There’s been a lot of consternation about the findings of a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University released earlier this week, which suggested that there is actually more gun violence in movies that have earned PG-13 ratings from the Classification And Ratings Administration than ones with R ratings. The report’s been used to ding the Administration for treating gun violence as more dangerous to children than depictions of sex. But I wonder if the study is an opportunity to suggest that we think about movie ratings differently–and that we look to them less as evidence of creeping censorship, than as a barometer of a certain segment of public opinion.
Almost all of the discussion of MPAA ratings comes from the perspective that they’re a means of leveraging judgement that applies to all potential movie-going audiences. There’s some reason to think of them as bearing that sort of weight, because of the way movie theaters tend to use ratings to guide their ticket sales and carding policies. But it’s not as if MPAA ratings have the force of law, or even the force of a business agreement between the Motion Picture Association and the theater owners.
Instead, the Classification And Ratings Administration understands itself to have one purpose: to provide parents a sense of how their fellow child-rearers felt about showing a given movie to their children. Given that most parents aren’t going to see every piece of content their children want to consume before making a choice about whether their children can see a movie or a television show, ratings are meant to provide them with a starting point in making those choices. CARA ratings and television ratings aren’t perfect, precisely because they’re an aggregation of differing parents reactions to a product. And the reason that they’re accompanied by explanations of the specific factors that lead to a rating is to help the parents who are reading them at home weigh the ratings based on their knowledge of their own children. If a kid is inured to cartoonish violence, or exceptionally sensitive to psychological suspense, parents can decide whether or not a particular PG-13 or a particular R is relevant to their family.
In this context, a rise in gun violence in PG-13 isn’t an argument that gun violence should be taken less seriously than sex when we consider what to show our children. It’s a reflection of a sense that it is taken less seriously by the parents whose opinions the CARA is trying to reflect. Because the administration has to balance between competing obligations, the need to be responsive to public opinion, and a mandate to keep ratings as consistent as possible over time, it’s got an exceptionally difficult job. But it’s best understood as a reactive organization rather than a proscriptive one. And as a result, the ratings are an interesting signifier of where the administration thinks public opinion on any given subject has settled.
The question of why American culture treats sexuality–even and sometimes especially consensual sexuality–as if it’s more dangerous to minors is an important one. But it’s not a distinction that CARA and the MPAA invented, and suggesting that they did actually ignores the reach and power of that cultural hierarchy. Movie ratings are not the reason that, despite our collective devastation at the results of mass shootings, there’s no real appetite for gun violence prevention policy solutions, no matter how much money soon-to-be-former Mayor Michael Bloomberg spends through Mayors Against Illegal Guns. We get horrified by gun deaths, but those deaths provide temporary bumps in support for policy changes, rather than lasting shifts in our priorities. Our decision that we’re more interested in the image of a gun well-fired in the cool of professionalism or the heat of anger than in the image of what the bullets it propels forward does to property and human bodies isn’t simply confined to cultural spaces. Ad its implications aren’t limited to taste, or ratings, or ticket offices.