It seems today
That all you see
Is violence in movies
And sex on T.V.
Every deep conversation about the current state of cinema will inevitably lead to the consensus that movies today feel more, well, inappropriate. Explosions and shootouts left and right, an excessive number of sex scenes, f-bombs in every other sentence. It seems that the good old times of cinema are gone.
Our job here at wonderif is to be curious, and we started wondering: is there really more sex, violence, and profanity in today's movies?
Since 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has rated each film's suitability for certain audiences. Currently, there are five different ratings: G (general content), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned), R (restricted), and NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted).
Since its creation in 1984, PG-13 has slowly risen to be the most common rating, taking over both PG and R. Both ends of the spectrum, NC-17 and G, have been mostly irrelevant in the box office.
Ratings alone don't accurately detail the amount of sex, violence, and profanity that exists in movies. They are an aggregate of several variables, providing general guidance for parents on the suitability of a movie for their children. However, since mid-1991, besides the rating, the MPAA has also given a short explanation of why the rating was given.
Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence
After analyzing the most common words in MPAA explanations, we've classified each rating with respect to the three variables we are interested in.
Sex had a sudden increase in movies starting in the mid-90s, but has actually decreased in the last few years. Violence is slowly increasing, and profanity looks stable at its high level.
Looking at the data from MPAA, all seems fine: fewer movies are being rated R, sex and profanity are not increasing, and there is just a slight increase in violence.
However, the MPAA is not an institution that attracts a lot of love from movie lovers. One of the most common criticisms is that movies are being given less restrictive ratings, a phenomenon called "ratings creep". For example, a movie rated as R ten years ago, could be rated PG-13 today. At least two scientific studies have identified symptoms of this phenomenon.
A study in 2004 suggested that the MPAA applied less stringency to its ratings over the period of 1992-2003, finding also a low correlation between the content of the film and its MPAA rating (movies with more obscenity being rated less restrictively than others). Another study, in 2013, revealed that violence in movies has more than doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13–rated films has more than tripled since 1985. Also, PG-13 movies used to have the same amount of gun violence as PG/G movies, but now have as much as or more than R.
It seems that MPAA data might not be that impartial. Is there any other, hopefully more reliable, data we could use?
Kids In Mind grew out of dissatisfaction with MPAA ratings. Instead of giving a single age-based rating to a movie, it assigns a 1 to 10 value to each of three categories: Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore, and Profanity.
Ratings are created by a team of independent critics, based on the quantity and context of events in each category. According to an external study, their data is more consistent than the MPAA's data in terms of movies with similar content being assigned a similar rating. Let's take a look.
The years after 1999 saw a steady increase in sex in movies, a trend which only stabilized around 2009. Violence has been constantly increasing, only showing a decrease in the last couple of years. Profanity displays a different behavior, increasing a lot during the 90s, then decreasing, and only recently rising to its previous levels.
One of the most interesting things about Kids In Mind is that they also provide a written (explicit) account of the exact scenes from each category.
A married man takes a woman to her apartment; she opens her bedroom doors and stands before him fully nude (her bare breasts, abdomen, genital area and legs are visible); they have sex and we hear grunting and see their lower legs and feet as he climaxes.
After analyzing the most common words in these vivid descriptions, some common themes became apparent.
Sex scenes actually declined after 2001, while nudity and breast references are constant in recent movies. Death slowly became the theme most attributed to violence, being more present in movies today than guns or blood. Surprisingly, movies with explosions are not increasing, but the ones with fire in them (e.g., flames) are.
We can even make a more interesting analysis of profanity, since Kids In Mind provides an actual count of the occurrences of profanity in several categories.
Over 414 F-words and its derivatives, 11 obscene hand gesture, 20 sexual references, 2 sexual gestures, 82 scatological terms, 53 anatomical terms, 13 mild obscenities, ...
Using this data, we can derive an accurate sense of the degree of profanity for each year.
First, let's say that before 2000, most movies only have counts for F-Words (other categories have unquantifiable terms like "a few" or "several").
For the last few years, F-Words have been used at levels only seen in 1999. Peaking in 2013 (Wolf of Wall Street), it is the most common profanity in movies. Scatological terms are on the rise, with sexual ones going in the opposite direction.
All data shows a steady increase in the number of movies containing violence, with themes like death and blood being a constant nowadays. Sex shows a similar upward trend, maintaining high levels since the end of the 90s. Profanity is experiencing a revival from its peak at the end of the 90s, with the last few years having the largest number of F-words ever seen.
Overall, the movie industry is partying like it's 1999, and we don't see that changing any time soon.