restricted access 6.Children in Danger: Screen Violence, Steven Spielberg, and the PG-13 Rating
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170 6 children in danger screen violence, steven spielberg, and the pg- rating the threat that screen violence posed to Hollywood’s public image never seemed so dark as in the summer of the 1984, when two highly successful PG-rated films, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, were at the eye of a storm of controversy over the role of violence in popular films. For the first time on a significant national scale, screen violence was at the heart of the debate between what constituted a PG-rated film and an R-rated film. The controversy was so intense that it threatened the public’s perception of the Classification and Rating Administration’s ability to label film content properly, and thus its stability as a protective institution was called into question, which in turn threatened the entire structure of the motion picture industry. Jack Valenti , president of the Motion Picture Association of America, eventually consented to do something he had vehemently resisted doing since the inception of the rating system sixteen years earlier: create a new rating category. The new rating, PG-13, would sit between the PG and R ratings. Like the PG rating, however, there was nothing restrictive about it; it was purely advisory in “strongly caution[ing]” parents that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” The ratings controversy over Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom and the subsequent creation of the PG-13 rating was a crucial moment for Hollywood because it forced the industry to distinguish even more clearly between the films that were suitable for children and those suitable for adults by formally codifying the teenage audience into its rating system. More specifically, it forced the industry to deal formally and publicly with the centrality of screen violence to its most profitable Kendrick Ch6.indd 170 2/5/09 7:44:59 AM CHILDREN IN DANGER 171 films and reconcile the role of violence in “children’s” entertainment. It is not surprising that this was accomplished with a change in the rating system because, from the outset, the rating system has always been about maximizing profits by standardizing and therefore legitimating Hollywood product through stable categorization (Lewis, “Those Who Disagree”; Sandler). However, such an action was complicated by the fact that this controversy was taking place at a time when the American culture was, on the surface at least, in a mood of conservatism and a return to “values.” Hollywood, in attempting to solidify its financial footing in the new blockbuster era, wanted simultaneously to cater to the culture’s conservatism while also profiting from the audience’s desire for escapist violent fare. The creation of the PG-13 rating, then, was the perfect solution because it was all surface; in establishing a new category, a new “genre” of film, it allowed the industry to “do something” about the problem of screen violence by more carefully labeling its age appropriateness without actually changing any of its practices. The industry could claim it was “warning” parents that a film might be unsuitable for children under thirteen, thus fulfilling its moral obligation, but those same children were in no way restricted during exhibition from seeing those films, which meant that the studios’ profit potentials were not threatened. If anything, profits could be increased because the nonrestrictive PG-13 rating allowed for even more screen violence than a PG rating, thus making certain films more enticing to younger viewers. This chapter will examine the controversies surrounding several films that eventually led to the creation of the PG-13 rating in the summer of 1984. Central to the debate is the figure of Steven Spielberg, who either produced or directed the three films—Poltergeist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins—that were most directly responsible for blurring the lines between what kinds of screen violence were acceptable in a PG-rated versus an R-rated film. The subsequent PG-13 rating was a perfect embodiment of the industrial mindset of Hollywood in the 1980s because it was yet another form of packaging—a brand that marked the violence of certain films as just illicit enough to entice curious viewers but not so illicit that some people (that is, children) had to be kept from viewing them outright, thus helping to bolster profits by having it both ways. Rating Screen Violence In “Movie Ratings as Genre,” Kevin S...


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