Simone: In 2007, the biggest movie event of the summer — at least for me — was the premiere of Superbad. You know, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill on a quest to lose their virginity at the end of high school. It’s the movie that gave us McLovin’...My friends and I desperately wanted to see it. But it was rated R. And we were still a couple of years shy of 17. So, we devised a plan. We’d get tickets to the only PG-13 movie showing that night and then sneak our way into the Superbad screening.
Simone: So we did just that. But pretty much the very second we stepped into the Superbad theater, the security guard was like, “naw fam, absolutely not.” He escorts us out and is like “you need to go watch the movie you paid for.”
Simone: So I looked down at my ticket for the first time. And it hits me. I’m really about to see Rush Hour 3 in theaters… and I did. I watched Rush Hour 3 in theaters. All because my local theater did not fuck around with film ratings.
Simone: But was Rush Hour 3 really more appropriate for me than Superbad? Like sure, there were a million fewer dick jokes, but it’s pretty violent…and there are a bunch of creepy, predatory jokes. Not exactly good for my teenage brain. Which prompts the question: what's up with movie ratings?
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen.
Simone: On July 1, 1984 -- thirty-seven years ago this week -- the PG-13 rating was born. It’s the only new rating to be added in a 50 plus year history. Today on the show, we’re going to dive into how movie ratings came to be… who those ratings are actually for...and how they reinforce racism and sexism in our culture. And — unlike Rush Hour 3 — it’s a story worth telling. All due respect to my king Jackie Chan. So quick -- stuff this candy in your purse -- cause we’re headed to the movies.
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: Symbols. We’re all familiar with them. They’re our shortcuts to vital information. That’s why to familiarize you with the movie rating symbols, which will be used by this theatre, we present the following guide for parents and young people.]
Simone: This is a PSA by the Motion Picture Association of America -- or the MPAA -- from 1970. Explaining their new rating system to movie-going audiences:
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: It is designed to inform parents about the suitability of movie content for viewing by their children. G -- all ages admitted, general audiences. GP -- all ages permitted, parental guidance suggested. R -- restricted, under 17 requires an accompanying parent or an adult guardian.]
Simone: It’s largely the same system we use now, aside from a few changes. Like, instead of GP, it’s now PG for parental guidance. And the X rating is now NC-17. And as that clip makes clear, the primary goal is to help parents decide what their kids should and shouldn’t see.
Simone: But let’s go back in time for a minute. Because before this new system was introduced, the moviemaking industry operated under a much more rigid system: The Hays Code. Starting in 1934, it barred filmmakers from doing a whole bunch of stuff. Like showing nudity or using profanity. Portraying interracial relationships, adultery, homosexuality. Anything deemed immoral. Even childbirth was censored because showing the pain of giving birth might put a damper on -- you know -- “the joy of family life.”
Simone: Compliance with the Hays Code was basically censorship -- the system regularly forced filmmakers to change the content of their films. Like for example, Betty Boop had to change out of her flapper dress and into a long skirt and stockings.
[ARCHIVAL, Betty Boop: (sings) Boop-oop-a-doop]
Simone: And in the movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- the filmmakers were forced to remove the word screw. Even though the phrase “hump the hostess” was cleared? For some reason?
[WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, George: How about hump the hostess? Huh? How about that one? You want to play that one? You want to play hump the hostess?]
Simone: Enter a man named Jack Valenti. Picture a smallish guy. Charlie Chaplin eyebrows. Impeccable style. Valenti was a Texas advertising executive turned DC-insider and in 1966, he was named head of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Simone: At this time, film studios and directors were starting to push back on the code -- and Valenti could see it was time to make a change… so he came up with the MPAA’s new ratings system, which he said would not work like the Hays Code.
[ARCHIVAL, Jack Valenti: I wouldn't defend some of these movies if my life and job depended on it, but we are not censors. Please understand that. We are not censors.]
Simone: The death of the Hays Code and the birth of this new rating system set off a revolution in film — sometimes called the Hollywood Renaissance or American New Wave.
[THE GODFATHER, Sonny: What the hell is this?]
[THE GODFATHER, Clemenza: It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.]
Simone: This period from the late 60s and into the 70s, produced classic films like The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver.
[TAXI DRIVER, Travis: You talking to me?]
Simone: These weren’t the hyper-sanitized movies of the Hays era.
[TAXI DRIVER, Travis: Fuck do you think you’re talking to?]
Simone: They were gritty, profane, violent — all the juicy stuff. This time period also brought about the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster -- films like Jaws and Star Wars.
Jason Rezaian: As a toddler and as a three and four year old, I mean, it was Star Wars wallpaper in my bedroom. Star Wars sheets on the bed. R2D2 and C3PO on my birthday cakes. My wife put, you know, Yoda on my birthday cake this year which was pretty cool.
Simone: That’s Jason Rezaian. Professionally, he’s a journalist for the Washington Post. But at heart, he’s a George Lucas mega-fan. And as a kid, Jason’s parents would take him to see all the big blockbusters...like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Simone: These movies were rated PG -- all ages permitted with parental guidance suggested. But that was about to change...all thanks to one of Jason's favorite adventurers.
[ARCHIVAL, Tom Brokaw: Indiana Jones, that fearless wise cracking archeologist is back on the big screens in theaters across the country tonight. And that spells -- M-O-N-E-Y -- money at the box office.]
Simone: It was May 1984. Jason couldn’t wait to go to the release of the second Indiana Jones film. The Temple of Doom. The theatre was packed for the summer blockbuster produced by George Lucas and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg.
Jason: Oh, my God. I was so pumped up and I remember, it’s an old school theater. Big kind of cushy seats. There were definitely snacks. Some people would get the Red Vines and kind of turn it into a straw and, you know, stick it in their drink.
Simone: The lights dim, the curtain opens, and the movie begins. Immediately, the audience is thrown into the middle of the action:
Jason: And, there's this really kind of swank scene at a Shanghai nightclub and they poison Indiana Jones and, you know, there's an antidote and a diamond. And, then they escape China.
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Indiana Jones: I think we got a big problem.]
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Short Round: Dr. Jones!]
Simone: With that, he’s off on a quest for fortune and glory -- to India to track down the enchanted Sankara stone. It’s got all the ingredients of an Indiana Jones movie -- the hat, the whip, that score, the devilish Harrison Ford charm, and, of course, the villain. Mola Ram. He’s got evil written all over him. A cult leader with bulging eyes, black and red robes, and a headpiece with giant horns sticking out each side of his head.
Jason: This guy named Mola Ram makes human sacrifices by pulling out beating hearts from people's chests that burst into flames while he drops these human sacrifices, who are still alive, without their hearts, into this molten lava.
Simone: If you’re a person of a certain age, you probably remember this scene in detail just like Jason. Maybe you even did the weird heart-pully-outy thing with your hand on the playground. Maybe it gave you your first ever panic attack. But Jason actually took it pretty well...
Jason: It didn't give me nightmares or make me want to rip anybody else's heart out.
Simone: Right. (laughs)
Jason: I've never wanted to rip somebody's heart out. (laughter)
Simone: Good. Good. Good to hear. (laughter)
Simone: The 8-year old Jason might have been unphased. But parents across America were furious about this scene.
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: There has been controversy over the violence in Indiana Jones. There are murders, shooting, stabbings, whippings, beatings, crushings, and torture. It was almost rated R instead of PG.]
Simone: It wasn't just the Mola Ram scenes. At the beginning of the movie, one guy gets impaled on a flaming meat sword. And at the end, dozens of Mola Ram’s cronies fall into alligator-infested waters and get ripped to shreds.
Simone: Op-eds and critical reviews about the nonstop violence ran for the entire month of May of 1984 in publications like the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Variety.
Simone: For context, violence in film and TV was a hot button issue at this time. In 1982, the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior released a report that showed a relationship between television violence and children being more aggressive. Alongside this report, psychologists in the 1980s started publishing academic articles about the threat of increased violence in media. All sorts of artforms were being scrutinized for their depictions. And they even had congressional hearings about it — five between 1982 to 1986.
Simone: This all felt like it came to a head with Temple of Doom. But that wasn’t the end of the parental outrage. Because a few weeks later, in June of 1984...
[GREMLINS TRAILER, Billy: What’s going on here?]
Simone: The Spielberg machine released another monster into the world. Literally.
[GREMLINS TRAILER, Gremlins: (screaming)]
[GREMLINS TRAILER, VO: Gremlins. They’ll be expecting you.]
Simone: Gremlins, released on June 8, 1984, was about one guy’s mishandling of his strange new pet -- and how it unleashed an invasion of Furby-looking creatures in his small town. Chaos ensues. And audiences saw these little fried-chicken-loving monsters being chopped in half by a mom with a kitchen knife, exploded in a microwave and diced up in a blender… eeeesh. But despite all of this, it was rated PG.
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: All the big hits recently, Indiana Jones, Gremlins, and the others have been rated PG: parental guidance. And a serious debate has erupted this summer over whether PG covers too much territory.]
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter 2: Frankly, I think it should be X-rated for violence, but then the whole rating system strikes me as crazy anyway.]
Simone: Parents were angry. And Spielberg -- who had a hand in making both Temple of Doom and Gremlins -- knew he had a problem.
[ARCHIVAL, Spielberg: I'm not really a psychologist about this. I'm just saying that if I had a 10 year old, I probably would prefer that he see something else or, um, wait until he's 11.]
Simone: Yeah… just wait one year and the kid’ll be good to go. So Spielberg called up president of the MPAA, Jack Valenti -- godfather of the rating system -- and suggested an addition. He wanted something between R and PG -- maybe for younger teens, like 13?
Simone: Valenti didn’t like the idea initially. He told reporters that he was opposed to any change in the “fragile system.” And, the MPAA reminded parents that PG doesn’t stand for “pretty good.” Basically saying, “Hey, you’re a parent -- provide some guidance.”
Simone: But the hubbub of the summer of ‘84 left no doubt: there was a huge gap in the rating system. And some powerful players in the film industry really put the pressure on. So, eventually Valenti caved.
[ARCHIVAL, Tom Brokaw: Hollywood confirmed today that it will add one more category to its 15 year-old film rating system. This one is called PG-13. It is meant to urge parents to show a strong caution before letting their children under the age of 13 attend some movies.]
Simone: PG-13 was born on July 1, 1984. The rating meant that a film intended for wide audiences could include more curse words, sex, and drug use...and that kids under 13 probably shouldn’t see it, though parents weren't required to be present, unlike R-rated movies.
Simone: Some people liked the rating. Some thought it didn’t go far enough. Either way, the PG-13 rating had a real impact at the box office.
Simone: Some of the highest grossing films over the years -- Titanic, Avatar, all the Avengers movies -- they’re all PG-13. R ratings make millions of dollars less compared to their PG-13 counterparts. Which makes sense -- movies with broad appeal that push the envelope just a little bit further -- sell more tickets! Spielberg actually called PG-13 the “hot sauce” rating that would draw people in.
Simone: After the break, we’ll find out how films even get their ratings in the first place — whether it's the lucrative PG-13 or one of the other ones. Plus, there's a very real War on Cunnilingus in the movies... it’s relevant, I promise…
Simone: Before the break, we learned all about the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating history... and the power of a pissed off parent. And all this got me wondering... who the hell even makes these rating decisions? Who decides what is and isn’t appropriate for moviegoers?
Simone: Well…since the system was created in 1968, ratings have been decided by a rotating board of about ten anonymous parents, all with kids between the ages of five and 15. They’re part of The Classification and Rating Administration, also known as CARA. And they’re housed in the MPAA’s Los Angeles office.
Simone: Rating films is their full-time job -- and every day, this small group sits down together in a room and watches about 2-3 movies. We don’t know a whole lot about the process -- they keep it under wraps on purpose. But what we do know is they fill out some kind of form, discuss and vote on what the film should be rated. The majority wins.
Simone: And, this is what we get: Cartoon lion cub watches his dad get killed by a stampede of wildebeests...G. Kid left abandoned by family, protects his house by torturing the wet bandits… PG. Large ship crashes into iceberg, delaying nude painting and killing young Jack...PG-13. Giant cyborg man comes back from the future to destroy Sarah Connor...R.
Simone: When you read the ratings breakdown between R and PG-13, it’s interesting to see where the boundaries are…for PG-13, violence is okay, for the most part… as long as it’s not realistic or persistent. Sexual scenarios are, generally, a no-go. One f-bomb is okay…three is usually too many. So shaving off a coupla “fucks” could actually make you a few million dollars richer.
Simone: But not all of the rating is as simple as counting swear words. There are also subjective judgements to be made…and that can lead to double standards.
Chloe Nurik: So, in my research, I was looking at depictions of sexual content, specifically scenes of oral sex performed on male or female characters.
Simone: This is Chloe Nurik. She’s getting her Ph.D. and J.D. at University of Pennsylvania. And part of her work includes researching inconsistencies in the MPAA rating system.
Chloe: And when it's a male performing on a female character, that was very frequently an NC-17 rating, versus if it was performed on a man, that was very frequently an R rating.
Simone: So scenes of women getting head get rated way harsher than scenes of men doing the same. Told you there was a War on Cunnilingus in the movies!
Chloe: There's also scenes of, sort of, male masturbation being rated kind of lower, scenes of female orgasms being seen as very threatening, and conversely male nudity...
Simone: There’s also a difference in how male and female nudity get rated. So tits on film are a dime a dozen -- that makes them, like, what? 20 cents a pair? But if there’s a wiener in your movie -- good luck getting anything lower than an NC-17 rating.
Simone: And Chloe says this has to do with the opinions, preferences and tastes of the individual raters.
Chloe: It turns out that there's certain views that are being threaded throughout the regulatory process. And because you have some, some level of subjectivity, even, I don't think that a lot of this is purposeful or, or intended, but there's some ways in which discriminatory views or hegemonic norms work themselves out through the regulatory process.
Simone: And the subjective nature of this process can lead to some very real, very glaring blind spots that seem to miss whole categories of offensive material. Like racist content.
Simone: Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for example. Most of the uproar from parents in the 80s was about the violence in the movie. But it’s chock-full of racist stereotypes. When I watched it for the first time recently, I was really taken aback by the depiction of Asian cultures and people.
Simone: Like there’s this scene where Indy and his crew are served dinner in this Indian palace and it’s all like, “ooh look at these creepy foods in other countries.” Like when they’re served severed monkey heads on a platter. I asked our George Lucas superfan, Jason, what he thought.
Jason: As an eight year old, who had never been out of Northern California, I had to assume that in India, they did eat chilled monkey brains for dessert.
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Merchant: Chilled monkey brains!]
Jason: It’s deeply problematic. So much of what happened in that movie filtered into the popular conversation, right? The, the zeitgeist.
Simone: And then there are scenes from the movie that really seem like they are making fun of the goddess Kali and the Hindu religion.
Jason: I don't know if, if it was supposed to be Kali Ma? Is that some kind of offshoot, like, is this supposed to be evil Hindu god? Is it Hinduism? I mean, is this like a made up Hinduist? I mean, that's a problem.
Simone: Not to mention the whole white savior narrative, the casual killing of Asian people, and Indian children working in sweatshop-like conditions. And then there’s Short Round -- Indiana Jones’s child sidekick from China. In one scene, they’re walking through a dark cave…
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Indiana Jones: Yeah, there’s something on the ground.]
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Short Round: Feel like I step on fortune cookies.]
[TEMPLE OF DOOM, Indiana Jones: It’s not fortune cookies.]
Simone: Yeah, they’re walking on bugs, not fortune cookies, obviously… but it’s like… it’s that the only reference point you think a kid from China has?
Simone: Over the last few years, CARA has started to correct these blindspots. Like in Harriet -- the 2019 film about Harriet Tubman -- they rated the film PG13, and included a descriptor warning parents about racial epithets.
Simone: And distributors are also adding warnings to old films. Last year, HBO Max and Disney+ labeled some of their movies as having “outdated cultural depictions.”
[DUMBO, Crow 1: Did you ever see an elephant fly?]
[DUMBO, Crow 2: Well I seen a hog fly. (laughter)]
Simone: For instance, in Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo, there’s a group of jive-talking cartoon crows that pay homage to racist minstrel shows. And the lead crow’s name? “Jim Crow,” referring to the racial segregation laws in the U.S.
[GONE WITH THE WIND, Hattie: Now don’t eat too fast. Ain’t no need in having it come right back up again.]
Simone: And also, the 1940 Oscar winning Gone with the Wind -- where enslaved Black people are depicted as being content about their circumstances. So yeah. We’re going with Outdated. Cultural. Depictions.
Simone: While Hollywood catches up, parents whose perspectives are not being represented by film ratings have had to put in the extra work where they can. I grew up with a mom like that, who took the time to call out when Hollywood got lazy and reckless. She wouldn’t let me watch Disney’s animated Pocahontas until she taught me the real history of the story. It definitely took some of the joy out of belting “Just Around the Riverbend,” but at least, she gave me that awareness, that “hey, this isn’t real life. This is Hollywood.”
Simone: As we carry these movies with us into the future, we’re trying to figure out how to contend with the stuff that no longer flies in mainstream culture. And we could have gone in a very different direction: banning movies, cutting scenes, changing the name “Jim Crow” to “Ed Equality” or whatever. Just be like, “hey, that’s not us anymore,” destroy the evidence and keep it moving. But, as the title of this podcast suggests, we are very much not past it… images and messages from Hollywood movies are ingrained in our society. And to deny that would be to deny insight into our own culture -- however ugly those parts may be. So if we’re not changing the movies themselves, ratings and disclaimers -- at least -- give us an opportunity to have a conversation around them... that evolves with the culture. And I guess that’s a start.
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media.
Simone: Next week it’s the Illuminati episode -- so keep your third eye open.
Dr. Michael Butter: The Illuminati really are revolutionaries. They want to change society. They are progressives. They want to move beyond the status quo.
Simone: This episode was produced by Julie Carli, Sarah Craig and Kinsey Clarke. Jake Maia Arlow is our Associate Producer. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart-Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackerman. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka.
Simone: And just a side note…if you recognized Jason Rezaian’s name, that’s because he was taken hostage in Iran a few years back and released in the 2016 Nuclear Deal. He was all over CNN and Fox News…sometimes still is. There’s an entire podcast called 544 Days from Gimlet coming soon. He’s also written a book called Prisoner. Check it out!
Simone: Special thanks to: Tom Zigo from the MPAA. Howard Fridkin, formerly of CARA
Mary Rezaian, Jason’s mom. And...Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
Jason: Crystal Skull was probably -- only -- moderately less disappointing than the Phantom Menace. Biggest disappointment of my life. And, you know, I’ve been falsely imprisoned.
Simone: (laughs) Right. Gotcha. That p-, that really...
Jason: Puts it into perspective, huh?