Thirty-one years ago today, on July 1, 1984, an odd new jumble of letters and numbers appeared on movie screens and posters for the first time: PG-13. This was a new category of movie content rating, one of the scale of ratings assigned by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) to all movies released in the U.S., at least theoretically. Conceived as sort of the illegitimate love child of previously existing ratings PG (“Parental Guidance Suggested”) and R (“Restricted”), PG-13 came into existence largely as the result of two movies that were very popular that summer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, directed by Steven Spielberg, and Gremlins, directed by Chris Columbus but executive produced by Spielberg. Both films got PG ratings, but somehow neither seemed appropriate. The violence and images in these films deemed too scary for small kids but not enough to warrant barring all under-17s began a national conversation about the appropriateness of movie ratings. PG-13 was a sop. It’s been with us ever since, but, even more so than the already very ambiguous other movie ratings, no one is really sure what it means.

The history of movie ratings is quite fascinating and would take a full-length book to do it justice. It goes hand-in-hand with not just the history of the movie industry, but national conceptions of censorship, parental responsibility, the rise of mass media and our understandings of who children are (or who we want them to be). Hollywood has instituted its own self-censorship code since the 1930s, when the infamous “Hays Office” decreed almost Puritanical codes about what you could or couldn’t show in a movie–Rhett carrying Scarlett bodily up the stairs to rape her in Gone With The Wind (1939) was fine, but a little too much of Jane Russell’s boobs in The Outlaw (1943) was over the line. The system was no less chaotic in the 1960s when the MPAA was formed, and the ratings system was revised a few times, notably in the era when movies were becoming a grittier and more critical mirror of popular culture than had previously been the case.

Scenes like this from the horror comedy Gremlins (1984) are pretty tame by today’s standards, but sparked a demand at the time for a new MPAA rating.

Though Spielberg’s Indiana Jones sequel finally pushed PG-13 down the birth canal, he was arguably involved with its conception nine years earlier. Jaws, released in the summer of 1975, was an incredible blockbuster and a cultural event, but it pushed the PG rating to its farthest limit. Some original Jaws posters included a little warning in addition to the rating: “This film may be too intense for children.” Thus it seemed there was some middle ground between what might scare the beejeezus out of an 8-year-old, but that would bounce right off a 16-year-old. This isn’t a bad concept, really, but the history and demographics of the movie business, especially since the late 1980s, has muddied the waters.

Until the rise of video on demand–first by video rental stores in the 1990s and now by Netflix and its competitors since the 2000s–big, multi-theater releases, especially in summer, were how studios made back the vast sums they spent making big movies. The best audience for a blockbuster film, as any movie exec will tell you, is teenage boys. This is one reason why Hollywood loves to make superhero movies long after those of us who are not teenage boys have grown tired of them. When PG-13 came in, however, its utility as a marketing tool quickly became evident to movie studios. PG became the new G, which was family-friendly and tame; kids hungry for a visceral experience at the movies soon learned that PG-13 films had at least some “good stuff,” and it avoided hassles with parents or prudish box office attendants who might not let them into R-rated films. Thus, a PG-13 rating was the holy grail, marketing wise.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom–another film that sparked the PG-13 rating–is probably the poorest of the original films, but also the most faithful to its source material.

But beyond a marketing tool, what does it really mean? What kind of film “deserves” a PG-13, and is this even discernible without reference to other movies? Gremlins is a bizarrely funny but very dark movie, with lots of gross images involving strange monsters and the havoc they wreak on a small town. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom seems to have gotten its PG-13 mainly for two scenes, a comic banquet where disgusting foods like monkey brains and live eels are served, and an over-the-top human sacrifice scene that’s intense but totally unrealistic and cartoonish. Obviously this is more intense than something like the PG-related Remains of the Day, where the most intense act of violence is Anthony Hopkins accidentally dropping a wine bottle on his foot. Then again take The King’s Speech, originally rated R for a string of profanity Colin Firth shouts at a window as part of a speech exercise. Note that the later Harry Potter films are all PG-13s, while the early ones are PG, before Dementors, Azkaban and the Death Eaters started to show up. Are Harry Potter’s Dementors more traumatic than the shooting of Bambi’s mother in the G-rated Bambi, which scarred generations of kids for life (including me)?

All of these questions are legitimate and difficult ones. If you’re interested, Steven Farber’s wonderful 2007 documentary This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated delves into most of them, and harshly criticizes the opaque and hypocritical world of the MPAA and its strangely secret movie rating system. An argument can be made that the movie rating system, born in the 1960s from 1930s progenitors, tweaked in the 1980s and not seriously revised since 1990, is now an anachronism in the era of video-on-demand, or perhaps that its utility is that it delivers to parents a comforting theory even if it’s extraordinarily cumbersome in practice. Something seems Sisyphean, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin type stuff when a consortium of Hollywood studios tells us that there’s no problem selling a 14-year-old a ticket to Gremlins, but his parents should be “strongly cautioned” about letting his 12-year-old brother go with him. Granted, Gremlins isn’t Remains of the Day, but it isn’t Scarface either. If movie ratings in general can be likened to a video game involving line-drawing, PG-13 is definitely its “sandbox mode.”

The header image in this article is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the included YouTube clips.