From Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Hunger Games, and The Hobbit to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, kids are flocking to theaters to see movies with PG-13 ratings.
So the question becomes: Is it against the law for a child aged 10 or 11 or 12 to see movies that are rated PG-13 — or even rated R?
Although there’s a bit of occasional confusion about pretty much all the film ratings — well, except for G, meaning “General audiences” (that is, everyone) — it seems to be PG-13 that provokes the most head-scratching among parents of curious movie-goers.
Originally adopted July 1, 1984, the PG-13 rating was established as a direct result of controversy over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins both being released with PG ratings (“Parental guidance suggested”), despite graphic violence that made them slightly less than kid-friendly — but not explicit enough to warrant an R rating.
Steven Spielberg, who directed the Indiana Jones movies and produced Gremlins, suggested to then-president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Jack Valenti that a rating between PG and R was necessary.
Valenti agreed, and on August 10, 1984, Red Dawn became the first movie in history to receive a PG-13 rating. Essentially, it says that kids less than 13 years old should not see a film rated PG-13, unless they are with a parent or guardian.
As of this writing, the MPAA currently employs 5 ratings, the rules of which are described briefly as follows:
- G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
- PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
- PG-13 — Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
- R — Restricted. Children under 17 require accompanying parent or adult guardian.
- NC-17 — No one 17 and under admitted.
The MPAA has a more detailed explanation of what each rating entails, and why a film may receive that rating on their website, and I do encourage you to check it out if you’re not familiar with what makes a film a certain rating.
So the answer is…
Put simply, no. There’s nothing illegal about bringing a 10 year old to a PG-13 movie — because that’s exactly what the rating means. You, as a parent, are allowed to determine if your child is mature enough to handle the subject matter of a given film. Quoting directly from the MPAA’s definition and description of the PG-13 rating:
“A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them.”
For that matter, it’s not illegal for kids under 17 to sneak into an R movie without a parent, nor is it illegal for them to do the same with an NC-17 movie. If caught, a theater will kick them out, certainly, but no law has been broken.
Essentially, although theaters are under a moral obligation to uphold the rating restrictions, they are under no legal obligation to do so. As such, film ratings aren’t like tobacco and alcohol age requirements — they are guidelines and restrictions enforced by businesses, not by the law.
For the final word on that topic, let’s look to the Classification & Rating Administration (CARA) website, which has an excellent FAQ on the topic of film ratings. In regards to the question of whether or not the rating system is a law, CARA says:
“The movie rating system is a voluntary system sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners.”
For more information, again, I do encourage you to visit the CARA site and read the whole FAQ, as well as the rating rules they follow.
Behind the scenes
Keep in mind that this rating system and the rules and guidelines pertaining to it only apply to the United States. Other countries have their own rating systems and guidelines — for instance, the United Kingdom has the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) — and may see things differently, or apply their own unique perspectives when rating films.
To make things even more interesting, Canada lets each province maintain its own legislation regarding film ratings — so it’s entirely possible that a film in Ontario has a different rating than the same film in Manitoba. Adding to the fun, Quebec uses a different rating system than the rest of the country. So if you plan on bringing the kids to visit our neighbors to the north and hope to catch a flick, check out the Media Awareness Network, which describes each province’s rating criteria.