Rating the MPAA

Fans of film select the movies that they watch in many different ways. Some gravitate towards a certain genre, while others look at a film’s cast or director, and still others won’t watch a film until they have read the reviews. Another factor considered when deciding what films to watch is the rating of the film. Most films released in North America elect to be assigned a rating that indicates the level of possibly objectionable content within, and many parents use these ratings to determine the suitability of a given film for their children. However, many people are unaware of what these ratings actually indicate, and of the differences that exist between the American and Canadian systems. These ratings are not as black-and-white as they may initially appear, as indicated by controversies in both the past and present.

The influence of the American rating system is felt very heavily here in Canada, and many people do not know that the two countries actually use very different sets of rules when determining a rating. Since the American ratings have become culturally pervasive, an initial outline of these regulations is appropriate.

Jamie Bell in 'Billy Elliot' (2000)
Jamie Bell playing the title character in ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000)

G: General Audiences

The lowest rating a film may receive is the G rating, where all ages are admitted to the theatre. In the views of the Rating Board, a division of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), such a film contains nothing that could offend a young child. There are no profanities, although impolite banter may be present, and violence is kept to a minimal and is often cartoonish or humourous; no nudity, sex, or substance abuse is present.

PG: Parental Guidance Suggested

The next rating is PG, and while this rating indicates that some material may not be appropriate for young children, all ages are still permitted in the theatre. Brief profanity, violence, or nudity, or sexually themed language, may be present, but there is no substance abuse shown.

PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned

A PG-13 rating indicates that the Rating Board believes that the content of the film may be inappropriate for those less than thirteen years of age. Any substance abuse requires at least a PG-13 rating, as does any single use of a sexually derived word used as an expletive. This rule means that if the F word, for example, is used only once within a film and as a swear word as opposed to within a sexual context, said film may retain its PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity is allowed, but generally not in a sexual context, and violence is also permitted, as long as it is not deemed “realistic.”

R: Restricted

Children under the age of seventeen require an accompanying adult in order to attend an R rated movie. These films may include, in the views of the Rating Board, adult themes, activities, or language, realistic or persistent violence, sexually oriented nudity, or substance abuse. Note that if a film contains, for example, more than one use of the F word, or said word in a sexual context, the film will receive an R rating and be banned from children under seventeen without an adult presence, unless the usage is deemed to be “inconspicuous.”


Finally, nobody under the age of seventeen is permitted to attend or purchase a film rated NC-17, regardless of parental attendance, and these films cannot be shown in mainstream movie theatres. The rating may be based on violence, sex, aberrational behaviour, or substance abuse. This rating was introduced to replace the infamous X rating, and does not indicate pornography, contrary to popular assumption.

Judi Dench & Steve Coogan play characters Philomena & Martin Sixsmith respectively in 2013’s ‘Philomena’

This article was prompted by the recent controversy surrounding the lovely film Philomena, which I had the pleasure of watching at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The film, depicting the search of a former nun for her long-lost son with the aid of a BBC journalist, is gentle, sweet, humourous, and heartbreaking. Here in Ontario, the film was given the PG rating that it deserves, yet in the States, it was slapped with an R rating due to its multiple usage of the F word. Not only was this language colloquial, as the film is set in England, but it was never sexually derived, used instead in very infrequent moments of extreme emotion. Philomena is in no way inappropriate for those less than seventeen years of age, however. Fortunately, after an appeal, the rating was degraded to PG-13 due to a clause that states that these words may be evaluated for context.

Not all films are lucky enough to fit into this clause, however. Recall 2010 best picture winner The King’s Speech, a great family film solidly rated PG here in Canada. I saw this film in the States, however, where it is rated R due to a single scene wherein the protagonist, King George VI, uses profanity to triumphantly overcome his stutter. The language is in no way offensive, crass, or sexually oriented; indeed, the film itself is overtly heart warming and inspirational. However, my parents were understandably wary of bringing my sister, who was a minor, into an R rated movie. Where was this context clause when The King’s Speech was rated? Other films, such as the 2000 classic Billy Elliot, are about children and their adolescent hopes and dreams, and so children should be a natural audience. However, a child could not have gone to see this innocent film, as it depicted poor British boys in a mining town speaking as poor British boys in mining towns were apt to speak: in language littered with barely-discernable profanities. Without this language, the lives of the children would have been unrealistic, but with it, they became “inappropriate” for those under seventeen. It is interesting that a film about kids dancing ballet can be restricted, but the 2012 film The Hunger Games, about kids slaughtering kids, only garnered a PG-13 rating, simply because these children didn’t swear as they died.

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in ‘The Hunger Games’ (2012)

Profanity is not the only element that can earn a film an unnecessarily harsh rating from the MPAA. The Rating Board’s double standard in regard to rating sexual content has become infamous. It appears as though depictions of both consensual and forced sexual assault may garner an R rating, as long as they adhere to the guidelines deemed to be “normal.” Anything considered by the Board to be, in their own terms, “aberrant,” however, is slapped with the dreaded NC-17. Take, for example, the 2010 film Blue Valentine, which was initially rated NC-17 due to a scene of oral sex delivered by a man to his wife. Sexual orientation also plays a factor in ratings; both the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry and the 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Color were initially rated NC-17 due to depictions of fully consensual lesbian sex. Never mind that scenes of brutal rape and sexual torture garner only an R rating; it is only when individuals are depicted consenting to and actually enjoying “unnatural” sexual acts that the Rating Board takes offense.  

I am not the only film reviewer who takes issue with the current ratings system in the States. The late legendary critic Roger Ebert took great issue with what he believed to be the MPAA’s fixation on language and sex, and allowance of gruesome violence. Indeed, Ebert often included notes in his reviews explaining away R ratings and claiming that he believed these films to be appropriate for children regardless (for example, 1995’s Before Sunrise). Ebert also believed that this system focused on trivial aspects of a film, such as the exact number of F bombs, instead of evaluating the film’s main theme and overarching message.

Although we here in Canada may think of ratings in these American terms, the Canadian versions are actually quite different. Instead of one board, ratings in Canada are done individually by province for theatrical releases, so that a film may have a different rating in neighbouring provinces. Even the letter ratings themselves are different than those used in the States. For the purpose of this article, the Ontario rating system, used by the Ontario Film Review Board, will be explained.

The King's Speech
Colin Firth as King George VI in ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

Similar to the American rating, a G rated film is suitable for all ages and does not contain questionable content. A PG rating in Ontario indicates that some content may not be suitable for children. Although there is generally not any violence, nudity, or sexual content in a PG film, there may be profanity; the cautionary “language may offend” is added to a PG film that does indeed contain expletives or sacrilegious language. There are no rules in Ontario in regard to sexually-derived swear words, so that even a PG rated film may contain several uses of the F word if the context is not particularly offensive. The aforementioned The King’s Speech, rated R in the States, is appropriately rated PG in Ontario, and it is clear that the profanities were considered in their context as opposed to simply tallied. A child under the age of fourteen requires an adult to attend or purchase a 14A rated movie. These films may contain violence, coarse language, or sexually suggestive scenes. Contrary to popular belief, the 14A rating in Ontario is much closer to the R rating in the States than the PG-13 rating. Next is an 18A film, which may contain explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity, or scenes of horror. Finally, the R rating in Ontario is very unlike the R rating in the States, which is closer to our 14A or 18A, but is instead the equivalent of their NC-17. These films cannot be viewed or purchased by minors, regardless of parental attendance, whereas in the States an R rated film simply requires adult accompaniment. These films contain frequent and graphic sex and violence, intense horror, or other content that has been deemed overly disturbing. It is rare to find a film rated R in Canada.

The idea that a sweet movie such as Philomena could be given the same rating as torture porn and horror flicks is absolutely ludicrous, and the decision by the Rating Board to change the rating to a PG-13 is definitely the right one. How the Rating Board could possibly consider profanity and nudity to be as harmful to children as depictions of violence is inconceivable to me. I believe that Philomena is just the kind of film that young people should watch; fortunately, here in Canada, they certainly can.