All right, children. Time for a story. Sit down anywhere you like. There you go. Perfect. Now, I’m going to tell you someth— hey! You put that fidget spinner down. Right. Now. And you? Yes, you. Scooch closer. There. Like I said, I’m about to tell you a story —one about a mythical time called “The Summer of 1989.” I know that sounds like ancient history, but it actually happened. Yes, 1989 was a real year and I was 12 years old.
That summer seemed almost too good to be true —
— and that’s because it was.
For this movie-loving, always-indoors tween, 1989 was cinematic science fiction. It was as if every cosmic coincidence (like how the Sun is exact same size in the sky as the Moon) had lined up just for me. That summer, every possible sequel and blockbuster imaginable was coming out. I couldn’t have been more excited. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, wall to wall, some screen in the Sandusky, Ohio area would be showing something I absolutely needed to see.
Based on the previews, this is what was on the way:
- A brand-new Indiana Jones film with JAMES BOND as Indy’s dad.
- Batman, starring Mr. Mom and a soundtrack by Prince.
- A new Star Trek where a swollen William Shatner falls off El Capitan and the Enterprise fights off Klingons and Spock’s brother.
- Uh, Ghostbusters II? Sold. No questions asked. It can’t miss, right?
- And speaking of Ghostbusters — the geeky guy from it and Little Shop of Horrors was playing a dad whose kids got molecularized in the backyard. And then, the kids try to survive ants and lawnmowers. (Serious question: did Rick Moranis and Michael Douglas simply play themselves in every movie ever?)
- Goddamn “Weird Al” Yankovic was starring in a movie where he had his own TV station.
- A third Karate Kid movie was coming out where Miyagi has to kick some ass to bring Daniel back from the dark side. Stop drilling, you hit oil.
- And because 1989 was so stupid-exciting, I didn’t even care that a new Bond movie was coming out. Timothy Dalton’s “I’m-Constantly-Solving-A-Math-Problem” face and a thousand explosions didn’t even register with me.
Well, it turned out that the magical movie marathon of 1989 had a hidden hitch. Something I didn’t count on. Words cannot express the elevator-shaft plummet my stomach experienced when I saw ads for my most-anticipated movies:
Yes, the dreaded PG-13 rating.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: You were almost 13. What’s the big deal?
Well, my parents actually gave a shit about what I watched, so this rating regularly threatened to come between me and everything I’d planned to see. Bond, Batman, Bernie’s beach weekend. Thanks to these PG-13 ratings, all bets were off.
The rating itself even looked sinister to me. I was used to the simplicity of “G,” “PG” and “R.” Simple, clear, understood. It was the equivalent of NBC, CBS and ABC. Then, out of the blue comes PG-13 — this stylish and entitled bullshit barrier, complete with a hyphen. Even after the rating arrived in 1984, there were only a handful of movies slapped with it. Nine times out of ten, it was something I didn’t care about. (I wasn’t exactly the target demographic for Peggy Sue Got Married, you know.)
Little did I know that this was the beginning of the end for entertainment.
That summer, everything I wanted to see was getting tattooed with a skull and crossbones. In other words: if PBS was tap water, PG-13 was a can of JOLT! cola. It was going out of its way to shout “Don’t let Paul see this!” at my parents.
All of a sudden, you couldn’t ignore it. The PG-13 rating was a highly contagious disease, spreading swiftly across pop culture and infecting all of the worlds and characters I loved. For me, the sheer sight of “PG-13” evoked something dark, dangerous, and potentially traumatizing. It scrambled the signal. Many years later, I’d come to realize that the new rating was woefully misleading and a symptom of a much larger problem. It signaled ambiguity — an unsettling grey zone that not only reflected our national anxiety, but a creative shift that young minds like mine couldn’t process.
That said, 12-year-old me only cared about one thing: Hollywood determined that I was one year away from being ready to see what it had in store.
I literally lost sleep over that fact. If the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was any indication, Last Crusade should scar me for life. You see, in Doom, there’s this evil priest (with a horned crown because, well, “evil”) who rips some sad, shackled bastard’s heart right from his chest; he sacrifices that same freshly-heartless/impossibly-alive dude into a pit of lava; he then screams in victory, ludicrously happy while the sad, shackled bastard’s heart catches fire in his hand. ALSO, there’s a not-disturbing-at-all chorus of men chanting and wailing the whole time it happens.
So, if that was PG, what horrors awaited me in Last Crusade?
It’s an odd thing to want to experience something you probably shouldn’t witness, but that’s the definition of adolescence, right? I’d grown up on seemingly safe, secure PG franchises and I was simply following them wherever they took me. And many years before Star Trek and Star Wars were sharpening their edges, those new PG-13 movies were making horrible first impressions on the real gatekeepers: my parents. PG-13 movies could air during the daytime on HBO and Showtime, right alongside Follow That Bird! or A Christmas Story. That meant you could be playing Battleship with your family while good old Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School played in the background. Then, before you know it, your dad is racing across the room to shut off the TV. The surprise female nudity didn’t just shock my parents or catapult me into puberty a few months early — it meant that the PG-13 rating was now officially my enemy.
PG-13 was created by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) because Steven Spielberg is an asshole. Creatively, he was like one of those wildly out-of-touch CEOs who doesn’t know the price of a half-gallon of milk. Sure, in 1982, Spielberg created the cuddly E.T. — The Extra Terrestrial, but he also quasi-directed and produced Poltergeist that very same year. And if you’re unfamiliar with the latter, it’s straight-up nightmare fuel. For starters, a guy rips his face open in front of a mirror, a kid gets strangled by a sentient clown doll, and a giant spider-beast threatens to kill everyone in the house. (Oh, and the actress who played the mom unwittingly did a scene with real human skeletons.)
And Poltergeist was rated… you guessed it… “PG.”
Once PG-13 emerged on July 1, 1984, moviegoing would never be the same. It pushed and shoved its way to the front of the line, throwing into question every movie rating onward. As a result, “PG” became the new “G,” and G-rated movies all but disappeared. If PG-13 was ragged and raw, PG was Steve Guttenberg.
The official definition of PG-13:
“Parents Are Strongly Cautioned to Give Special Guidance for Attendance of Children Under 13 — Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Young Children.”
No shit, MPAA. Where were you when Gremlins came out?
Hugely violent, bloodless movies get a PG-13 rating. One F-bomb too many in a two-hour span? R. The ratings are laughably inconsistent. Remember the 2003 Jack Black movie School of Rock? The one where 1/2 of Tenacious D teaches a classroom of kids how to become a band? Well, there’s barely one profane word in it. And yet, for a movie about rock and roll, it’s incredibly chaste. Somehow, the MPAA slapped it with a “PG-13” rating. I went into it expecting some serious innuendo came out of it with a warm, Disney-fied glow.
The great Roger Ebert struggled with this in 1999, too:
Coyote Ugly, which glorifies girls who dance on top of bars to sell more drinks, gets a PG-13 because there is technically no nudity. But Almost Famous, which shows a bright teenage boy successfully negotiating the minefield of a rock tour and forming a value system with the support of his mother, gets an R because of brief and insignificant nudity and language, and drug use presented as a cautionary lesson. If you were to see the two movies side-by-side you might be as mystified as I am why the MPAA thinks one is appropriate for 13-year-olds, while the other is questionable for 17-year-olds. But of course the MPAA cannot have values; it can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words.
Almost Famous is my favorite movie of all time. Even if I edited out the two seconds of Kate Hudson Nudity, some mild drug use, and casual profanity, it’s obviously not the vibe, tone nor uuniverse my kids are after. Like most every child, they’re after superheroic sci-fi spectacle: Batman, Superman, The Flash, Thor, Iron Man, Captain Kirk, et al. One key problem, obviously, is that Hollywood keeps creating massive films based on recycled characters and rebooted ideas. (Ironically, this is as unoriginal a point on my part than what the producers keep foisting upon the public.) But these are the options I have to work with, and not one of those characters currently exists in the same PG-related framework as I remember. Quite the opposite. Everyone’s depressed, plagued with internal strife, or mired in murky morals.
If nothing else, look at how the new Superman movies go out of their way to trade the bright, bold colors of (arguably) the most optimistic and pure superhero in comic-book history for … this:
It’s as though producers refuse to let these icons to be symbols of escapist fun anymore. No way in hell. Muted desaturation is the way to go. It’s a reflection of where our society sees itself, I suppose, given that the public endorses them with their wallets.
The true curse of all middle-aged American parents is that we want to share beloved relics of our childhoods with our kids, hoping that they resonate in the same way. Most of the time, they don’t. If I try to show the Christopher Reeve films, they’re huge whiffs — not unlike laugh tracks in sitcoms. My kids can sense that something is off. The “1980s” of it all doesn’t engage them. The films of my childhood are museum pieces. Also, I’m not saying films of the past are masterworks, but they sure as hell set a template that don’t need to be PG-13'ed.
“PG-13” is as much an artistic affectation as it is a marketing ploy. It feels like if you’re a movie that gets a PG rating, you’ve done something wrong. You’ve failed the sensibilities of this generation. Go back to the editing room and add some fucking edge, yo. But that’s not the whole story, either. For one, the opposite is true: the classically R-rated Die Hard franchise with Bruce Willis (by the way, now quietly owned by Disney) saw a scaled-back PG-13 sequel, as if to add some gravitas to the rating.
But then, the new Ghostbusters movie (the one with the kids) is somehow bafflingly milder than the PG-rated 1984 original. And it — you guessed it — scored a PG-13. The original remains a curious cinematic staple and a cultural cornerstone despite (among its many other flaws) its swearing, smoking, and implied ghost fellatio involving Dan Aykroyd. But have we gone back to re-rate these relics against our current sensitivities? No. Ghostbusters is somehow still a cute PG. I’m stuck in an infinite Catch-22 where I can’t share older “of another time” versions of these characters, nor can I let them see their modern-day counterparts.
So, how did we end up here? Weirdly, the majority of American films have always been rated R. Seems hard to believe, but it’s true. According to one study, over the past 50 years, the MPAA rated nearly 30,000 movies — with 17,000 of them landing an R rating (58%). How many were PG? A whopping 16%. And G-rated movies? Ready for this? Less than 1%. That’s right: America pretty much punches children in the face at the ticket booth for being children.
Yes, life is rated R. I get it. Just last week, my six-year-old daughter and I were standing in line at a gas station when some bozos behind us were using “fuck” like a comma. She’s clearly aware of the word because she tensed up, but it doesn’t mean that she ever subscribed to be around ignorant people with no self-awareness. Like any parent, I feel my kids don’t need to accelerate into adulthood, hurtling toward hell any sooner than they need to. But the erosion of “G” and “PG” from the landscape says a great deal about our apathy around values. I just want a middle gear. I don’t want to exist in this “all or nothing” system with PG-13 as the ostensible Cool Kids’ “R.”
Disney, for example, has released a total of 13 films under its wholesome Magic Kingdom banner — five of which are the improbably successful Pirates of the Caribbean movies. More are happening every year, due to (as the MPAA noted) “sequences of adventure violence,” “suggestive content,” and the hilariously vague “thematic elements.” I argue that these are now the things that every otherwise PG-rated movie strives for.
And this is what I call “The Garfield Problem.”
Yes, Garfield. That same orange bastard who loves lasagna as much as he hates Mondays. He’s the real fulcrum here. We’re just one dark Garfield origin story away from America collapsing in on itself, struggling under the weight of a depressed nation.
You and I both know there’s some fortysomething screenwriter out there hammering out some serious script about Garfield in the East Village, where he murders a bunch of alley cats in self-defense, wins the affection of some floozy feline and, therefore, eventually earns his right to be as lazy as fucking possible.
The minute that happens, our kids and entertainment are doomed.
Superman? Fine. Take him down some insanely inward road of self-reflection.
Batman? I mean, how many times do they need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents get murdered? Whatever.
Transformers? It’s now just a fever dream of epileptic levels.
When these things aren’t dour, dull or devastating on some emotional level, they’re just unentertaining. Look, I love R-rated movies as much as the next dude. But the reason for all of this nonsense is very, very clear. Much like a kid dragging his comfort blanket into adulthood, so too have these zillion franchises from the 1980s and 1990s. It’s no mystery why “PG,” the old gold standard of movies, disappeared. It’s because the producers grew up on the same material I did, refused to let it go, and have forced it age with them. When it happened in the 1990s (Sgt. Bilko, The Mod Squad, Flipper), at least the nostalgia factor resulted in something benign and goofy. Effexor or Zoloft should be handed out like Skittles with the inevitable Thundercats reboot.
Is PG-13 simply the default setting now? We’re all supposed to be okay with this? Is it parenthood’s resigned “Well, kids are growing up too fast anyway” sigh? Does PG even have a place in their lives? What’s the difference between PG and G anymore?
In the 2012 Bond movie Skyfall, the writers dedicate a lot of meta-dialogue to whether the “00” branch is necessary in the modern day. Bond needs to justify his existence as much as the franchise needs to justify itself. And I almost feel the PG rating is going down the same road. I was walking through the living room one Saturday morning and my sons were watching one of the 3,000 Avengers movies on Disney+. No big deal…until I watched Thanos graphically crush the life out of Loki’s larynx. I saw the light going out in Tom Hiddleston’s eyes as quickly as the light of my sons’ innocence.
The “PG” rating shouldn’t be the failsafe of creative softness. It should be a stamp of security as much as it should beckon creative artists and American society to aspire to something greater than the easy motions of a PG-13 movie.
It’s widely considered that clean comedy is superior to all other forms of standup. That’s meant as no disrespect to the Oswalts and the Chappelles out there, but they already have their stages. They don’t need to perform for every single audience. Similarly, filmmakers should rise to the very real challenge of creating genuinely engrossing, engaging and entertaining PG films for very real families. I’m sure there’s a Never-Ending Story remake in the works right now but, shockingly, The Never-Ending Story was a brand-new idea at one point. It’s possible to create something without the training wheels of an existing IP. And at the same time, if the MPAA insists on being the final word on what’s appropriate for American audiences, they have a responsibility to stop lazily stamping “PG-13” on everything to the point where the rating has zero weight and no one is taking creative chances.
I can’t trust a hilariously broken ratings system that tries to bucket impossibly different movies together in all the same ways I can’t rely on the Man of Steel to not kill thousands of innocent people thanks to a flying fistfight with the villain — one that renders Metropolis as New York City on 9/11. In many ways, that sequence perfectly captures where we’re at as parents in relation to the entertainment we share with our children. The PG-13 rating is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. We need to question and challenge a ratings board whose judgment has directly caused an unnecessary, accelerated “adulting” of previously lightweight pop culture. Until then, however, we remain the true victims, standing amidst the rubble of our trust and of our children’s innocence.
Paul Fuhr is the author of the acclaimed memoir Bottleneck, as well as many articles on addiction and recovery for national publications such as The Fix, The Literary Review, InRecovery, and The Live Oak Review. He’s currently working on a new book, and a new season of the podcast “Drop the Needle.” Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with a sassy cat named Miss Moneypenny.