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You Can’t Trust Ratings to Tell You a Movie Is Appropriate for Your Kids

Photo: Pixel-Shot (Shutterstock)The 2016 episode of Adam Ruins Everything, “Adam Ruins Hollywood,” makes a bold but accurate claim: “Movie ratings are totally pointless.” For those unfamiliar with the show, which ran on TruTV until 2020, the title basically gives away the plot—comedian Adam Conover “ruins” things by providing the often-unpleasant and possibly even unwanted context…

Illustration for article titled Why You Can't Trust Ratings to Tell You a Movie Is Appropriate for Your Kids

Photo: Pixel-Shot (Shutterstock)

The 2016 incident of Adam Ruins Everything,”Adam Ruins Hollywood,” makes a daring but accurate claim:”Movie ratings are totally pointless.”

For those not familiar with the show, that ran on TruTV before 2020, the name basically gives away the plot–comic Adam Conover”ruins” things by providing the often-unpleasant and possibly even unwanted context for most accepted facets of our daily lives. The section on movie ratings points out crucial flaws with the process, which is modulated by the Motion Picture Association’s Classification and Rating Administration board. Conover explains the ratings process as”weird and arbitrary,” and offers a few particularly powerful examples demonstrating how flawed the system is.

The Dark Knight, a rather violent entrance in the Batman franchise, includes a PG-13 rating, although the not-at-all violent Shakespeare in Love has an R rating. The latter includes several”sexual situations”; the prior, a scene in which the Joker murders someone with a pencil. Adam used the example to illustrate a consistent bias in the ratings system–that the ratings board will be accepting of high levels of violence but prudish when it comes to sex.

The show points out the same vow words could lead to various ratings. Saying”fuck you” in a movie will net a PG-13 evaluation while stating”I want to fuck you” would lead to an R rating. Conover notes that LGBTQ gender is frequently deemed objectionable in ratings than straight sex–if that”I want to fuck you” were talked to a person of the same gender, it might even lead to an NC-17 evaluation.

The segment includes a fairly damning quotation on how ratings are determined. Joan Graves, who the seat of the film ratings board from 2000–2019, formerly described the procedure,”not science, [but] a matter of perception.” Insert in the biases against LGBTQ content and also the system’s racist history–the precursor to the modern movie ratings board once deemed depictions of white slavery inappropriate, but Black slavery permissible–and it’s simple to see how something that should ostensibly help parents make informed choices about material children should or should not be seeing is really not all that useful.

But out of evaluations, where can parents get information to help them know what could be in films or other media their kids are consuming? We requested Kristen Harrison, a professor and media psychologist at the University of Michigan, who studies mass media effects on children and teens, for some guidance.

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Understand the impact on your individual kid

There are two important things that parents must understand: More than their era, what substance kids can manage in a movie varies based on their personality and maturity level. In addition, early exposure to sex and violence may have an impact on these, so this stuff is definitely worth thinking about.

“When kids are exposed to violent media, sexual media, they do tend to behave in ways that are consistent with that exposure,” Harrison says. “Kids who are exposed to a lot of violence are likely to be a little more aggressive. Kids exposed to sexual media may use sexual language a little more frequently, or it might stoke their curiosity about sexuality. But the qualifying point here is that not all kids respond the same way.”

One manner that film as well as other rating systems are debatable is when they include a general, blanket statement about what ages that material is right for. Not only are several kids of the same age more likely to be frightened or angry by violent content than many others –but saying something is simply suitable for kids 17 and older can automatically make it attractive to kids younger than 17.

“[Ratings] can backfire because when kids see them, it can make content more attractive to younger kids who want to feel grown up by watching something that’s for older kids,” she says.

Harrison recommends parents find content-based ratings. Common Sense Media has a great database of comprehensive content-based reviews of social websites that parents can use as a source.

“Let’s say a movie is listed as having adult themes or being violent; that parent can decide, based on what their children are sensitive to, which kids might be okay with that content and which probably won’t be,” Harrison says.

What the MPA ratings do not cover 

Sharing your favorite amusement with your children should be performed with an understanding that revisiting past content through modern eyes can show stereotypical portrayals of race, gender, and sexuality which aren’t covered by that PG rating. As those topics are struck, they ought to be talked about with children and clarified. But they are often beyond the scope of what tools like movie or content ratings provide.

My father and I were super different men and women. He had been a proud blue collar shop rat, and I was a bookish nerd. (He was loving and kind, even though we didn’t talk the exact same language.) Once I was a child, we bonded by watching wrestling. He absolutely loved it, and I–like most children –found the over-the-top personalities in wrestling wildly entertaining.

He died a year before my son was born. As my son is becoming older, one of those ways I have tried to present him to his grandpa is by way of wrestling. There is a problem though: The WWE, the biggest wrestling company on the planet, has a ridiculously problematic history with racism, homophobia, the regressive manner the firm has portrayed girls , and also how it treats its own labor. Rather than imagining that material goes over his head, we’ve been engaging with it since it has arisen from the old wrestling shows we’re watching, opening the door for a few nice and productive conversations.

“There is research showing that media content that is stereotypical or presents groups in stereotyped ways is related to more stereotyped views of those groups after exposure,” Harrison says. “So parents should be mindful of that. I think what they can do is talk to their kids about how stereotypes can show up in media.”

There are obviously blatant examples of sexist or racist content in elderly media that’s usually easy to see it for what it is, but such content is far from exclusively a thing of the past. Harrison points out that the practice of storytelling itself still leads to reliance on such tropes. It is only easier to rely on cultural or gender stereotypes in fixed amounts of time than it is to create characters or plots with genuine human complexity, and many shows, videos, and other media still rely upon these , even if they’re deployed more subtle than previously.

“Creators have to get a story across in a visual way,” Harrison says. “So violence, for instance, is a really visually powerful and easy-to-understand approach to demonstrate conflict. But there’s a lot of conflict that happens in real life that isn’t violent, right? But media have to get that around. If there’s a battle between two people it will often resort to sort of vibrant demonstra

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