Those who follow the film industry closely or even casually are no doubt aware of the power that the MPAA ratings system holds: a power that is particularly concentrated in the line between PG-13 and R. By precluding box office earnings from the lucrative crowd of early teens and kids, an R-rated film loses out on enough box office potential that studios generally insist upon their big-budget titles being strictly kept within the PG-13 range.
A particularly immediate example of this is the current ongoing struggle to bring Deadpool to the big screen. The R-rated script, which was penned by Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, was received extremely well by fans and critics alike after being leaked online. Star Ryan Reynolds is eager to get started on the project, as is director Tim Miller, but Twentieth Century Fox is still holding off on granting a green light, despite Reese and Wernick's insistence that the film could be made for around $50 million to increase the potential profit margin.
Given the significance of the line between the PG-13 and R ratings, it's strange to learn that "family-friendly" movies might be even more violent than those reserved for older audiences!
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, who has previously published notable work on the subject of video game violence and youth aggression, has found in a study of 945 top-grossing movies that the amount of onscreen violence has more than doubled since 1950, and that PG-13 movies actually show more gun violence than R-rated movies.
The first of these findings isn't all that surprising, as films have become more extreme in many different respects since the 1950s (as cultural views of what is acceptable have shifted), but the variation of trends between ratings is particularly interesting. For example, gun violence in G and PG movies has decreased since 1985 and in R-rated movies the amount of gun violence has more or less stayed the same. In PG-13 movies, however, the amount of gun violence shown has grown considerably, to the point that in recent years it has actually overtaken that of R rated movies.
While the knee-jerk response to the study might be to create links between onscreen shootings and real-life gun violence, it's important to note that national statistics do not show any kind of correlation that would support this. In fact, there has been a steady decrease in American youth violence and gun crime since the early 1990s, with arrests for violent crimes among young people currently at a 32-year low. Nonetheless, Bushman concludes his study with the claim that viewing onscreen violence may increase real-world aggression among youths.
What the study also does is re-open the very interesting question of the way in which the MPAA rates movies, and some of the double standards that exist within the rating system. Violence, for example, is far less taboo than sex, and both sex and violence exist on a vast, confusing and branching scale between what is considered offensive and what isn't. The MPAA's highly secretive and, in the opinion of some filmmakers, unfairly biased system was the subject of a 2006 documentary titled This Film is Not Yet Rated, which exposed some of the absurdities and contradictions in the way movies are rated.
In the case of violence in movies, it seems that gun violence is simply easier to get away with. The most immediate reason for this is proximity; filmmakers can show as many bad guys getting riddled with bullets as they like, so long as the camera never gets close enough to see the whites of their eyes (or, more specifically, the red of their blood). By contrast, a character having their finger cut off in a horror movie close-up might not be as lethal an act, but it's considerably more gruesome. Above all, what these results seem to show is that violence sells, even if it has to find loopholes in the ratings system to reach its audience.
Bushman's study is an interesting look at how films have changed over the years and how on-screen violence is judged by the MPAA, but it's disappointing that much of the paper consists of attempts to create a link to real world violence based on little more than anecdotal evidence (the introductory paragraph, for example, cites the Dark Knight Rises shooting by James Holmes in Aurora last year) and past laboratory studies of aggression that are lacking in external validity. If increased gun violence in movies has led to a general increase in violence and aggression amongst youths, then why isn't it showing up on the radar?
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