News & Politics

How Movie Ratings Were Born in DC

Five memorable moments from the Motion Picture Association of America's history of rating movies.

Indiana Jones by Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images.

It’s been 50 years since the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s movie-rating system was cooked up in an office building near the White House. Here’s a look back at some key moments.


A Better System

MPAA president Jack Valenti announces the first iteration of voluntary guidelines to replace the mandatory censorship rules known as the Hays Code. Movies can now be submitted for a rating: G, M, R, or X.


Sweetback Pushback

Director Melvin Van Peebles raises a fuss after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gets an X. He turns the brouhaha into part of the marketing campaign.


PG Is Born

M, for “mature,” proves to be confusing: Can kids see these movies or not? The MPAA changes it to GP: “all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested.” But because that isn’t much clearer, it soon becomes PG, for “parental guidance.”


Indiana Jones Whips Up Change

After backlash from parents over some disturbing scenes in The Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg helps convince the MPAA to create PG-13—first used for Red Dawn.


X Gets the Axe

The infamous adults-only rating, which had become synonymous with porn, is changed to NC-17 in an attempt to destigmatize worthy films with mature content.


This System Is Not Yet Perfect

A documentary called This Film Is Not Yet Rated alleges hypocrisy and unfairness. After the movie’s own battle with the MPAA—it was slapped with an NC-17—it’s released without a rating.


Too Blue?

After Blue Valentine receives an NC-17 for graphic sex scenes, studio chief Harvey Weinstein hires attorney David Boies to appeal. It ends up with an R—and an Oscar nomination.

This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

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Helen joined Washingtonian in January 2018. She studied Journalism and International Relations at the University of Southern California. She recently won an Online News Award for her work on a project about the effects of the Salton Sea, California’s greatest burgeoning environmental disaster, on a Native American tribe whose ancestral lands are on its shores. Before joining the magazine, Helen worked in Memphis covering education for Chalkbeat. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Desert Sun, Chalkbeat Tennessee, Sunset Magazine, Indiewire, and others.