You don't need to be a raging pacifist to notice that American motion pictures have gotten way more violent, and that younger and younger audiences are seeing more intense violence on the big screen. You just need eyes (and enough scratch to buy a movie ticket). But for skeptics, a new study, published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health, offers some validation of the point.
Researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania painstakingly coded each year's top-grossing 30 films from 1950 to 2006 to gauge the extent and intensity of sexual content and violence. They then sought to discern trends within ratings categories, and the migration of sexual and violent content into movies intended for the broadest circulation -- P, PG and PG-13 movies.
The sexual content of PG and R movies started accelerating in the late 1960s, when the Motion Picture Assn. of America's ratings system was instituted. It stabilized in the late 1970s and even declined somewhat after that. Since then, movies bearing PG and PG-13 ratings have not become more sexually explicit, the study found.
Not so with violent content. In fact, it exploded across the PG-and-up ratings categories, cascading heavily into a new category introduced in 1984 -- PG-13. And as movies in the PG-13 category surged -- in recent years, they have come to represent about half of all top-grossing movies -- so did the violence in them.
Before the PG-13 rating arrived, a movie that included scenes of rampaging destruction, intense fist-fighting or frenzied exchange of gunfire would routinely have earned a movie an R rating -- in principle, barring teens under 17 from seeing it unless accompanied by an adult. With the new rating, not only did more films with substantial violence land a PG-13 rating; from 2001 to 2006, "ratings creep" resulted in PG-13 movies that had more violence and more intense violence than did R-rated movies, compared with the 1977-1984 period.
The trend worries the Annenberg researchers, who summarize a welter of evidence suggesting that youth exposed to extensive media violence are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, that they are less likely to reject violence as a means of solving disputes and have less empathy for victims of violence. While some of this research has been called into question, few researchers deny the weight of evidence: exposing younger and younger kids to more images of greater violence is probably not healthy for them or for the society they live in.
The Classification and Ratings Administration, or CARA, a film industry group that oversees the rating of films, has always maintained it does not use rigid rules to determine what rating to assign a film. Rather, it says, the rating of movies should "reflect the current values of the majority of American parents."
When it comes to sex, says study author Daniel Romer, CARA seems at pains to reflect American parents' values -- largely to the exclusion of concern about violence. If the growth in violence reflected in movies aimed at teens is any indication of parents values, he said, it's hard to say what that means: Their values have very likely been shaped by steadily rising levels of media mayhem.
-- Melissa HealyPhoto: Angelina Jolie in 20th Century Fox's 2005 "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Credit: 20th Century Fox