Amid the shock and horror of the recent massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado has come the discussion of a very tangential issue to the killings — the fact that children were among the dead and wounded at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, the last in the Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan.

While clearly no one expects to be murdered — or their loved ones to be murdered — at the movie theater regardless of their ages, the time of day, and what movie is playing, the reports hitting the Internet of babies in the audience and a six-year-old among the dead victims seemed to have struck a nerve with the American blogging world. Despicably, there seems to have been a sort of blaming-the-victim aspect to this. Random acts of violence, being random by nature, should not be focusing blame on the victims.

But stepping away from the tragedy and the horror, do we as parents really know what the ratings mean anymore? How do we deem what's appropriate for our children? What criteria should be set?

Motion Picture Association of America Ratings System

The base standards are set by the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA's guidelines only mean that a room of members of the association screened the movie and decided to give it this particular rating. The ratings don't always make sense to all viewers.

For example, witness the film Bully, which came out earlier this year and is a documentary chronicling the real-life stories of parents and their children who have been bullied. Some of the families' children committed suicide. That film was going to be rated an R originally for the language — spoken by kids. Eventually the Weinstein Company took out some of the profanity to get it down to a PG-13 to widen the viewing audience.

If you look at newly released movies with a PG-13 rating, you'll find that Moonrise Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man all get PG-13 ratings, but those movies are vastly different in content. Their rating might be the only thing they really have in common. So how does a parent judge appropriateness?

Appropriateness Is Not Universal

Ask ten parents what they consider appropriate viewing for children, and you'll likely yield almost as many results. Most parents have their own criteria on violence, sexual behavior, and language used in films and decide on whether their children will see films based on these issues. They also judge other parents by what those parents deem acceptable.

Violence

There's violence and then there's violence. Some parents have no problem with kids seeing all kinds of animated violence and don't differentiate — or perhaps they don't know the distinctions - between it and gratuitous cartoonish violence in which characters are under-developed and die off in large numbers (think every action movie and Raiders of the Lost Ark). This is the sort of video game violence that is criticized as 'desensitizing' children towards violence. The good guys still wear white in this world and the bad guys wear black. It's not a real representation of anything.

Then there's violence perpetuated by an evil force that kills developed characters for a reason (think Harry Potter films 4-8). Many parents have objected to the Harry Potter series because it hits too close to home. Dumbledore says it best when he tells Harry, "The time is coming when people will choose between what is right and what is easy." Right and wrong are not cartoon straw men. It's real life.

Finally, there's the nihilism of The Dark Knight Returns and the rest of the trilogy. The violence portrayed is random. The Joker, after all, represents insanity. He kills at whim because he can. It's not deserved. It's not undeserved. It just is. Probably the most frightening violence there is.

This is where the problem lies. The first type of violence is unsophisticated and cartoon-like. The second is complicated and requires a higher level of thought and emotion. The third is even beyond that. The maturity of the child has to be taken into account here. All three of these, however, get a PG-13 — which means you should have a parent with you, but you don't have to.

Sex and Language

Of course there's more to a PG-13 than violence. There's sex in all its beauty and carnal baseness. Your more feminist parents will object to the former and your more conservative parents will object to the latter. Although independent features might let a female character be a fully realized sexual being, action movies frequently glorify women as sex symbols and objects for men's desire without societal and religious constraints.

Swearing and reference to sex, racist language and slurs, etc., are also part of determining the PG-13 rating and whether parents take issue with a film.

Common Issues With G-Rated Films

Even films considered "appropriate for all audiences" aren't considered appropriate by all parents

  • princess movies with messages for girls (look pretty and wait for a prince to show up)
  • inappropriate sexual innuendo
  • general disrespect of parents

How do you decide what's appropriate for your children? Do you trust MPAA ratings?