R ratingWatching the trailers before Chef on Friday night, I was reminded by the smirking comments of viewers around me that the “This Motion Picture is Rated…” screen before a preview does as much, if not more, to intrigue viewers about the violence, language, or nudity included in the film than it does to dissuade anybody, or to warn parents about the content of the film.

It’s been obvious for decades in the way the announcer on television says “Viewer discretion advised!”, his sinister tone laced with salacious glee.

The ratings system… what’s a society to do?

I can feel the disappointment in the majority of moviegoers around me whenever a trailer begins with “This Motion Picture has been rated G” or “PG” or even “PG-13.” Tell us that it contains something that people consider dangerous, taboo, or and you suddenly have twice as much of our attention.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all perverts. My friend John Medina — a world-renowned expert on the brain, and the author of Brain Rules — says this:

We pay attention to things like emotions, threats and sex. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me?

To some extent, we can’t help it: When we see that “Rated R” warning, we respond because we are, on some level, anxious about what the danger might be. We know that we’re not in direct, life-threatening danger, but still, something in us wants to know what kind of monster we’re dealing with. We lean forward and ask, “Oh really? Violence? What kind of violence? What’s going to happen”” Or, something in our chemistry responds to the possibility of sexual arousal: “Will this turn me on?” Our hearts beat a little faster. Our body chemistry changes. “What are we really talking about here?” certain parts of our circuitry are asking.

I’m not making excuses, saying we have no freewill in what we do about the suggestion of lurid big-screen material. But I am saying that the suggested planted in our minds by the warning that says “This Motion Picture is Rated ‘R'” activates our attention in a way that other ratings don’t. And many, if not most, moviegoers will be far more likely to investigate an R-rated film than a PG-rated one.

Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the ratings?

I remember the day I lost all faith in the rating system. Ladyhawke, a fairly innocuous fantasy film (which I still adore, despite its famously annoying soundtrack, which I also love), earned a PG-13 because of a scene in which a man was  impaled by a sharp object. Less than year later, Top Gun, with its hot-and-heavy, Berlin-soundtracked sex scene and its exciting simulations of American fighter pilots blasting their enemies out of the sky, got a PG rating.

Today, I’m reading The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, and I get eloquent confirmation about those green-screen warnings:

“The warning, as ever, is also a promise: ‘This program contains subject matter and language that may be disturbing to some viewers.’ It’s a promise the same way an ambulance is a promise, or a scar, or a freeway clogged around an accident.”

There’s go to be a better way of giving people information that will help them make informed decisions about movies. I’m not sure if it was ever a good idea to preface previews with big warnings signs, or to develop such a simplistic letter-code system that really doesn’t tell us anything about the violence, the language, or the sexual nature of a film’s content. An R-rated film’s violence might be an integral, meaningful, necessary part of the art… or it might be gratuitous and irresponsible and even dangerous.

What would be a better solution than G, PG, PG-13, and R?

Anybody have any ideas for a more effective way to rate movies? Or a more effective way to protect young viewers from content that could be damaging without putting destructive restrictions on artists?

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