Study: PG-13 Films Combine as Much Violence, Sex and Alcohol as R-Rated Titles


UPDATED: Researchers find little difference between PG-13 and R-rated films when it comes to risky behavior. "Our findings raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of the MPAA rating system," they conclude. The MPAA disagrees.

Violence in movies is often coupled with sex, alcohol and use of tobacco, according to a study out Monday.

Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and University of Pennsylvania looked at 390 popular movies released from 1985-2010 in order to gauge the number of times violent characters participate in other risky behaviors.

The study also noted that while Hollywood is just as obsessed with violence and sex -- and to a lesser degree, alcohol -- nowadays compared to 1985, its portrayal of characters who smoke or otherwise use tobacco (chew, snuff, etc.) is way down.

About 89.7 percent of movies contained violence, and 81.5 percent featured sex, and the numbers were roughly static through the years, according to the study. Smoking, though, has fallen from roughly 68 percent in 1985 to 21.4 percent in 2010. Alcohol fell from 89.6 percent in 1985 to 67.3 percent.

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The study's main focus is determining how often violence is paired with tobacco, sex or alcohol, and overall that is the case in 77.4 percent of the movies.

The study cites the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spy film Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), along with James Bond titles Quantum of Solace (2008) and Casino Royale (2006) as examples.

The findings are a problem because "evidence shows that adolescents do engage in clusters of risk(y) behaviors, with their participation increasing with age," the study states. "Youth, particularly those with impulsive sensation-seeking tendencies, may be at elevated risk for unhealthy behaviors as a result of their media exposure to problematic content."

The study says violent characters smoked in 34.1 percent of the films, used alcohol in 62.1 percent of them and engaged in some sort of sexual behavior onscreen in 62.8 percent. Of course a movie's rating makes a difference, especially regarding tobacco, which was coupled with violence in 17.9 percent of the movies rated G and PG but 57 percent of the movies rated R.

While 47.2 percent of the movies rated G and PG coupled violence with alcohol, 71.9 percent of the movies rated R did so. And while 53.7 percent of movies rated G and PG coupled violence with sex, 66.6 percent of the R-rated movies did so. The study used a five-point scale to measure sexual content -- for example, a kiss on the lips was not considered equal to nudity.

There was very little statistical difference between PG-13 and R-rated films, except when it came to pairing tobacco with violence, which was the case in 30.1 percent of PG-13 films and 57 percent of R-rated films.

The study also takes the interesting tack of singling out the instances where a character engages in a violent act within five minutes of also having sex or using alcohol or tobacco. Overall, 47.2 percent of the films contained such segments.

Under the five-minute criteria, violence was coupled with tobacco use in 15.9 percent of the films while it was paired with alcohol in 29 percent of the films. Violence was coupled with sex in 29 percent of the films. Again, when separating movies by what they are rated, the most pronounced differences were seen in matching violence with tobacco, which was done in 7.3 percent of G and PG movies, 12.4 percent of PG-13 movies and 29.8 percent of R-rated films.

Amy Bleakley, one of the authors of the study, told The Hollywood Reporter that "context" was not taken into consideration, so it didn't matter whether it was the good guy engaging in violence, sex, drinking or smoking -- as with a couple of James Bond films included in the study -- or if it was a bad guy exhibiting those behaviors.

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"That's definitely a limitation that we could look to build on going forward," she said.

The study keyed in on violence that is coupled with tobacco, alcohol and sex and did not address other risky behaviors, such as driving too fast. "These are the health behaviors that are typically studied, so that's why we focused on them," Bleakley said. "It's a nuanced approach to looking at violent characters."

The study ends with a critique of the rating system: "Our findings raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of the MPAA rating system for allowing potentially harmful co-occurring content in youth-accessible films."

On Monday, MPAA spokesperson Kate Bedingfield defended the rating system as one that tries to reflect changes in societal norms.

"It's important to remember that a PG-13 is a strong warning to parents about the content of a film, and it is accompanied by a descriptor that gives parents specific detail about which elements of the film warranted the rating," Bedingfield said. "The purpose of the rating system is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them -- the rating board tries to rate a film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it. Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change."

The study comes three weeks after a similar one from Annenberg that indicated that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 movies more than tripled since 1985 and last year exceeded the amount of gun violence in top-grossing R-rated movies.