loud and as moralistic as you’d expect, and the response from the Motion Picture Association of America has been as tone-deaf. Joan Graves, the MPAA’s ratings-board head, told the Associated Press last week, “We try to get it right. The criticism of our system is not coming from the parents, who are the people we’re doing this for.”
Let’s take a step back. The Annenberg report, as depressing as it is, may be more telling as a time-lapse study of an entertainment culture in the midst of profound change, a medium in decline, and a film industry running out of ideas. A careful parsing of the data makes a filmgoer and a parent mourn not what’s in the movies of the moment but what has been increasingly left out over the past three decades: humor, characters, surprise, and any genres beyond fantasy-action.
The study also makes you realize how deeply 25 years of video games have re-engineered expectations of narrative into a series of physical confrontations to be overcome by whatever force is necessary and/or imaginable. Fantasy-action movies, with their simplistic heroes-vs.-villains storylines and literal comic-book violence, are that much more familiar to a generation with twitchy thumbs.
As a research project, the study is solid work. The database consists of 945 movies from 1950 to 2012, a randomly chosen half of each year’s 30 top-grossing films. Those 945 films contain 17,695 violent scenes, defined as “physical acts where the aggressor makes or attempts to make some physical contact with the intention of causing injury or death.”
The study found that screen violence has more than doubled overall since 1950. In the sample from 1985 onward — which includes the first generation of PG-13 films — there were a total of 783 sequences of gun violence, a “gun” defined as “a weapon that can be carried with 1 or both hands that fires a bullet or energy beam with the intention of harming or killing a living target.”
The researchers saw a clear and steady increase in the amount of violence in general, and gun violence specifically, over three decades of PG-13 films -- the only rating to experience such a trend. Around 2010, gunplay in PG-13s drew even with Rs; last year, it surpassed that mark. To understand why, you have to understand how the industry has come to view the supposedly tamer rating.
Simply put, PG-13 is where Hollywood now makes most of its money: 50 percent of the highest-grossing films of any year fall into the category. All those sequels, remakes, action-fantasy franchises, and apocalyptic adventures are carefully written and edited to keep them out of both PG and R categories, since either would represent the loss of potential audiences and profits. PG-13 represents an inclusive middle ground between family movies (which no self-respecting adolescents would be caught dead at) and R-rated grown-up fare (which they’ll see anyway, somewhere else).
It’s only when you look at the kind of films being rated PG-13 over the last 30 years that you realize how much has changed and how dramatically. The rating was initially created in 1984 as a mid-point between PG and R after Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” freaked out tykes, parents, and editorialists with a scene of a heart being ripped out of a character’s chest. The following year, four films in the study’s sample received the new rating: “Cocoon,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “White Nights,” and “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Only the second has the kind of action-fantasy violence that is now the norm for the category.
And so it goes for the next decade or so.
By the early 2000s, though, the franchise machinery was in full swing, abetted by a revolution in computer-generated special effects. The “Mummy” series was followed by “Lord of the Rings,” “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and on and on in geometrical progression. The 2011 PG-13s in the study’s sample include “Fast Five,” “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” and “Super 8.” Only the last film is not predicated on characters beating the stuffing out of each other. Not coincidentally, it’s also the only original property with no franchise or sequel ties.
So, yes, all movies are more violent now, because of the video game paradigm, because spectacle sells better to overseas audiences, because the mainstream film industry is more concerned with servicing its invested properties than telling a good story.
The ratings board’s place in all this is decisive and helpful, but only for the movie studios that pay the bills. A straight-up trade organization, the MPAA exists to rubber-stamp major blockbusters, throw up roadblocks for anyone who tries anything different, and keep outside censors off the industry’s back. As a reflection of America’s enduring double standards — sex bad, violence good, the F-word OK but only twice a movie — it’s surprisingly accurate. As an enforceable policy, it’s a sham.
But lip service still has to be paid to “protecting the children,” even if the standards that supposedly protect them have warped beyond recognition. One aspect I wish the Annenberg study had delved into but didn’t — and, admittedly, it’s difficult to quantify — is the difference between gunplay in an R-rated movie and a film rated PG-13. I’m guessing that the latter features “softer,” less realistic gun violence: less blood, characters who drop dead without any muss or fuss, scenes that make guns an extension of play. Movies in which no one — or no one important — really gets hurt. Which, of course, may strike some of us as more offensive than a scene that shows what actually happens when a bullet tears up a human being’s insides.
The big question remains whether gun violence in movies begets gun violence in reality. You don’t have to drag in the mass shootings of recent years (well, you can if you want to) to intuitively recognize that the options of response depicted in the media affects the options they consider available in life. Plenty of earlier studies have shown a correlation between onscreen aggression and youthful behavior off screen. The more dispiriting aspect of our current PG-13 battlefield is that it celebrates violent confrontation as the only drama available — the most marketable, and thus inevitable, aspect of our corporate franchise fairytales.
It’s enough to make you want to curl up with a nice, safe NC-17.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.