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

Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD; Fumie Yokota, PhD

In This Article


We explored the hypothesis of ratings creep using the full set of Kids-in-Mind data (n = 1906). Table 2 shows the total number, the distribution of the films assessed by Kids-in-Mind by rating, and the average total Kids-in-Mind score for that year. These data indicate that Kids-in-Mind assessed a relatively similar sample of movies each year with respect to the overall proportion of ratings; however, some variation exists. We corrected for the potential impact from this variation in the average total Kids-in-Mind scores by using the rating-weighted average total Kids-in-Mind score for each year. (We computed these by applying the average percentages over all of the years, shown in the last row of the table, as the consistent percentage of films within each age-based category for each year and averaging the total Kids-in-Mind score for each year based on these).

Figure 1 shows the data and the best fit line for the rating-weighted average total Kids-in-Mind scores over time. This line clearly shows a significant upward slope, indicating that the Kids-in-Mind raters assigned higher scores in later years. While this could indicate increased sensitivity by the Kids-in-Mind raters over time, their rating method and content-based scores appear relatively stable (ie, a film that received a score of 3 in 1992 seems likely to receive the same score if issued in 2002). Consequently, we believe that ratings creep represents the more likely explanation for the increase and that the MPAA appears to tolerate increasingly more extreme content in any given age-based rating category over time, a suggestion that Kids-in-Mind makes as well based on experience with reviewing films.[22] We further explored the contributions to these trends by content type, and we find significant (P < .01) increases over this time period in violence in PG- and PG-13-rated films (but not for G- and R-rated films), significant increases in sex in PG-, PG-13-, and R-rated films (but not for G-rated films), and significant increases in profanity in PG-13- and R-rated films (but not for G- or PG-rated films). We emphasize that this 10-year period does not represent the full time scale of films, and that our prior study did show a significant increase in violence over the entire history of G-rated animated films.[11] However, the last 10 years represents the most recent past, which parents may find the most relevant. These data suggest that the MPAA applied increasingly more lenient criteria for its age-based ratings as a function of time over the last decade. We suggest that these results provide hypotheses that future content analyses might address through independent coding of content of random samples of films.

Rating-weighted average total Kids-in-Mind scores over time and best-fit line.

Using data from all 79 of the Kids-in-Mind scores for G-rated films reviewed since 1992, which include 50 animated films and 29 non-animated films, we found that animated films received a significantly higher content-based score for violence than non-animated films (P < .005 based on a Wilcoxon rank sum test). Limiting the data to the films released since mid-1996, we still find significant results testing the violence scores from both Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! for G-rated animated vs non-animated films using Wilcoxon rank sum tests (n = 51, P < .05). These results suggest that, on average, G-rated animated films depict significantly more violence than non-animated G-rated films.

We found good correlation between the Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! content-based total scores (R2=0.83, P < .01). Figure 2 shows the proportion of films within each age-based category that received different content-based scores for sex/nudity as assigned by Kids-in-Mind, and Figures 3 and 4 show comparable information for violence and profanity content-based scores, respectively. The hashed portions indicate the films for which the MPAA indicated related content as a reason for the film's rating. These figures show variability in the content-based scores, and Table 3 summarizes the ranges of scores assigned for each type of content and for the total by rating for both Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! We note that given our finding of significant ratings creep above, the reduced stringency in criteria used by the MPAA over time may account for some of the variation observed in Figures 2, 3, and 4 (ie, if the MPAA assigned a relatively lower age-based rating in recent years than it did previously, then some films with relatively higher content-based scores appear in lower age-based rating categories). These figures demonstrate that films assigned any particular rating may not contain significant amounts of all types of content (eg, some R-rated films received content scores of 0 for one type of content.) We found at least one film in each rating category that received a total Kids-in-Mind score of 7 (eg, Babe: Pig in the City (G), Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (PG), Patch Adams (PG-13), and Besieged (R)).

Distribution of Kids-in-Mind content-based scores by rating for violence.

Distribution of Kids-in-Mind content-based scores by rating for sex/nudity.

Distribution of Kids-in-Mind content-based scores by rating for profanity.

Table 4 reports the average content scores for violence, sex, and profanity for both Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! data as a function of the MPAA rating. This table shows that films consistently receive higher scores for violence than for sex, and that profanity dominates for R-rated films.

Table 5 shows the distribution of the maximum Kids-in-Mind scores (ie, the highest score received in any of the 3 categories) by rating and overall. The results suggest wide variability, but show that films that receive higher maximum scores generally receive higher ratings. This table demonstrates that no films that received a maximum Kids-in-Mind score of lower than 4 received an R rating. For 282 of the 1269 films (22%), we found that the maximum Kids-in-Mind score for any single type of content occurred for more than one type of content (eg, a maximum score of "6" occurred in both the violence and profanity categories or in all 3 content categories) as shown in Table 6 . This suggests that while a single type of content may drive the ratings of some films, sufficient evidence exists of multiple types of content driving the ratings in a significant proportion of films such that studies of content need to explore combined measures of content (eg, the total scores used here).

Based on the data shown in Figures 2, 3, and 4, the MPAA appears to assign rating reasons to content that receives relatively higher content-based scores (note that comparable figures for Screen It! provide similar results, not shown). However, some films that scored lower than others received a rating reason from the MPAA while some higher-scoring films did not. For the 1269 films we analyzed, we found that the MPAA assigned between 0 (for G-rated films) and 6 rating reasons for any single film. The number of reasons indicated for the MPAA rating significantly increases with the age-based rating category, with an average of 2, 2.4, and 2.7 rating reasons for films rated PG, PG-13, and R, respectively.

Using our standardized codes described in Table 1 , we needed a total of 678 unique codes to describe the more than 3000 total rating reasons that the MPAA assigned to the 1218 films rated PG and higher. We found that of the 1218 films that received rating reasons, 689 received them for sex/nudity (57%), 692 for violence (57%), and 940 for language (77%). Table 7 provides the breakdown of codes for violence along with the average of the associated Kids-in-Mind scores for violence included in parentheses. We found that the MPAA assigned the modifier for "graphic" only to R-rated films (films that Kids-in-Mind also scored as a "7" or higher for violence), and the MPAA generally assigns "aV" (for "action violence") only to PG- and PG-13-rated films (except for 2 R-rated films that also received the "s" modifier for "strong action violence" or "non-stop action violence"). Table 8 provides the breakdown of the codes assigned by rating for codes related to sex/nudity with the average of the associated Kids-in-Mind scores for sex/nudity included in parentheses. Looking at these data, we find that rating reasons of "sexuality" and "nudity" (ie, codes J and N) generally lead to higher age-based ratings (R or PG-13) than "sensuality," "sex," and "innuendo" (ie, codes Q, S, and B). Table 9 provides the breakdown of the codes assigned by rating for codes related to language with the average of the associated Kids-in-Mind scores for profanity included in parentheses. We found that the MPAA only gave the "mild language" rating reason for PG-rated films, and gave "strong language" rating reasons only to films rated PG-13 and R. The results clearly show increasingly higher average scores for language for films with higher age-based ratings.

The MPAA mentioned alcohol or drugs in its rating reason for 226 films (18%), while Screen It! assigned a score above "none" for tobacco and/or alcohol/drugs for 1211 films (95%) and above "none" for alcohol/drugs for 1180 films (93%). This includes Screen It! finding substances depicted in 26 of the 51 G-rated films (51%), a comparable finding to our earlier result of 47% of all G-rated animated films.[12] Although we recognize differences between films that include a minor depiction of a substance in the background, films in which only bad characters use substances, and films in which good and bad characters heavily use substances, anyone seeking information about any substance depiction or use in films clearly currently cannot rely on the rating reasons alone for this information.

We noted that the MPAA provided rating reasons for teen alcohol and/or drug use for 15 of the 1269 films, including PG-rated: October Sky ("brief teen ... alcohol use"), Race the Sun ("brief incident of teen drinking"); PG-13-rated: Crossroads ("brief teen drinking"), Blue Crush ("teen partying"), Can't Hardly Wait ("teen drinking"), Get Over It ("teen drinking"), She's All That ("teen drinking"), Teaching Mrs. Tingle ("some teen drinking"), To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday ("teen drinking"), 10 Things I Hate About You ("alcohol and drug-related scenes, all involving teens"), Drive Me Crazy ("teen alcohol and drug use"); and R-rated: American Pie ("drinking, all involving teens"), Thirteen ("drug use... involving young teens"), Idle Hands ("pervasive teen drug use"), Outside Providence ("pervasive teen drug use"). We also noted that Screen It! gave 2 R-rated films an "extreme" rating for the category of alcohol/drugs for which the MPAA did not indicate alcohol or drugs as a rating reason (Heaven's Gate and The Life of David Gale). Screen It! also gave a "heavy" rating for the category of alcohol/drugs for 3 PG-rated films for which the MPAA did not indicate alcohol or drugs as a rating reason (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, First Wives Club, and Kangaroo Jack). Most films that depict alcohol/drugs also depict tobacco, with only 31 films (2%) receiving a score above "none" for alcohol/drugs receiving a score of "none" for tobacco.

With respect to smoking, Screen It! assigned a score above "none" for 1007 films (79%). The MPAA did not indicate smoking as a rating reason for any of the 1269 films (0%). However, we noted that in 2003 the MPAA listed teen smoking as a rating reason for 3 films rated PG-13 (The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie, The Outsiders, and Saved!), although Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! did not review any of these films, so they do not appear in the 1269 included in our analysis.

Based on analysis of the averages of gross revenues as a function of content indicated by the MPAA in a rating reason, we found that the highest average gross revenues for PG-, PG-13-, and R-rated movies occurred for those movies that only received an MPAA rating reason for violence. We found significantly higher gross revenues for PG-13- and R-rated films when comparing films that received an MPAA rating reason for violence compared with those films that did not based on a 2-sided t-test with unequal variances (P < .001 for both of the separate tests of PG-13- and R-rated films). Looking at a proxy for net profit (ie, gross revenues minus budget, while noting concerns about reporting of financial data[16]), we similarly found that films rated PG and PG-13 that received MPAA rating reasons only for violence reported higher values on average than films with other combinations of rating reasons. However, for this metric we noted that R-rated films that received MPAA rating reasons for sex and language only generated higher values on average than films with other combinations of rating reasons. More exploration of these types of correlations could further illuminate any relationships that exist between film content and economics, and these findings suggest hypotheses for further analysis and testing. Most importantly, these data provide some evidence of a correlation between violence and ticket sales, at least in the United States.


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