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We might remember 1984 as a banner year for movies, but one of the most important milestones reached by the film industry had nothing to do with Amadeus, or Footloose, or even Splash. It was the introduction of nine simple words into the American film canon: “Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.”

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Hollywood producers have self-regulated since the earliest days of the studio system. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, an industry trade group (later the Motion Picture Association of America, today known as the Motion Picture Association), came up with the first content regulation guidelines in the 1930s in response to mounting moral criticism, bad press, and state censors. Eager to clean up its public image, the industry appointed former Postmaster General and Republican party chair Will H. Hays to lead the organization.

Hays’s original film production code was created in consultation with religious authorities and incorporated a distinctly Catholic sense of forbidden content. In 1947, film producer and censor Geoffrey Shurlock called the code “a moral document” and repeated its mandate that

no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

In the postwar years it was evident that the so-called Hays Code, with its “one foot on the floor” type of rules, was far out of touch with the times. In the words of American Studies scholar Thomas Doherty, by the late 1960s, “the age of miniskirts and Day-Glo bikinis, the starched and buttoned-down Production Code felt as suffocating as a Victorian-era corset.” Challenges to the stiff Hays Code norms came from all quarters. Seeking both a solution and an image overhaul, the MPAA appointed Jack Valenti as its head in 1966. Valenti, who remained president of the association for thirty-eight years, immediately started pushing for the idea of a voluntary ratings classification system. On August 6, 1968, “after weeks of acrimonious meetings, the MPAA Board voted unanimously to junk the Code and adopt a new system of film classification,” Doherty writes.

This initial system placed movies into four tiers: G, M, R, and X, explains film historian Kia Afra. By the early 1970s, thanks to a little fine-tuning, movies were rated G for general audiences; PG for parental guidance suggested; R for restricted, which meant anyone under seventeen had to be accompanied by an adult; or X for no one under seventeen admitted. This worked, broadly speaking, until the 1980s, at which time a problem became apparent: a single “parental guidance” rating was a pretty blunt tool in terms of catering to kids ranging from five to seventeen years old. Airplane! may not have warranted an R rating, but that didn’t mean it was an easy thumbs-up for nine-year-olds, either.

Most film scholars seem to agree that the creation of an intermediate PG-13 rating came about as the result of a handful of blockbusters in the middle 1980s: Poltergeist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins. According to humanities scholar Filipa Antunes, Poltergeist raised initial questions about ratings and content, Temple of Doom brought the issue to the fore, and Gremlins provoked action. All three were marketed as summer popcorn flicks with wide appeal, and in the case of the first two, the films had names like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to back up the family-friendly suggestion.

Both Poltergeist and Temple of Doom were generally well received, critically speaking. The former, with its horror tropes, pushed the boundaries of children’s entertainment. The latter is often cited as an uncharacteristically dark turn in Lucas’s film-writing career. It featured a menacing underground cult, a banquet of dismembered dishes, and yes, literal heart-ripping drama. (It was, nonetheless, the third-highest grossing film of 1984.) Lucas claimed the mood was nothing more than was a natural tonal dip in a trilogy arc, though historian Richard Ravalli notes that some thought Lucas was in a particularly black mood due to his unfolding divorce from editor Marcia Lucas. Some reviewers pointed out that some of the more extreme elements in the films were the sort of thing kids would invent in a creep-out contest with their friends. And as Antunes writes, one critic offered Ke Huy Quan’s character as evidence that Temple of Doom specifically wanted middle-grade audiences to connect with the story.

Gremlins provoked different reactions. Ravalli writes that audiences were taken by surprise

because Gremlins was advertised as a “Steven Spielberg presents” production and its vague marketing campaign seemed to foster the false impression that the “cute,” E.T.-like Mogwai named Gizmo was the focus of the film.

Where Poltergeist and Temple of Doom had mitigated their frights by holding up the good guys and the strength of family, Gremlins offered scary creature effects, a violent plot, and a chaotic center. Antunes reports that one critic thought that

Gremlins snatches the security blanket away from every­ thing that has been held holy in children’s mov­ies—home, family, Christmas, religion and even the beloved memory of Walt Disney.

The key issue seemed to be how American film-going families and the movie industry each understood the differences between childhood and adolescence in popular culture. Critics saw the appeal of these movies for the tween and teen set, but it became clear that the PG rating was “no longer able to signal suitability for both ‘very small children’ and ‘kids 10–12,’” Antunes explains.

Ravalli and Antunes both explore the idea that 1980s conservatism may have played a part in the development of a PG-13 rating. Though conservative Christianity can’t be painted with a single brush, this exploratory phase in moviemaking collided with a rising Reagan-era moralism in which people were perhaps more eager to speak up about extreme content or visibly walk out of the movie theater in response to shocking content. Ravalli notes that some Christian figures had lobbied Jack Valenti in favor of an intermediate rating between PG and R, in part to ward off potential censorship campaigns from more conservative evangelicals.

“Christian voices legitimized the concerns of parents and industry critics,” he writes, “and ultimately bolstered the drive for the PG-13 rating.”

Whether a movie has hit the “right” ratings band is still a frequent topic of discussion. While most of today’s biggest tentpole film releases (especially superhero movies) strive for PG-13 rating in order to capture a wider and more lucrative teenage demographic, there’s an argument that some stories need the permissive swath of an R rating to do justice to their characters and content (e.g., the recent trailer for this summer’s Deadpool & Wolverine). Some also wonder if tweens are still underserved, offered either G-rated safety or PG-13 movies that really target their teenage elders.

I can’t answer that. But your friendly Gen-X columnist can tell you: don’t feed them after midnight.

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