Codifying shifts in public sentiment

In response to recent acts of great violence, the Motion Picture Association of America announced changes Tuesday to its movie rating system, saying the group wants to better inform parents about violence in films.

The changes include the introduction of what the MPAA dubbed the “Check the Box” campaign. The initiative will include a more prominent and detailed description explaining why a movie received a particular rating. An example explanation provided to the press reads, “An intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, brief strong violence.”

It is no coincidence that the new program comes under the leadership of former Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, who is now the MPAA’s CEO. Dodd announced the changes in Las Vegas on Tuesday. While Dodd did not frame the program in these terms, it is widely inferred that the changes are motivated in part by the Newtown School massacre in his home state.

The changes also mirror White House efforts to improve parents’ ability to make informed decisions with regard to the media to which their children are exposed. Readers may recall that President Barack Obama asked specifically for a stricter rating system earlier this year.

Dodd announced the MPAA’s plan at the annual movie-theater convention, CinemaCon, where he spoke generally about the need to help parents “…So they can make the best choices about what movies are appropriate for their children to watch.” The Check the Box campaign materials state this explicitly: “The entertainment and video game industries have a responsibility to give parents tools and choices about the movies and programs their children watch and the games their children play.”

Indeed they do.

Initiatives such as these reflect almost a century of the entertainment industry grappling with its responsibility to properly represent its products’ contents. Of course this program is merely the latest iteration of industry efforts to effect this kind of guidance.

As far back as Thomas Edison’s 1896 short film, The Kiss, self-appointed agents of propriety criticized the “immoral” and “corrupting” influences of the medium. Stoking the furor, groups like the National Board of Censorship and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union successfully advocated for tighter control of the movies.

In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America —- later to become the MPAA —- was formed, led by Former Postmaster General William H. Hays. In 1930, the MPPDA created “A Code to Maintain Social and Community Values in the Production of Silent, Synchronized and Talking Motion Pictures,” also called the Production Code or the Hays Code. It condemned movies that “lower the moral standards” of viewers and promised that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.”

Rather than serving as a strong moral guidepost, the Hays Code became little more than a tool for exacting vengeance against those who pushed against puritanical stridence. The exemplar of Hays-era excess is found in the case of cartoon flapper, Betty Boop. Hays deemed Betty to be too racy and had her skirt lengthened.

In 1968, Jack Valenti, MPAA chairman, recognized that the Hays Code bordered on censorship. Valenti replaced it with a system that initially used four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted and X for adult-only.

The M rating later became GP and then today’s PG (parental-guidance-suggested). In the 1980s, a PG-13 rating (parental guidance strongly suggested) was added, partly because of the intensity of scenes in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

The X rating, which had become synonymous with pornography, was changed to NC-17 in the 1990s.

Even with these adjustments across time, we see that movie ratings, like public sentiment, are fluid constructions. While we applaud the MPAA for the strides it has made, one unavoidable point remains: No system of ratings will ever be an adequate substitute for active and engaged parenting. That’s a film code we can all abide.