Chris Hicks, former film critic for the Deseret News, recently attended PG-13-rated Iron Man 3 with his 14-year-old granddaughter, Kalli. Amid the explosions, special effects and sexual banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), they encountered a disturbing scene. Robert Downey Jr., as the charmingly arrogant Tony Stark, shouts at a young boy, “Don’t be a pussy!”
“I winced,” Hicks recalls. “He’s shouting at this little boy and instead of saying don’t be a wimp or don’t be a coward, he uses that word—it’s rude, condescending and misogynistic. Why did the filmmakers use that word? There are lots of words less offensive. Do they not target kids for this movie? Of course, they do.”
While it isn’t nearly as objectionable as other words and scenes that slip through the PG-13 filter, Hicks argues that the Iron Man 3 wince moment is just one of thousands that parents encounter under Hollywood’s broken movie-rating system.
“Parents are appalled by that kind of thing.” Such willful negligence in movies aimed in large part at teens has troubled Hicks during his 30 years as a movie reviewer. Parental frustration with rating system led to Hicks’ new book, Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings (scroll to the end of this article for a chance to win his book).
One thing to get straight from the get-go is that Hicks is not a priggish, right-wing reactionary who believes Hollywood is the cause of America’s decline. Hicks loves movies—all kinds of movies.
“You have to love movies if you’re a critic. You have to watch so many of them—great and awful,” he says. But Hicks laments the decline of thoughtful, subtle movies for adults—now found only in art houses.
“But when you’ve got your kids sitting next you, it makes a big difference how you view movies.” Especially, he says, when, as any parent knows, their kids will watch a favorite movie over and over (and over) again.
Hicks chronicles the development of the film rating system, from its beginning under Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America to what is now the loathed and derided Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). It’s a story of inconsistency and manipulation that ultimately is not much help in guiding parents. Hicks chuckles at the idea that it’s a liberal conspiracy: “I don’t think Hollywood is organized enough to be conspiratorial.”
The ubiquitous CARA system rates movies from G, for general audiences, to R (restricted) for adults and NC-17 (ages 17 and under prohibited). The least helpful ratings are PG (parental guidance suggested) and PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned), meant to protect children from violence, nudity, sex, strong language and drug use.
Unfortunately, Hicks says, the “rough and/or persistent violence,” profanity, horror and crude sexual content associated with the R rating often turns up, to parents’ shock, in PG-13 films. “If it’s confined to an R-rated movie, that’s OK—adults know what they are getting into,” he says. “But when it seeps into movies rated PG-13, that’s a different thing because then kids are seeing it.”
Parents want to guide their kids, but the ratings aren’t much help, Hicks says. But being misled into seeing some R content isn’t the end of the world. “Knowledge and discussion are power for parents. Talk about these things with your kids.”
The case of the unfortunate synonym for coward shouted by Tony Stark offers a lesson in how a parent should engage a child.
When they left the cineplex, Hicks asked his granddaughter, “Did that bother you? That moment when he was yelling at the boy?”
Kalli replied, “Yeah. I’ve heard that word before and I don’t like it.”
For easily embarrassed parents out there, Hicks points out: “That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to get into a long discussion or lecture about it.”
Hick's Family Picks
Five R-rated movies to watch with older kids
Ordinary People (1980)
A teen-aged boy and his family are in distress after the death of his older brother. Dad is disconnected, Mom is cold and the boy’s therapist is having difficulty reaching him. Compelling exploration of grief and love, with a subplot concerning suicide.
The Verdict (1982)
A lawyer on the skids drowns his sorrows in alcohol until he is handed a routine medical malpractice case. His long-dormant sense of ethics gets a jolt and he decides to try the case, hoping to win for his client but driven by the need for personal redemption. Excellent look at the complex legal system and how one person can make a difference.
The Killing Fields (1984)
Gripping true story of American journalist Sidney Schanberg’s separation from colleague Dith Pran during the 1970s Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia. Power of the press, personal gain vs. loyalty and friendship, confronting one’s fears in the face of overwhelming odds.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Race and the military code of closing ranks are dissected in this story of a hotshot young military lawyer standing up to his superiors. Highly entertaining but also a rich treatise on ethics and morality as a crisis of conscience forces the lawyer to reassess his own values.
The King’s Speech (2010)
King George VI, struggling to overcome his stutter before delivering a speech on the eve of World War II, develops a relationship with an unorthodox locution therapist. Themes include family, marriage, love, honor, politics and class distinctions.
Got your own recommendation for an R-rated flick so important it should be shared with kids? Leave it in the comments below. We will award one commenter with Hicks' book Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings on Oct. 18.