The history of the movie rating system: A review of This Film is Not Yet Rated

Ever wonder where those movie ratings came from? G, PG, PG-13, R, and the elusive NC-17? There turns out to be an incredible history behind the development of those ratings, especially the more mature ratings.

This Film is Not Yet Rated is a 2006 documentary that explores the history of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system (Dick, 2006). Interestingly enough, in the early days of Hollywood, there were strict rules as to how much sexuality could be shown on film. For example, an on-screen kiss could not last more than a couple seconds at a time. Hard to believe with all the long kissing scenes in movies nowadays, right? However, these rules did not last, as directors found ways to get around them, and soon enough, sexuality was given the green light to be explored more openly in film (Dick, 2006).

Let’s fast forward to the 1970s, during the Sexual Revolution. There was a surge of sensuality and sexuality that made its way into the movie industry, mainly through pornographic films. Pornography became a massive hit in the film market, and the MPAA was faced with a conundrum as to how to rate such films. A new rating, “X,” became the marker for porn flicks. The rating X was made to distinguish films that had sexual content stronger than would be in a standard R-rated film. The X-rating lasted for long time, but over the years, many filmmakers began to question the basis in which it was made (Dick, 2006).

There was a growing concern of the X-rating being applied to mainstream films that were not pornography. These were movies that had a serious plot, strong character development, and everything a standard Hollywood flick would have – except for sexual content that was considered by the MPAA to be too strong for an R-rating. Most of these reasons centered on fully-nude sex scenes between men and women (Dick, 2006).

In the early 1990s, the MPAA finally created the NC-17 rating for mainstream films that had “intense” sexual scenes. (The main difference between R and NC-17 films, in terms of theater admission, is that no one under the age of 17 is allowed in the theater for NC-17, even when accompanied with an adult over the age of 21.) The rating did well for a couple of years, as directors were able to release the films they always desired to make under the new rating. They were not as popular as the other ratings; however, people were still able to enjoy this new genre of mainstream films. That is, until the movie Showgirls was released in 1995, changing the meaning of the rating forever (Dick, 2006).

Showgirls, starring Elizabeth Berkley (from Saved by the Bell), tells the story of a young woman who moves to Las Vegas to pursue her dream of becoming a performer (Kassar & Verhoeven, 1995). Although the directors probably wanted it to be a success, the movie turned out to be a major flop – a popularly massive flop (Dick, 2006). Soon enough, NC-17 films as a genre became synonymous with loose plots, horrible acting, and outrageous sex scenes. After the release of Showgirls, filmmakers became hesitant to create films that would potentially get an NC-17 rating out of the fear of losing audiences and money. So many of them, still to this day, would edit their scenes down to an R-rating before releasing their films (Dick, 2006). (Fifty Shades, anyone?)

So, why does this all matter? It goes to show that the subjective concept of sexuality (what is considered to be too strong or graphic to be shown on screen) has a huge impact on the movie industry. Question is, will it ever change?


What do you think of the current MPAA movie rating system?   


(P.S. In case you were wondering, the rating for This Movie is Not Yet Rated is, well, un-rated.)



Dick, K. (Director). (2006). This film is not yet rated [Motion picture]. United States: IFC Films.

Kassar, M. (Producer), & Verhoeven, P. (Director). (1995). Showgirls [Motion picture]. United States: United Artists.


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