The One Fuck Rule

James Berardinelli has a good essay about the PG-13 rating, pointing out that the lives of most teenagers are R-rated, from the language they use to the experiences they have.  Nevertheless, since teenagers are the main audience at the multiplex, the whole movie industry engineers its product to fit within the arbitrary PG-13 guidelines:

The insidious thing about this is that movies that should be rated R are emasculated in order to get a PG-13 rating. Nudity is obscured, sex becomes implied, and no more than one “fuck” is allowed. (How dumb is that? Say “fuck” once and it’s a PG-13; say it two or three times, and it’s an R. I know that if I’m in a PG-13 movie and someone says “fuck,” I can relax safe in the realization that I won’t be subjected to the word again until the movie is over.) People can be murdered, but their deaths can’t be bloody. It works the other way, too. In order to avoid a PG rating, some filmmakers intentionally add profanity, mild sexual content, and a little violence to attain a PG-13. Sometimes, deletions represent ornamental (as opposed to substantive) cutting. But there are times when they genuinely impact the director’s vision and/or the viewing experience, when the artificiality of how a scene is shot or edited call attention to what’s going on.

Though they follow the PG-13 rules slavishly when making a movie, and produce a crappier product as a result, movie makers skirt those rules for merchandising.  For example, the producer of Avatar recently explained how his company was able to make deals with toymakers to create Avatar toys for kids under 13, including Happy Meal toys, even though kids who eat Happy Meals are way too young to see the movie.

34 replies
  1. 1
    biff diggerence says:

    Well, as long as E. Brent Bozo is satisfied.

  2. 2
    Legalize says:

    Why can’t I get just one fuck?

  3. 3


    i hope you know, this will go down on your permanent record.

  4. 4
    mistermix says:

    @Legalize: Day after day….

  5. 5
    Bobby Thomson says:

    Or the “I’m Jim Cameron, damn it” exception for nudity in Titanic.

  6. 6
    Jon Rockoford says:

    The power of the MPAA lies in the fact that movie theaters pay attention to its ratings and newspapers (principally) post the MPAA ratings. Otherwise, the internet has solved the ratings problem based on innovation and enterprise.

    There are several websites that rate movies according to content and make no recommendations, allowing people to decide what they want to watch per their motivations. My favorite is since it obscures details and doesn’t spoil the plot while being ridiculously detailed (and I do mean ridiculously); is OK but it mentions character names so the plot is ruined, and it also needs subscription; hate the religious ones, all righteous fury but useless; most of all hate commonsensemedia which is like MPAA-lite.

    With newspapers going out of business, the MPAA ratings my become less relevant.

  7. 7
    Jim C says:

    I haven’t seen Avatar (just don’t care), so keep this in mind when I ask:

    Are kids-who-eat-Happy Meals too young to see Avatar because the movie as a whole is too mature, or because they’re too young to attend by themselves?

  8. 8

    @Jim C: I can promise you that it’s not because the story is too mature, if that’s what you’re asking.

  9. 9
    someguy says:

    I’m a firm believer that movies need to have more than one f*ck to be good. This has cost me a lot of money, but the premium p*rn I buy now is a lot better than the old 8mm stuff I was buying from Herve, my Mexican filth supplier.

    You were talking about p*rn, right?

  10. 10
    Snarki, child of Loki says:

    I’ve notice the disruptive influence of the ratings most in “R” rated films, where the content that gets them an “R” is irrelevant to the plot and easy to remove.

    Like a camera panning across a couple having sex in a car, while the main characters are looking for (other) main characters.

    Snip, snip, and it’s safe for airplanes, safe for TV.

  11. 11
    Face says:

    What are the guidelines that transition a “R” to a “NC-17” rating? Does that even exist anymore?

  12. 12
    r€nato says:

    “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” – great documentary on film ratings and the MPAA.

    (Face – check it out, your questions will be answered)

  13. 13
    r€nato says:

    @Face: NC-17 exists, but it’s box office suicide. That’s why one almost never sees it on a mass-marketed film (or nearly any film, really).

    Interesting about the “X” rating – it was never trademarked by the MPAA. Any filmmaker could self-rate their film as “X”, and it quickly became synonymous with porn. The NC-17 rating came about in 1990 as a way of officially rating films as too intense for minors, but also as not being porn either.

  14. 14
    Persia says:

    @r€nato: I loved that movie, even though it made me ridiculously angry. The private detective was so awesome.

  15. 15
    Whispers says:


    I guess it’s got something to do with luck.

  16. 16
    YellowJournalism says:

    @r€nato: I remember when Roger Ebert was promoting the idea of an “A” rating that essentially acted like NC-17 without the stigma of NC-17. I wish I could find a good article where he explains it better. However, I still believe that even an “A” rating would get the same treatment of “X” or NC-17.

    And doesn’t it bother anyone else that some of this criticism is coming from people who don’t want to do their jobs as parents or who won’t pay for a damn babysitter?

    The best part of This Film is Not Yet Rated is when the director tries to get his film rated and he recreates the call with cartoon-like images. I loved how the representatives voices were dripping with resentment and annoyance at having to deal with the guy. I also liked that the filmmaker tackled the issue of how female sexuality is treated as more taboo in movies while we get scores of PG-13 movies about horny boys getting laid with graphic depictions and verbal imagery.

    @Bobby Thomson: Cameron recently came up to Alberta to view the oil sands and talk to the premiere about pollution and the environmental impact. The media treated it more like a literal king of the world was coming rather than a director interested in environmental issues. I was particularly curious if anyone ever pointed out to Cameron how the McDonald’s Avatar toys and other promotional pieces of crap probably are contributing just as much pollution and waste into the environment as the oil sands are, particularly since the toys are made using the same elements that are derived from the oil sands. (Not that the Alberta government doesn’t deserve criticism over the oil sands and the environment. They’ve truly fucked over the First Nations up here. I just get annoyed with Cameron.)

  17. 17
    Steaming Pile says:

    @Face: NC-17 applies to any film produced by someone insufficiently deferential to the MPAA.

  18. 18
    mattH says:

    Don’t forget that almost all of the movies targeted at these audiences will come out on dvd in an “unrated” format that puts all the things back in that had to be removed to make it PG-13. Usually doesn’t make it any better though, so I’m not sure about “directorial vision”.

  19. 19
    Brett says:

    Part of it is marketing-related. Film producers depend on a lot of television marketing, particularly through children’s and teenage-oriented channels, in order to get the word about an up-and-coming film out. These channels are much more susceptible to organized, puritanical pushes from the “Concerned Parents” and wannabe “moral guardians” crowd, so they set rules like “if a show has any nudity, we won’t advertise for it on our network”.

    Another reason might be that they’re figuring parents will be more likely to take their kids to a PG-13 movie with less graphic content, even though, ostensibly, they’re not supposed to take younger-than-13 kids to them.

  20. 20
    Fucking Fucker says:

    Frankly my dear I don’t give a fuck!

  21. 21
    DougJ is the business and economics editor for Balloon Juice. says:


    I had the same thought.

  22. 22
    Martin says:

    I read a similar kind of article about the arbitrariness of R/NC-17 some years back (10ish give or take). It’d be impossible to find again, but they were talking about how the male dominated board views male vs female sexuality. One representative case was how far movies can go to portray male masturbation, but female masturbation immediately got the NC-17 rating, even if it was merely implied. Nudity, however was reversed. Female nudity could be prolific, but male nudity would pick up NC-17 quite quickly, and an erection would instantly get the rating.

    It was also interesting how much supporting evidence there is that our social norms are guided precisely by the MPAA and other rating boards. Basically, we’re prudes about specific forms of sexuality because MPAA is geared that way, and MPAA is geared that way because we’re prudes about specific forms of sexuality.

  23. 23
    r€nato says:

    I can’t help but think that the MPAA ratings are a convenient marketing tool for the studios, and in fact they kind of like them even if they often seem arbitrary and capricious and even ridiculous at times.

    At a glance, you can tell whether a film is safe for kids, if it’s going to have plenty of action and violence and sex that adults like, or something in between.

    They could move to a more finely-grained and realistic system like the television show ratings or video game ratings, but that would require memorizing an all-new set of abbreviations plus generations of Americans have been conditioned to the current MPAA ratings.

  24. 24
    Steaming Pile says:

    @Martin – In “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Matt Parker and Trey Stone describe all the truly outrageous things they added to the Team America movie so they could “work” with the MPAA to get the film back to “R”, basically by removing the stuff they had no intention on including in the first place.

  25. 25
    Catsy says:


    At a glance, you can tell whether a film is safe for kids, if it’s going to have plenty of action and violence and sex that adults like, or something in between.

    Whaaat? No you can’t–that’s the entire point. The only way you can tell that from a movie’s rating is if your idea of what is safe for kids et al is directly tied to what the MPAA collectively thinks–a standard which is arbitrary, capricious, and reinforces all the worst aspects of American cultural baggage.

    I find the sublabels under the rating (“Strong Language”, “Mild Cartoon Violence”, etc) far more useful than the actual–completely and overwhelmingly useless–MPAA rating. And even those can be fairly arbitrary.

    I usually make these decisions through the arcane, antediluvian technique of watching the goddamn movie and deciding if I want my kid seeing it or not.

  26. 26
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    IMDB gives you the comparative ratings from various national film certification boards, so you can see whether godless foreigners are allowing The! Children! to see films.

  27. 27
    Catsy says:


    generations of Americans have been conditioned to the current MPAA ratings.

    That’s not an argument against changing the current system, it’s a prime example of why the system has to change.

  28. 28
    Dirty Davey says:

    The rule on “fuck” also depends on the context–it has to be used as an expletive without any inherent meaning.

    One “fuck you” is OK for PG-13. But a “let’s fuck” will get you NC-17 even if the suggestion is rejected or the ensuing action is entirely off-screen.

  29. 29
    monkeyboy says:

    I think even worse than PG-13 is R ratings.

    Take any crappy movie and there is a certain segment who will watch it if it has an R rating.

    The best way to get an R is to include a visit to a strip club. The full R version shows topless strippers who are irrelevant to the plot and are easy to edit out in order sell the movie in a more restrictive environment.

  30. 30
    jake the snake says:

    Midnight Cowboy won the Academy Award for best picture, the only X rated movie to do so. Not long afterword, X became synonymous with p*rn. The NC-17 was supposed to fix this, but media outlets and theaters treated the NC-17 exactly as they had the X rating.

    I don’t know what the future of movies theaters will be, but
    I expect the majority of movies will be streamed or dowloaded, and only the blockbusters with effects not replicable at home will be in a limited number of theaters. The neighborhood multiplex will go the way of
    the drive-in.

  31. 31
    JR says:

    When I was a kid, the Saturday and afternoon cartoons all advertised a series of “Aliens” action figures. That one was a straight R-rated flick, but they still marketed it to the kids. Cameron’s as interested in building brands as making films.

  32. 32
    Mouse Tolliver says:

    @Bobby Thomson:

    Or the “I’m Jim Cameron, damn it” exception for nudity in Titanic.

    Apparently the MPAA has a one boob rule for PG-13 movies, because Kate Winslett’s nude scene is carefully staged so that you never see both tits at once. You only see one boob at a time.

    Before the PG-13 came along the MPAA used to allow brief nudity in PG movies. Splash and the original Clash of the Titans, for example, have brief T&A shots.

  33. 33
    Brachiator says:

    For example, the producer of Avatar recently explained how his company was able to make deals with toymakers to create Avatar toys for kids under 13, including Happy Meal toys, even though kids who eat Happy Meals are way too young to see the movie.

    Parents could take their kids to see the movie and they might want to play with the toys anyway. No big deal here.

    The oddest marketing mis-step I ever saw were the people who thought that there might be any point to having marketing tie-ins to Dune.

    PG-13 is now the sweet spot of movies, and there is nothing that prevents them from being creative. And movie makers go out of their way to put a mild dirty word in a movie to avoid a G rating because they don’t want a movie that appears to be for kids only.

    And the ratings are simply advisory (except for R, where a parent is supposed to be present); PG-13 films may be too boring for younger kids, because of themes or other issues.

  34. 34
    Martin Blank says:

    Except that there are two “fucks” in the PG-13 The Social Network. Just sayin’. (Elsewhere in the flick, there are really obvious dubbed “friggin” and so forth.)

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