How Do Movies Get Their Ratings?

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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Who Started Casual Fridays?
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For employees at the mercy of an office thermostat, Casual Fridays provide some much-needed relief during frigid winters and the scorching months of summer. Though many offices are beginning to loosen their dress codes permanently, plenty of employees still cling to this one day a week when wearing shorts won't raise any eyebrows and that T-shirt won't result in an email from HR. But Casual Friday didn't begin just as a cure for discomfort in the workplace; there was also money to be made. 

In the 1960s, Bill Foster, president of The Hawaiian Fashion Guild, plotted to find a way to sell more of the colorfully designed Aloha shirts to their residents with the launch of "Operation Liberation," which gave two shirts to every member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and the Hawaii Senate. The purpose of this campaign was to persuade the politicians to allow government workers to wear the lightweight shirts not only to beat the heat in the summer months, but also to support the state’s garment industry. The custom took off in 1966 and was given a familiar name, "Aloha Friday."

Technology giant Hewlett-Packard claims to have sparked the spread of casual wear in the workplace around the same time in the San Francisco Bay area. Called "Blue Sky Days," this Friday custom wasn't just limited to clothing: HP's founders—Bill Hewlett and David Packard—wanted people to take these days to think of more creative ideas and initiatives outside of their normal routine. This idea soon caught on throughout Silicon Valley and, eventually, into other industries.

However, the spread of this casual trend on the mainland resulted in haphazard, sometimes sloppy attire in the workplace. To help clarify the issue, and to promote his own brand, Rick Miller of Dockers stepped in with an ingenious marketing plan. In 1992, he sent an eight-page “Guide To Casual Business Wear” to approximately 25,000 human resource managers to distribute to their employees. This kickstarted the Dockers brand by popularizing the khaki pant and redefining what is acceptable attire in the workplace.

Now, many nations adopt a Casual Friday approach for similar reasons. In 2005, Japan implemented a Cool Biz policy that granted a summer dress code during hot weather months, in exchange for a more moderate temperature in office buildings. This meant offices were saving energy by keeping their temperature at no less than 82.4°F, but workers could breathe a bit easier in business casual tops and sneakers.

Blame the fashion industry, the unbearable heat, or simply an evolving cultural attitude. The likes of Bill Foster’s Aloha Friday and Rick Miller’s “Guide To Casual Business Wear” gave employees permission to dress for comfort on the job—for at least one coveted day of the week.

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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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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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