“Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
2 Nephi 28:31
Nephi, an ancient American prophet who lived around 600 B.C., prophesied that in the last days men would trust too much in the counsel of their fellow men rather than looking to God to set the standard for how they should live. Today, one evidence of the fulfillment of this prophesy is that most people rely on the standards of the current rating system to determine whether or not a movie is appropriate to watch. But is the counsel given to us by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system always correct? To make sure we don’t fall into the trap that Nephi foresaw, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Limitations of the MPAA rating system:
1. The MPAA rating system can be incredibly inconsistent.
~ Ratings are often based on the rater’s own biases and perceptions and the board is notoriously susceptible to negotiation with the industry. Because some methods of ratings are set in stone, but others are more subjective, this often results in the MPAA basing its ratings on more trivial aspects of a movie (such as the number of swear words) rather than also taking into account the underlying messages of the overall theme of the movie, which may be even more detrimental to the viewer. There is also huge variability in content within each rating. For example, some PG-13 movies have more violence than many other R-rated movies.
~ Also, the standards are not universal. For example, Europe’s rating system is much more strict about violence than the MPAA is. In the United States, we tend to allow much more violent content into G and PG rated movies. However, Europe is much more lax when it comes to sexual content, allowing substantial amounts into G and PG rated movies that would merit a higher rating here in the United States. These inconsistencies are proof that the rating system is shaped by cultural norms and traditions, which are not always correct. (For examples of how the rating system differs by culture, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_picture_rating_system).
~ The standards are constantly evolving (or more accurately put, eroding). Each year, the MPAA allows more and more inappropriate content to creep into the lower ratings. This is especially true when it comes to violence). This means that a PG-13 movie released today would have probably been R-rated about 20 years ago. Unlike the gospel, the movie industry’s standards are not constant. They are changing and becoming ever more permissive with time. Just think about how unreliable ratings will be 20 years from now. (Kind of scary when you think about it!)
2. The rating methods are incongruent with scientific research.
~ The current rating system only takes into account sexual content, profanity, violence, nudity, etc. but often doesn’t even bat an eye at content such as drug use, racism, relational aggression, and materialism (all of which can have just as negative effects on viewers).
~ When women’s bodies are objectified in the media, it negatively affects the attitudes and behaviors of both males and females. And yet, the main character in a G-rated film is just as likely to wear sexually arousing clothing as is the main character in an R-rated movie.
~ Also research shows that different types of violence are more harmful than others. The worst types of violence are those that are portrayed as justified and do not show negative consequences. Yet, the rating system does not differentiate between the different types of violence when making rating decisions. More violent content is allowed in G-rated movies as long as it’s animated whereas research does not show that animated violence is less harmful.
~ There are currently no ratings or content warnings for books, even though research shows that books often have even more acts of aggression and inappropriate content than do movies.
3. The Forbidden Fruit Problem
~ The biggest limitation of the rating system is the fact that ratings are based on so-called age-appropriateness. When age-based ratings are emphasized instead of content warnings, it creates a “forbidden fruit” effect (Bushman & Cantor, 2003). Because of this age-based rating system, children and adolescents are shown to favor movies with a rating just above their age-level. This is based on the false premise that consuming inappropriate content becomes more acceptable the older we get, which is completely contrary to what the Savior taught. For example, there is no clause in the Bible that says that a certain amount of violence, profanity, or sexual content become more appropriate when we reach the age of 13. We all must avoid sin and evil and seek to become as pure as our little children. We need to be careful not to allow this false idea to creep into our own mindset and remember that the people who rate movies do not necessarily share our Christian values. Therefore, how they rate movies and media is inevitably going to be far below our own standards.
Research shows that when ratings and reviews focus on content rather than on age, the forbidden fruit problem disappears.
Obviously it’s easy to see how trusting in the MPAA rating system can be unwise. Instead, we should base our media decisions on what the Savior and his prophets have taught. By trusting in God rather than man, we can avoid being deceived by the standards set for us by our flawed rating system.
“Any film, television show, music, or printed material unfit for youth is also unfit for parents. Those who rationalize acceptance of immoral material on grounds of maturity or sophistication are deceived.”
- J. Richard Clarke
Personal Notes: I took an amazing class at BYU about how the media affects human development and the family. It really opened my eyes to the powerful influence that media messages have on our attitudes and behaviors. I think it’s crucial that we become aware of how the media influences us, and that we guard ourselves and our families against its negative effects.