A Weekly Column
Joseph Walker


True story: Anita is standing in line for movie tickets at the local multiplex.  The woman in front of her approaches the counter with two adolescent boys in tow.

“I don’t really want to see this movie,” she tells the teenage girl at the counter, referring to a violent R-rated film that is showing on one of the theater’s eight screens.  “But these guys want to see it.  Is it OK if I just buy tickets for them? I mean, I don’t have to come with them, do I?”

It is clear from looking at the two boys that they are not 17.  At best, they are about 14 and 12, respectively.  According to the voluntary movie ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), an R-rating means that “under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.”

At least, that’s the theory.

“Sure, you can send them,” said the girl at the counter, who probably isn’t old enough to see an R-rated movie herself.  “I don’t think they’ll have any trouble.”

So the woman bought the tickets, the boys saw the movie, the movie theater and the production company got their money and everyone was feeling pretty good about things.

Everyone, that is, except Anita.

“How can they do that?” she asked after telling the story.  “Isn’t it illegal or something?”

I explained that the MPAA’s voluntary movie ratings system is just that -- voluntary -- and that theater owners are not legally obligated to enforce it.  While many movie theaters do embrace the system and enforce the recommended age requirements, many others are more interested in the cash in 14- and 15-year-old hands.

Or, it would seem, in the hands of their parents.

“Well,” Anita said, “then there’s something wrong with the system.”

Indeed there is.

The whole idea behind movie ratings in the first place was the concept that all things cinematic were not necessarily appropriate viewing for all eyes. 

Even though there have been weaknesses and inconsistencies in the system, it has provided film-goers -- especially parents -- with some kind of barometer for the material respective movies will feature.

But many parents have mistakenly assumed that theater managers will help protect their youngsters from themselves, in much the same way that we assume store owners will refuse to sell beer and cigarettes to minors.  The startling number of underage teens who smoke and drink should have been our first clue that the assumption was invalid.

The fact is there are millions of youngsters under 17 who regularly attend R-rated movies -- with or without parental permission.  So many, in fact, that one California theater manager recently told The Christian Science Monitor that “I would lose half my audience” if he enforced the “R” rating. 

And if you believe theater owners will voluntarily turn away that much revenue, you probably also believe Ana Nicole Smith is the new poster girl for Mensa.

In other words, no way.

Parents are fooling themselves if they think other people -- especially people with a vested financial interest -- will watch out for our kids. 

That’s where the system breaks down.  We can’t abdicate parental responsibility.  If we don’t want our young people to watch certain kinds of movies we’ve got to take a more active role in teaching them to make good  choices, and then carefully supervise those choices until they can responsibly make them for themselves.

Even if that means actually going to the movies with our kids.

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--- © Joseph Walker

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