Violence, Sex, and Profanity in Films: Correlation of Movie Ratings With Content

Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD; Fumie Yokota, PhD

In This Article


This study compares the MPAA age-based ratings for films rated G, PG, PG-13, and R (excluding the very small number of NC-17 films) (,[20,21] with information about content to determine the relative importance of potentially objectionable material in determining ratings and to examine the distribution of violence, sex, and profanity content across ratings. The MPAA provides voluntary age-based ratings and nonstandardized, descriptive rating reasons intended to inform consumers about the reason(s) a film received its age-based rating. The MPAA provides no specific criteria for its assignments of ratings or rating reasons; instead, it apparently leaves their assignment entirely to the judgment of its independent board of raters who view the films. While the rating reasons may not provide information about all of the types of content that parents might observe in films, they do provide information about some of the content and specifically about the content that the raters considered the most significant with respect to assigning the overall rating. By definition, the MPAA never assigns rating reasons to films rated G since the MPAA indicates that this rating implies suitability for all audiences.

We coded the MPAA's age-based ratings numerically as 1, 2, 3, and 4 for films rated G, PG, PG-13, and R, respectively (ie, we coded an R-rated film with the age-based rating of 4). Since the MPAA rating reasons do not follow any standard format, we coded each of the reasons with the classifications listed in Table 1 . The classifications include both the type of content (as a capital letter) and any modifying adjective for that content (as a lowercase letter). For example, we coded "violence" as "V," "action violence" as "aV," "strong violence" as "sV," and "sexual violence" as "zV." For some of our analyses, we further reduced the number of categories by combining content of similar natures; "violence" includes any rating reasons coded as Violence (V), Murder (M), Wrestling (W), Fighting (F), Rape (R), and Peril (K); "sex" includes any rating reasons coded as Sex (S), Sensuality (Q), Sexuality (J), Rape (R) (counted as violence and sex), Nudity (N); "substances" includes any rating reason coded as Drug (D), Alcohol (A), or Tobacco (T); and "thematic elements" includes any rating reason coded as Elements (E), Suicide (C), or Other (O). We also identified the animated films by searching their descriptions for indications of animation.[21,22,23,24]

We relied on the content reviews produced by Kids-in-Mind[22] and Screen It![23] for characterization of content-based scores. Kids-in-Mind represents an independent Internet consumer information service, not affiliated with any political or religious organization, which began providing information about films in 1992.[22] Kids-in-Mind aims to provide impartial reviews of films theatrically released in the United States based on violence, sex, and profanity content, without making value judgments about appropriateness. The Kids-in-Mind trained reviewers use a scale from 0 to 10 for each category and assign a score based on quantity as well as intensity and the context of the potentially objectionable material (with 0 indicating no content of the type and 10 indicating the most extreme content). We summed the scores in the 3 categories to create a total Kids-in-Mind score, which ranges from 0 to 30, to capture the combined content because we recognized that movies might contain multiple types of content. We used all of the Kids-in-Mind data from 1992 to 2003 (n = 1906 movies) to explore the extent of ratings creep over time and to evaluate the amount of violence in G-rated animated films compared with non-animated films.

Screen It! similarly represents an independent Internet consumer information service also not affiliated with any political or religious organization that began providing information about film content in July 1, 1996.[23] Screen It! provides information about movie content for 15 categories (ie, alcohol/drugs, blood/gore, disrespectful/bad attitude, frightening/tense scenes, guns/weapons, imitative behavior, jump scenes, music [scary/tense], music [inappropriate], profanity, sex/nudity, smoking, tense family scenes, topics to talk about, and violence) using 6 descriptions (ie, none, minor, mild, moderate, heavy, extreme). For computational ease, we assigned scores of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to the Screen It! descriptions "none," "minor," "mild," "moderate," "heavy," and "extreme," respectively. We also summed the scores of the Screen It! profanity, sex/nudity, and violence categories to create a total Screen It! score, which theoretically ranges from 0 to 15, comparable to the total Kids-in-Mind score.

We created a single database containing data from all 3 sources (ie, the MPAA, Kids-in-Mind, and Screen It!), which included films released between July 1, 1996 (ie, when Screen It! started providing information) and December 31, 2003. The MPAA rates hundreds of movies every year, and it rated over 5600 movies released during that time period. Neglecting the small number of films rated NC-17 not included in this study (ie, fewer than 20 during that time period), the distribution of films rated by the MPAA during this time includes 5%, 10%, 18%, and 67% of films rated G, PG, PG-13, and R, respectively. Over this time period, Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! assigned content-based ratings to 1346 (24%) and 1592 (28%) of these movies, respectively. We found a total of 1269 movies (23%) with information available from Kids-in-Mind, Screen It!, and the MPAA, with 4%, 13%, 36%, and 46% of these rated G, PG, PG-13, and R, respectively. Compared with the overall distribution of films, Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! rated a significantly lower proportion of R-rated films and higher proportion of PG-13-rated films, which may reflect their intentions to provide information about films more likely to be widely released in theaters, potentially viewed by children and young adults, and of interest to parents. We used this database to compare the content scores from the independent sources with each other and to quantify the correlation between content scores and ratings. We used the information from Screen It! about substances (tobacco and alcohol/drugs) to characterize the amount of information provided by the MPAA rating reasons about substances in films. Although the content-based ratings from Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! represent subjective judgments and no available data exist to inform judgments on interrater reliability of the reviewers, these resources provide the most comprehensive, independent databases of quantitative reviews of film content.

Finally, for these 1269 films with complete data from the MPAA, Kids-in-Mind, and Screen It!, we obtained the available data on each film's cumulative US gross box office sales and reported budgets from the IMDbPro database.[24] We matched films by title and release year and included the gross sales and budgets in US dollars when available. We note that the IMDbPro database does not adjust its economic data for inflation or provide a source for reported budget data. While we believe that these data include inherent uncertainties, we believe that they represent the best publicly available data about the economics of films, and we use them to explore correlations between movie ratings, content, and economics to generate hypotheses for future studies.

We used Microsoft Access (Microsoft Corp, Redmond, Washington) to construct the database, and we performed the descriptive and statistical analyses using Microsoft Excel (Microsoft Corp, Redmond, Washington) and SAS (Version 8.2 for Windows, SAS Institute Inc., Cary, North Carolina).


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