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How Do Movies Get Their Ratings?

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Today, a few minutes of movie hype bookended by the phrase “In a world…” and a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is pop-culture commonsense. The combo is such a regular part of our lives, in fact, that it’s become the object of effortless parody for any comedian worth her salt, as well as a veritable Pavlovian bell for cinephiles across the United States. There is hardly an American left living that hasn’t felt heartbreak crash down upon them when listening to a movie preview as a school-aged brat only to find out that the film that meant more to them than anything else the world had to offer was given an R-rating—a death blow to any kid’s potential for weekend excitement.

Though most Americans could tell you the general feeling of the films in each of the five categories designated by the MPAA—G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17—few actually know how these ratings came to be, who assigns the ratings to these films, or what nuances actually determine the jump between each level of perceived intensity or appropriateness for children.

The people calling the shots when it comes to movie ratings are members of a highly secretive organization called the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), a division of the MPAA. Founded in 1922 by former Postmaster General Will Hays as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, what we now know as the MPAA is an organization that claims to act in the interest of the film industry by preventing the need for government censorship. Up until 1968, though, the MPAA actually enforced “self-censorship” by filmmakers according to a specific ethical protocol called the Hays Code, which was designed to keep offensive material off the silver screen. It was LBJ-advisor-turned-MPAA-Chairman Jack Valenti that instituted the system we know today.

CARA is made up of a Chairperson, staff members including an administrative director, senior voters, and raters, each of whom serve a term of up to seven years. Voters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they begin their terms; can't be connected in any way to the film industry; and are booted out of office after the end of the full term, once all of their children are over the age of 21, or at the MPAA’s discretion. The identities of the raters are kept completely secret (only two have ever actually talked publicly about their experience on the job) and admission to the MPAA compound is about as easy to come by as a guided tour of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

CARA is funded through fees paid directly to them by producers and production companies to have their films reviewed; their methods have been questioned by industry professionals and movie-lovers alike, most notably in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Still, the impact of MPAA ratings is nonetheless an undeniable force in American cinema.

Here are the guidelines for today’s ratings designations as outlined by the MPAA:

G—“All ages admitted. A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture…Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present…Depictions of violence are minimal. No nudity, sex scenes or drug use are present.”

PG (formerly M, then GP)—“Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children… The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity… There is no drug use content.”

PG-13—“Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13… may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements… Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity… generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence… but generally not both realistic and extreme persistent violence… Single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words (author’s note: the ‘f-word’), though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context” (emphasis added; author’s note: i.e., “Let’s ‘f-word’”).

R—“Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian… May include adult themes, adult activity (author’s note: stuff it’s not legal for kids to do), hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements… Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.”

NC-17 (formerly X)—“No One 17 and Under Admitted… (A movie) that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under… NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense… rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.”

In general, there seems to be a strong correlation between ratings and box office figures—generally, lower ratings mean a broader available audience—with many theaters and distribution companies even refusing to deal with films rated NC-17. According to Jack Valenti, though, what he calls “Valenti’s Law” holds that “If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will hurt you. If you make a movie that few people want to see, no rating will help you.”

Tell that to the 13-year-olds of the world.

Other interesting film-ratings facts:

The original ratings system included the designations G, M (for ‘Mature’), R, and X. PG showed up in 1972, NC-17 in 1990.

The PG-13 rating was added on July 1, 1984 in response to Steven Spielberg’s films of the same year—Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The first movie to receive a PG-13 rating was The Flamingo Kid, though it was not the first film to be released with the rating—that distinction belongs to Red Dawn.

Smoking was added as a factor in ratings determination in 2007.

Not all films are rated NC-17 for sexual content—Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, for instance, switched to black and white during the bloodiest scenes to avoid a proposed NC-17 rating.

Additional Sources: Evolution of the Film Rating System [PDF]; Rating Rules [PDF]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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