Washington Post
November 16, 2020
By Liza Mundy

Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Most likely, they're watching PG-13 movies. Those would be the ones with the foul language, oral-sex references and torture scenes


The white sedan was sleek and expensive, and the woman driving it looked sleek and expensive, too. Her face was heavy with makeup, her hair ambitiously coiled as if she had someplace interesting to go. She pulled up to the curb of the Loews Wheaton Plaza multiplex and waited while five children got out of her car. From the front passenger's side came two girls who looked to be about 12 and 13; from the back emerged a boy of 8 or so as well as two smaller children, no older than 5 or 6.

It was a few minutes before 10 on a Friday evening. Most of the movies were starting their final, late-night showings; patrons were hurrying to the kiosk, forming a straggling line, which the children joined. The 8-year-old bought the tickets. The driver of the sedan sat at the wheel of her car, saw the transaction completed and drove away.

Alone, the children proceeded inside the crowded multiplex, where the three who could read deciphered the titles and found their way into Theater 11. That room was almost full, occupied by a restive crowd of older teenagers and twentysomethings who were passing the time with recreational bickering. A girl got up, and a boy slapped her on the butt. Somebody shot somebody else the finger. The children found seats as the lights were dimming, arriving in time for a series of trailers, including one for a horror movie in which a busload of high school students are serially eaten, others for action movies featuring gunfire, imperiled women and massive, unexplained conflagrations.

In this, the trailers were virtually indistinguishable from the main feature: "S.W.A.T.," a police action movie that begins with a scene of armed thieves cleaning out a bank vault while terrified hostages cower on the floor. "Throw that bitch to the front and kill her!" says a thief, but before he can dispatch one particularly freaked-out hostage, she is accidentally shot in the neck by a hotheaded SWAT officer trying to rescue her. Later in the movie, a French criminal slits his uncle's throat; a helicopter full of police officers crashes to the ground in a lethal explosion; and the hero pushes the hothead ex-officer, now gone over to the side of international villainy, to a grisly death under a train.

The teenagers found all of this highly satisfying. "UUHHHNNNnnn!" they went, collectively, when the hero, played by Colin Farrell, had his head slammed into a mirror during a locker room fight. They laughed during car chases and exulted at explosions. Meanwhile, the five young children sat, absorbing the mayhem while the woman who had driven them was -- where? On a date? At a club? At the grocery store? Asleep? It didn't matter. If their caregiver was unable, just now, to give care, Hollywood was happy to help out. Come one, come all, come young and old, rich and poor, potty-trained and, um, not. Hail the ascendancy of the PG-13 movie.

I was at "S.W.A.T.," too, in the course of sampling the ever-growing array of movies that carry the PG-13 rating, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Afterward, I found myself often thinking of that late-night drop-off at Wheaton Plaza. The question seemed not so much what was wrong with it as what was most wrong with it. Small children dumped on the sidewalk of a crowded theater at a time when all but the oldest should have been in bed; taking their seats in a hormonal mass of older adolescents; put in this position by a mother or aunt or babysitter who couldn't be bothered to get out of her car to see them safely inside. What movie they saw seemed almost inconsequential. Given even this limited evidence of their upbringing, "S.W.A.T." was in some ways the least of these kids' problems.

Yet the movie itself seemed a wrong thing, too. In particular, what seemed wrong was that from the point of view of the entertainment industry, everything in that scene was right. Everything was working.

That is to say, "S.W.A.T.," that night, accomplished exactly what today's PG-13 movie is supposed to accomplish, attracting older teenagers as well as younger ones and even children, maximizing its profit-making potential by leaving no group languishing out on the sidewalk. Unlike R movies, which restrict any unchaperoned child under 17, the PG-13 rating means any child will be accepted who has the muscle mass to proffer a bill, even though PG-13 movies by definition contain material inappropriate for these same young moviegoers.

Because of its broad and inclusive reach, PG-13 has become by far the most profitable rating that a movie can receive. Last year, 13 of the 20 top-grossing films were rated PG-13 (most of the rest were rated R). Overall, PG-13 films earned $4.5 billion in 2002, twice as much as R-rated movies, despite the fact that R films (which include fringe and foreign releases) were more numerous. Those dramatic numbers explain why the PG-13 rating is now the most sought-after by studios, which aggressively pursue it, and often succeed, not just with relatively innocent movies but with energetically gross ones as well as startlingly violent ones like "S.W.A.T."

These days, you could say that there are essentially three kinds of PG-13 movies: movies that are teenaged through and through, but often in the worst and most puerile sense, technically eschewing adult fare like nudity while substituting scenes that are in fact smuttier and more disturbing (for example, a scene in which a young woman -- shown from the rear -- lifts her top to flash an onlooker). In addition, there are children's movies that essentially reach for PG-13: movies that probably could have been rated PG, but which have been juiced up with enough gratuitous sexuality and violence to earn them the higher rating. And finally, there are fundamentally adult movies, like "S.W.A.T.," whose true nature is R but which are increasingly able to make a few deft excisions and extract a PG-13 from the board charged with rating films. As a result of this last technique, says Stephen Prince, a communications studies professor at Virginia Tech, in terms of content the PG-13 and R ratings have become virtually interchangeable.

Meanwhile, PG-13 has all but buried milder fare. Had the woman at Wheaton been seeking wholesome entertainment for the kids she was offloading, she would have been hard-pressed to find it: Of the movies advertised on the marquee that night, none was rated G, for general audiences. Even in this suburban, child-rich location there was just one PG movie, a rating that assures parents a film will have little more than salty language and maybe some mildly scary scenes. In contrast, there were seven PG-13s and three Rs.

Which is typical. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, from 1995 to 2001 the number of G-rated movies stayed stable -- there never have been more than 40 in a year -- while the number of PG movies dropped from 99 to just 55. At the same time the number of PG-13 films rose 50 percent, from 111 to 163. More and more, PG-13 is what's out there for even the youngest viewers; it is the most common rating and the most meaningless, encompassing "S.W.A.T." and "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the rare art film like "Whale Rider." By the time I saw "S.W.A.T.," I had sat through scores of hours of PG-13 movies, trying to see what exactly they contain. One thing that's clear is that the PG-13 label has evolved into an advertisement: Studios use it to send a message to teenagers -- and young kids who long to be teenagers -- that the movie will contain cool stuff. "The industry has used the ratings system to turn a restraint into a catalyst," says Gary Edgerton, a communications professor at Old Dominion University. "In the same way that pornographers use XXX as a marketing device, today -- and it took a while for this to happen -- PG-13 is a signal that's being sent."

Although PG-13 ostensibly serves as a warning to parents to think twice about sending their young kids, these movies are actively marketed to even the littlest children. Not officially, of course. "Young children should not be going to theaters," says Jack Valenti, the longtime head of the MPAA and the father of the modern rating system. Yet even as he says this, the hooks are being baited and dropped. The other day, my children, 5 and 8, were watching a cartoon on Nickelodeon, which is to say they were watching a television show specifically made for their age group. On came an advertisement for "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star," a PG-13 movie starring David Spade. "It's PG-13; we can't see it," my kids recite when they see these ads, at the same time looking at me hopefully. It's a relentless low-grade pressure. Like many boys his age, my 5-year-old owns an Incredible Hulk lunchbox as well as a Hulk T-shirt and big green Hulk hands, all licensed by the Hulk moviemakers, and given to him by well-meaning relatives and friends. Actually, I think I gave him the T-shirt. Having spent my own formative years watching "Batman," I like superhero movies and would enjoy taking my kids to "Hulk," were it not for the fact that "Hulk" is rated PG-13, for partial nudity, language and intense violence.

Why is "Hulk" rated PG-13? Because studios believe that the only way to lure older children to a movie starring a computer-generated action figure is to assure them there will be edgy content. The younger children -- the natural superhero market -- will want to come anyway.

In effect if not intent, PG-13 exacerbates generational tension, warning the parent while seducing the child. "It is a big issue," says one father, Adam Auel of Chevy Chase, who won't let his 11-year-old daughter go to PG-13 movies, even though all her friends can, and she naturally wants to. "At this age, they just want to be older," her father says. With some sheepishness -- as if this might sound faintly ridiculous -- he says that he just wants to protect his daughter's innocence for a few more years. Yet like most parents, he also wants to give her access to her culture, wants to make it easy, not hard, for her to fit in with her peers. For a recent sleepover, he says, his daughter and her friends wanted to rent "Maid in Manhattan," a PG-13 movie starring Jennifer Lopez. Eventually, he and his wife caved; it was her birthday, after all, and what can you do? Make them all watch, what, "Scooby-Doo"? "Cinderella"? What else, really, is out there for the preteen set?

"We kind of felt, how nerdy do we have to make her out to be?"

"I remember this! My mom thought it was okay for me to see it, and I was scared for a week," said the clerk at my local Blockbuster, where I found myself one afternoon, renting a stack of PG-13 movies. I was seeking to better understand the, you know, artistic tradition of PG-13, so I had put together a sampler of subgenres like action movies, superhero flicks, gross-out teen comedies and a crop of recent releases, like "Solaris" with George Clooney, that successfully appealed initial R ratings and got themselves downgraded to PG-13.

I was also curious to see the movie that started it all: "Gremlins" by Steven Spielberg. Issued in 1984, "Gremlins" was rated PG, because PG was the only rating available then between G and R. It was "Gremlins" the Blockbuster clerk was talking about, the movie that her mom thought would be fine but that still gave her nightmares.

Which only goes to show how easily frightened we used to be. Once upon a time, no realistic violence was permissible in movies, and no sex or bad language, either. This was the time of the Hays Production Code, a self-censorship system put in place by Hollywood in 1930 as a way of warding off government censorship. (Pre-code movies were often startlingly racy.) Under the code, bad guys could not win; married couples could not share the same bed; and people could not have the back of their heads blown into visible, viscous pieces. In the '60s the code began to break down, in part because Vietnam-era directors were exploring transgressive material, in part because the invention of the squib -- a detonatable fake-blood capsule -- literally made bloody movies possible.

As a way, again, of deflecting government censorship, Hollywood responded with another self-regulatory approach, for the first time carving its audience into generational niches. The architect of this approach was Jack Valenti, former aide to Lyndon Johnson and, since 1966, head of the MPAA, the trade group and lobbying arm of the major studios. It was Valenti who created what he always refers to as the "Voluntary Film Rating System," the word voluntary stressing that the studios are doing this of their own free will, as a favor to the public. Over the years, Valenti has been called upon to explain and defend the rating system untold numbers of times. Nevertheless, courtly Texan and smooth ur-lobbyist that he is, he is unfailingly patient and willing to explain it again.

The new rating system had two underlying principles, he told me, the first being that "the screen would be free; anybody could make any movie they chose, and would not have to cut a millimeter, but we would prescribe a rating, and maybe children would be restricted. That was the price you paid for freedom." This sounded like a couple of principles, but apparently it was just one. "The second principle was that parents are the only ones who ought to make judgments about what their children see or don't see, and therefore we would give advance cautionary notice to parents, and let parents make up their mind." Take note: Presented as a deferential nod to the sacred authority of parents, this essentially meant that the studios would not get into the business of excluding children from theaters, unless they absolutely had to.

In 1968, the now-familiar rating system was launched. Henceforth movies would be rated G for general audiences; M for mature; R for restricted to adults and chaperoned children; or X, which excluded anyone under 17. It was Valenti's creation, one that he has been reluctant to change, though over the years some tinkering has had to be done. X, for example, was adopted by pornographers, so legitimate Hollywood abandoned that rating and introduced NC-17 (for no children 17 and under), which hardly any movies ever get because few theaters will show them.

It was the teen designation, however, that proved most in need of recalibration. "Mature" is descriptive of many life stages; its meaning here -- of a child who has reached a developmental landmark -- is both old-fashioned and vague. Not surprisingly, parents were sufficiently confused that M was changed to GP, which was even more confusing, since it would seem to stand for general public, so it was changed again to PG, for parental guidance. Clearly, the industry was struggling with how to label movies whose audience was adolescent; but at the same time, forward-looking directors saw the commercial possibilities of this group. One of the best-loved PG movies is Spielberg's "ET," a film that easily could have been G were it not for the insertion of a few gratuitous phrases like "penis breath" and "douche bag," which helped earn it the cooler PG rating.

Similarly, the language in "Gremlins," which I'd never seen, is surprisingly strong. As you may or may not recall, "Gremlins" is about a cuddly pet owned by a mysterious Chinaman and adopted by an American family, whereupon it develops pustules that pop to spawn gremlins. This was Spielberg in his oozy-yucky period; the gremlins attack a housewife, who blasts one in a microwave oven, then chops another in a blender until it is churned into a vomitus-like batter.

It was this scene -- and the scene in another Spielberg movie from 1984, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," where a beating heart is ripped, live, from a man's chest -- that angered parents who felt the PG rating was insufficient. "Just two ratings [G and PG] were no longer enough," says Richard Heffner, then head of the Classification and Rating Administration, or CARA, the board that had been created by the MPAA to bestow all movie ratings.

Keep in mind that this is a voluntary rating system. The ratings board is neither a government entity nor an independent board of, say, film experts and child psychologists. It is a panel that is owned and operated and financed by the major studios, as well as the National Association of Theater Owners, the trade group for movie theaters. Their salaries paid by the very industry they regulate, the CARA panel consists of ordinary citizens, their identities kept secret, their only qualifications being that they (1) live in the Los Angeles area and (2) have children. From the start, the members of the CARA board have been told that they are not supposed to judge a film based on how they, personally, feel about it as parents, but to imagine how American parents in general might feel about letting children watch it. Unburdened by data or feedback -- or possibly even a passing acquaintance with Middle America -- they are asked to guess what community standards are, even as those standards are being shaped by the movies already out there.

"The board isn't saying, In my expert opinion this is acceptable for a child and this is not acceptable," explains Heffner, whose 20 years of chairmanship clearly wearied and exasperated him. "It's designed only to say: Most parents in our estimation will not go to their local congressman and say, 'Censor those bastards.' "

At the time of the "Gremlins" uproar, Heffner actually felt two new ratings were needed. One would be PG-13, but another would be R-13, whereby children under 13 would be excluded. But according to Heffner, the theater owners objected to R-13. They felt they had enough to do, keeping underage theatergoers out of regular R movies. So PG-13, the less restrictive rating, won out; the rating meant "may be inappropriate for children under 13," though for years the MPAA declined to explain what elements of a particular movie, exactly, were considered inappropriate.

The new rating was a big deal. People wrote editorials. Religious groups protested. They were concerned that material formerly rated R would now be rated PG-13; that adult content would be available to children, even marketed to them. Absolutely not, said Jack Valenti. Absolutely not, said Richard Heffner.

"We made a solemn promise to groups concerned that this was [not] going to open up the system, and enable harsher and harsher stuff to get unrestricted ratings," Heffner says. But he allows that this proved an impossible promise to keep. Moviemakers simply started making a new kind of movie, inserting material -- hyped-up violence, racier language, sophisticated special effects -- that was neither PG nor R. And each movie raised the bar, subtly altered standards until material that once upon a time would have been rated R now routinely does receive a PG-13 rating. Heffner willingly concedes this point. "I'm horrified when I see something on the screen and then see that it's rated PG or PG-13," says Heffner, who retired from the ratings board in 1994. "Happily, I don't go to movies that often."

Why was 13 chosen as the age at which these movies magically become okay? Why not PG-14? PG-15? PG-16? "We just picked it out," replies Valenti. "It could be another age. But it's -- well, why do you have 16 as the age where you can get a driver's license? It could be 15, it could be 17. It's 16 because it seemed like a middle ground between too young and older. Thirteen, we thought, is right. If you go to high school, you graduate at, say, 17; you're 14 when you go to high school. So we said: Children under 13, parents should -- some of this material should be inappropriate. Now, this could be inappropriate for a 15-year-old, or it could be inappropriate for a 10-year-old. Every child is different. We struck a middle balance, because parents can figure it out. They know how precocious or naive their child is. Only you know that. I don't know it, and your next-door neighbor doesn't."

Of course, there's another possible reason why Hollywood might have wanted to ensure that even the youngest teenagers were admitted to most movies under this new rating system.

Teenagers in general see twice as many movies as adults, and probably no teenage moviegoers are more avid than 13-year-old moviegoers. Thirteen-year-olds are in a frustrating spot: They can't work in most stores or restaurants. They can't drive. They want to get out of the house, and often their parents want them out of the house, so what parents do is drop them off at the movies with cash and a cell phone. This was the situation of countless teenagers at countless theaters I visited.

"We're waiting for my dad to pick us up," said Samantha Wolfman, 13, who, with her friend Catherine DiNapoli, also 13, was hanging out one afternoon at Skyline Mall in Falls Church. When I met them, Sam and Catherine were leaning against a wall, people-watching and brandishing the familiar four-photo strip that every 13-year-old girl makes on every mall trip with her 13-year-old friend. Both girls live in Arlington. Both were about to start eighth grade at Gunston Middle School, and both had found the summer excruciatingly slow.

"I have nothing to do all day long," said Catherine, whose mother and stepfather work during the day, and whose job over the summer was to baby-sit for her 5-year-old brother. Today, after her stepfather got home, she and Samantha had dressed up and come out to see "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," Disney's first PG-13 movie and one of the summer's biggest moneymakers. When I asked them what they liked about it, they answered in unison, "Orlando Bloom."

To the best of their recollection, both girls were allowed to start seeing PG-13 movies at around age 10. They think the first one was "Titanic," which featured, along with the slow, watery death of hundreds, one scene where a couple engaged in such energetic sex that the car whose back seat they had borrowed rocked violently. Since then they've seen, well, let's see: "Liar, Liar," said Catherine, a cheerful blond girl wearing jeans and glittery eye shadow.

"Moulin Rouge," said Sam, dark-haired, who was wearing a mildly punkish and yet fundamentally wholesome outfit consisting of black shirt, plaid skirt, black hose, combat boots, black eyeliner and an assortment of black leather bracelets. She jiggled and hopped around as the girls tried to remember all the PG-13 movies they'd seen in the past three years.

"Bruce Almighty."
"Cast Away."
"The Italian Job."
"Just Married."
"How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days."
"The New Guy."

" 'The Wedding Planner.' I mean, 'The Wedding Singer.' Actually, I've seen both," said Catherine.

"Blue Crush."
"The Hot Chick."
"Message in a Bottle."
"Legally Blonde."
"Legally Blonde 2."

They liked them all, more or less, though there are certain kinds of movies they prefer. Anything with Ashton Kutcher or Orlando Bloom, two contemporary heartthrobs. They like funny movies; movies that are fast-paced; violence is fine, but serious sexuality is not. "I don't like nudity," Catherine said. "It makes me uncomfortable."

"I like gory movies," volunteered Samantha, who declined to elaborate beyond saying that gore is cool. "I also like comedy, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, 'Saturday Night Live.' "

"I like movies," said Catherine, "that make me cry."

And if they like a movie, they will see it over and over and over. That's the other thing about teenagers. They are the most frequent users of what is known in the trade as the "distribution windows," meaning that after they see a movie in a theater, they will also rent it on video and watch it on HBO. They will see it at a friend's house and then watch it again, alone, at home, and then invite a different friend over and watch it again. Catherine estimates that she's seen Mike Myers in "Goldmember" about six times, and "The Spy Who Shagged Me" "more times than I can count."

In this thirst for repetition, teenagers are oddly similar to toddlers, the other age group that finds it comforting to hear the same narrative over and over. The reason, according to Nell Minow, a McLean-based film critic and author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies, is that teenagers -- much like toddlers -- are undergoing enormous physical and emotional changes. Their brains, which recent research has shown to be surprisingly plastic, are altering all the time. So are their bodies. "They wake up every morning, and nothing is in the same place," Minow points out. Hence, to preserve some semblance of continuity, they enjoy the same movies, the same actors and actresses, the same jokes, the same story lines, the same formulas. They just in general crave sameness in their entertainment products, which may be one reason so many PG-13 movies are indeed, pretty much exactly the same.

"Shall I pay you, or would you like me to take your pants off instead?" asks a delighted female customer in "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective." "I don't know, let me think about it," smirks Ace, whereupon the woman sinks to her knees and -- we are to understand -- performs oral sex on him, to thank him for returning her parrot. Jim Carrey may be a brilliant comic, but he is also responsible for pioneering a certain kind of very skanky and now very common PG-13 movie that could not have existed in the four-ratings era. Carrey in his early, whacked-out period made movies whose humor depended mostly on leering and groping and zesty offscreen copulating. The hyper-adolescent gross-out factor was so successful that it inspired a long line of similar PG-13 movies featuring not only Carrey but Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, David Spade and, of course, Mike Myers, whose signature verb, "shag," is a big raspberry blown at PG-13's so-called language constraints.

From the start, the rules about what, exactly, could go in a PG-13 movie were fluid and undefined. According to the MPAA Web site, the main point of a PG-13 rating is to tell parents that their oversight role is paramount: "PG-13 places larger responsibilities on parents for their children's moviegoing," says the Web site primly, even as it gives parents little information about what these movies might contain, saying only that nudity in a PG-13 movie cannot be "sexually oriented" and that violence may not be "rough" or "pervasive." In short, there are plenty of loopholes, which Carrey and others have blasted through.

Hence, oral sex seems to be routinely acceptable in PG-13 movies: not actual oral sex, to be sure, but rather references to oral sex, oral sex performed offscreen, and oral sex that is ceased just short of being performed onscreen. "How does it feel to have your head in a congressman's lap?" says one Washington staffer to another, in "Legally Blonde 2." In "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," Angelina Jolie starts to perform oral sex on her crime-fighting partner, then changes her mind and handcuffs him to the bed. Scenes like these have opened up the way to other forms of sexuality that are not, quite, sex: "Another lap dance for me tonight!" says one police officer in "S.W.A.T.," while in several recent releases, directors find ways to include scenes of women pole-dancing. References to homosexual prison encounters are also common; in "2 Fast 2 Furious," an officer taunts a bad guy going to jail: "Don't drop the soap, big homey!"

Now why, you ask, are there so many references to pole-dancing, lap-dancing and forcible sodomy in so many PG-13 movies, when they are a relatively small part of the real lives of most people? Because the CARA board is like the Supreme Court, in that the PG-13 rating is built entirely on precedent. Because the vagueness of the guidelines means that the CARA board has to feel its way along, so to speak, trying to figure out what sort of things the American public will find acceptable just now; meanwhile, directors study each new film to see what it's possible to get away with. Once pole-dancing is in, it's in. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, art doesn't imitate life; art imitates art. Conventions appear and persist; watch any PG-13, and you are almost guaranteed to experience not only pole-dancing but also:

Bad words whose saving grace appears to be that they are not the ultimate bad word. The language rule in PG-13 movies is clear, at least in theory: One use of the f-word will automatically catapult a film from PG to a PG-13 rating. However, in a PG-13 film the f-word can be used only once, and never in its true sexual context. What this means is that a character cannot say, "I want to [f-word] you" but can say, "I want to [f-word] you up." But he or she can say this only once. If you watch closely, you will see that many PG-13 movies take maximum advantage of their one usage by placing it near the beginning of the film. "[F-word] you, and S.W.A.T.!" says the hothead officer in an early scene.

But one f-word still leaves a lot of dialogue to be filled. And so directors seek other ways to enliven PG-13 language. Sometimes, they do it by crafting sleazy double entendres: "When it's big like that, I just like to ride it hard and rough; I'm going to be wet for hours!" says Cameron Diaz in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," talking to a male surfer. The other technique is to use every bad word that is not the f-word. In "10 Things I Hate About You," a movie based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," the protagonist, Kat, allows that people see her as "tempestuous," to which her sister replies: "Heinous bitch is more like it." In PG-13 movies, "bitch" is a handy word to use when talking about your sister, your friend, a woman you are married to, a woman you want to have sex with, a woman you're about to kill; and, in a surprising number of cases, a man who is insufficiently manly. Other bad words are popular, too. "You still fight like [s-word]," says the protagonist in "2 Fast 2 Furious." "Warning, [extended a-word] are closer than they appear!" hollers Jim Carrey as Ace, who also likes to say things like "Holy [s-word] balls!" and "pork" in its more recondite, less common usage, as in, "I'd lose 30 pounds porking his wife."

Now, you could argue that this sort of language is organic to Carrey's or Myers's bawdy shticks. But it bankrupts the idea -- cherished by most parents -- that PG-13 movies really do observe language restraints. In fact, it seems fair to say that kids will hear more bad language, and more forms of bad language, in PG-13 movies than they will in Rs.

Meanwhile, they will be seeing lots of:

Violence. Moviemakers seem to be always searching for forms of violence that are acceptable under the PG-13 rating. It's generally accepted that the rule against "rough" and "pervasive" violence means that violence is okay as long as it's "clean," which is to say relatively bloodless: Characters cannot be fed through a wood chipper, as in "Fargo," or, if they are, there can be no visible aftermath. And so PG-13 movies are full of violence in which the blood either stays in the body, or comes out the back unseen: Impaling, for example, is how Willem Dafoe dies in "Spiderman," and how a whole bunch of people die in "Pirates of the Caribbean," an exuberantly violent movie in which pirates are always garroting and slitting the throats of citizens and British soldiers, who typically land off-camera with a thud.

Lately, even torture has made the cut: In "2 Fast 2 Furious," there is an excruciating scene where some Miami drug thugs have a detective on the floor in the back room of a bar, while in the front women are, naturally, pole-dancing. The detective's shirt has been torn open and on his bare belly a live rat has been laid. On top of the rat an overturned champagne bucket has been placed. The bad guys take a blowtorch to the bucket, explaining that, as the heat becomes unbearable, the rat will seek escape by eating into the detective's stomach. While this is happening his mouth is gagged by the actress Eva Mendes, whose presence is helpful because, if sex and violence are both good, best of all is sexy violence. Which is one reason why PG-13 movies often feature:

Sexy, violent women. Call it empowerment; call it fourth-wave feminism; in today's PG-13 movie, women are able to hold their own at both pole-dancing and kick-boxing. Charlie's Angels do both of these things with agility. As Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie passionately kisses her fellow tomb raider at the end, then shoots him dead.

The open question is how all of this material affects the young minds and hearts of those who watch it. Researchers haven't felt comfortable interviewing 13-year-olds on their sexual knowledge and habits; to the social science establishment, if not to Hollywood, 13 still seems too young to be asking questions, and by doing so potentially planting ideas, about sex. It is generally accepted, however, from interviews with 15- and 16-year-olds, that more kids are having oral sex, at younger ages, than they did 20 or even 10 years ago. Is this because they've been exposed to it in so many movies? Or does CARA assume it's okay to refer to oral sex in movies, because kids already know about it anyway? Or is some sort of mutual reinforcement going on?

Violence has been considerably more researched: By now, hundreds of studies have been done exploring the effects of media violence. The consensus is that there is some connection between movie violence and real-life violence, though -- as with sexual behavior -- no one is quite sure how the relationship works. Over and over, studies have shown that kids who consume a lot of violent media tend to be edgier and more aggressive, either because violent entertainment causes violence or because aggressive kids are attracted to aggressive media. For one child, violent movies may in fact be a release, entertainment; for others, they may serve to reinforce bad stuff that's already happening.

It's complex, clearly, the effect that movies have: Talking to children who had watched some of the same PG-13 movies I did, I had no doubt that they were absorbing all sorts of bits and pieces. One day I was standing outside Wheaton Plaza when a very nice woman emerged with a group of children in tow, among them two 10-year-olds who had grown up watching Brittany Murphy on Nickelodeon and naturally wanted to see her latest PG-13 vehicle, "Uptown Girls," in which she plays a high-priced Manhattan nanny.

When I asked the 10-year-olds whether they liked "Uptown Girls," they said they did, very much. When I asked what they liked best about it, one of them enthused, "I liked it when -- there's this 8-year-old, she started beating up some girl at school. She was beating her up because she called her babysitter something -- I don't remember what."

"Like, a mindless slut?" said the very nice woman who was with them, and the 10-year-old, pleased, said, "Yeah, that was it!" The woman started explaining, to me, how it was in fact one au pair that started beating up the other one, and meanwhile I was looking at the little girl thinking: Well, now she has been introduced not only to the sight of attractive young women fighting but to the phrase "mindless slut." Could the prevalence of women fighting in PG-13 movies have anything to do with the fact that violence is increasing, in general, among girls? And what use will the 10-year-old make of her new vocabulary words? Talking to the nice woman and her child, I was reminded of a conversation I'd had with movie reviewer Nell Minow, whose father, Newton Minow, was the FCC commissioner who famously described '60s television as a "vast wasteland." Minow says that her father always marveled at how parents will let Hollywood say things to their children that they would have an ordinary person on the street arrested for saying.

In fact, as one whose job it is to watch pretty much every PG-13 movie released, Minow worries most about movies like "Just Married" and "Uptown Girls" and "My Boss's Daughter" -- relentlessly sexualized comedies that encourage kids to think adult life consists mostly of recreational sex, recreational arguing and recreationally beating up mindless sluts. "Thirteen-year-olds are watching movies to get their first glimpse of what the adult world is like when they're not there. They're looking for a lot of clues about how their parents behave. And for them to believe that this kind of behavior is acceptable, I think is deeply troubling."

Who are these movies aimed at, anyway? Are PG-13 movies really targeted at 13-year-olds, or -- by using kids-channel stars like Brittany Murphy -- is the industry really gunning for kids who are even younger, growing their audience, as the marketers say? "I think PG-13 movies are aimed at 10-year-olds," says Nell Minow, pointing out all the marketing that's obviously directed at kids. "There's a Legally Blonde Barbie. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out."

Historically, the entertainment industry has certainly shown itself willing -- nay, eager -- to market even the most adult content to children. After the 1999 Columbine shootings, there was much discussion of whether or how cinematic shootings lead to real-life shootings, much public questioning of whether film, video-game and television companies were marketing violent entertainment to even the tenderest cohort. In a detailed report, the Federal Trade Commission found that the answer to the last question was a resounding yes. "Individual companies in each industry routinely market to children the very products that have the industry's own parental warnings," concluded the report. In accompanying hearings, Arizona Sen. John McCain pointed out that Sony tried to advertise "The Fifth Element," a particularly violent PG-13-rated movie starring Bruce Willis, on Nickelodeon. When the network resisted, Sony pleaded that it needed the youth segment to help the film turn a profit. McCain read aloud a segment from a marketing report for one R-rated movie, which said that "it seems to make sense to interview 10- to 11-year-olds . . . In addition, we will survey African American and Latino moviegoers between the ages of 10 and 24."

Condemning industry execs for warning parents and simultaneously wooing children, McCain pointed out that "it is your responsibility to refrain from making much more difficult a parent's responsibility to see that their children grow up healthy in mind and body into adults who are capable of judging for themselves the quality or lack thereof of your art."

Movie executives took note: Responding to the negative publicity, they promised never, ever to market an R-rated movie to a child again. What they began doing, instead, was making more PG-13 movies, which could then, legitimately, be marketed to the same demographic. In a supreme irony, it was public concern about violence and its effects on children that led to more violent movies that can be, and are, marketed to children.

"What has really kind of pushed the industry to embrace PG-13 most recently was the Federal Trade Commission report," says Virginia Tech's Stephen Prince. In the past several years, a number of movies -- "Anger Management,"

"Solaris," "The Hot Chick," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Zoolander," "Hardball," to name a few -- have all received an initial R rating, then successfully had that changed to PG-13. To get a rating changed, a director can either make some excisions based on the CARA board's reaction, or simply take the film, intact, before an appeals board that consists entirely of fellow studio executives.

"It's all about money," says Tom Ortenberg, a president of Lions Gate Releasing and one of the few Hollywood executives willing to openly criticize the current system. To be sure, Ortenberg also finds it necessary to play by that system: His recent movie "Shattered Glass" tells the tale of Stephen Glass, a New Republic reporter who fabricated quotes and sources. "Shattered Glass" was initially rated R because of several uses of the f-word. Ortenberg removed most of them in order to earn a PG-13 rating. When I said it didn't seem to me that teenagers were all that likely to want to see a movie about a grown-up who spends a lot of time talking on the phone, he pointed out that he wanted to be able to market the movie to high school journalism and ethics classes, and that R movies are the kiss of death for any director who wants to get his product inside a school.

While his own movies have been flagged for what he views as ridiculous technicalities, Ortenberg thinks the board is way too willing to assign a PG-13 rating to films that have genuinely objectionable content. "I do believe that the MPAA allows too much violence and sexual content into PG and PG-13 movies. I believe they do it because they are bought and paid for by the studios whose movies they rate." Even more, Ortenberg worries about the marketing of these PG-13 movies on children's channels. The convenience of PG-13 is the muddy middle ground it occupies: Since children technically can attend, the industry gets away with marketing it on children's channels. But since adults also do attend, the industry also seems able to get away with showing R trailers before PG-13 movies. The night I went to "S.W.A.T.," every single trailer was for an R-rated movie. In effect, the industry is using PG-13 as a kind of way station to market R-rated movies to kids.

The problem, for anyone inclined to worry about this, is in knowing what to do. Historically, studios have been able to invoke the First Amendment to stave off government intervention. Some activists would like to see the studios sued, or sanctioned by the FTC, for deceptive advertising -- for labeling as suitable for children movies that really aren't. But this wouldn't be easy. Because the meaning of PG-13 is so vague, "deceptive" would be a hard charge to prove. Are you being deceptive when you're being imprecise? The MPAA only recently agreed to loosely define the elements that earned a particular film a PG-13 rating, and even these are sketchy descriptions like "language" or "sexual humor" or "stylized violence."

And the industry continues to work hard at obfuscation. As I emerged from a showing of "Charlie's Angels" at Hoyts Potomac Yard, I noticed a poster, produced by the National Association of Theater Owners, which said that the meaning of PG-13 is, "See it with your kids." When I repeat this definition to Richard Heffner, who as the head of CARA was present at the creation of PG-13, he says, wearily, "That's not what it means."

Valenti himself suggests that what PG-13 means is that parents should view all movies before their kids do, a practice that among other things would earn the industry another $7 or $8 per attentive parent. Others would like to see explicit labels, labels as detailed as the ingredients list on cereal boxes. Under such a system, the label for "The Spy Who Shagged Me" would be about 10 yards long, featuring descriptions like: "Includes a comic scene of a naked woman inserting a homing device into the anus of a grotesquely fat man she has just had sex with." Another possibility would be the elimination of the PG-13 rating, a world in which films would have to rise and fall, once more, as PG or R.

It's strange, the degree to which many of us, these days, feel the need to be warned about the entertainment we're seeking out. Strange, how movies have become something we have to feel afraid of. Strange, how the meaning of "family movie" has come to mean PG-13 as opposed to, say, G. Strange, how Jack Valenti himself continues to favor old movies over new ones: When I asked him what he felt was a truly great movie for teenagers, he replied (as he always does when asked his favorite movie), "A Man for All Seasons."

When I asked what he felt was a truly great current movie for teenagers, he replied, "I can't think of one right now."

Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer.

She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
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