For Teens, Ratings-Skirting R-Card
By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page C10
There's a new, controversial twist for parents trying to supervise their teenagers' moviegoing.
In Illinois, parents can purchase something called the R-card for $2, which allows teenagers to buy tickets for R-rated movies without an adult present.
Beth Kerasotes, president of Illinois-based GKC Theaters, the chain that started selling the R-cards about six months ago in midwestern theaters, says GKC managers were frustrated by belligerent parents who did not want to be forced to see a movie with their teenager just because of its R rating.
"We're giving parents a choice," Kerasotes says, adding that parents should be the holders of the cards and determine when a teen can use it. The theaters have sold about 400 cards so far, she says.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, a District-based trade association, questions how much control parents retain over teen movie choices once young people have an R-card.
"As the father of a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, I say, Ha! They'll go see what they want to see with the card. They'll tell you they're seeing 'Billy Elliot,' but will see 'Kill Bill,' " he says.
Fithian adds that part of the purpose of requiring adults to accompany teens under age 17 to R-rated movies is to get them involved in the film choices kids make. The R-card may lead to an abdication by parents of their role in helping the child make those decisions, he says.
"I'm amazed that any parent would do this. It's a blank check for kids to see every R-rated movie," says Jack Valenti, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, based in Los Angeles.
No other members of his association, including most Washington area theaters, have plans to institute a similar policy, Fithian says.
Child advocates tend to be on the same side as Fithian when it comes to R-cards.
"It's so easy for teens to manipulate the system already -- they buy a ticket for a PG-13 movie and five minutes later they go into the R-rated movie at the multiplex, so why make it easier?" asks David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group.
Barbara Strom Thompson, a child development specialist in Chevy Chase and parent of a 17-year-old daughter, agrees.
"We have to be really careful about giving away our control, because it happens soon enough," she says.
The debate over movie ratings seems never to go away. Thompson and others like Daphne White, executive director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a Bethesda-based nonprofit advocacy group opposed to marketing violent entertainment to children, are just as worried about PG-13 movies that they say sometimes could easily be rated R.
"I'm appalled at the violence and sex in PG-13 movies," White says. "Parents tend to feel safe with PG-13 so they tend not to go and see those movies, but what the industry has done is to cynically put teen R-rated movies into the PG-13 rating," she claims.
Lately, though, films like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" have taken the discussion of appropriate and inappropriate teen viewing to another level altogether. The films, which received R ratings, employ graphic violence to make the case for their directors' political and religious beliefs, respectively. Both are also polarizing films that have given society -- including parents and their children -- something to discuss and debate.
Some parents are willing to allow their children to see R-rated movies if the issues raised in the films have potential for starting a discussion of their values, of their teens' views of society, and of topics that might not otherwise arise in family conversation.
When it comes to choosing movies for their girls Alex, 15, and Nikki, 12, Mike and Cindy Azzara of Darnestown say the MPAA rating has always been the start of the discussion about a film, but not the last word. If a film shows sex without consequences, then the girls can't see it. On the other hand, a movie that contains raunchy elements but is also funny and clever ("Austin Powers"), or is violent but based on a cartoon ("Spider-Man 2"), is probably okay in the Azzaras' book.
They also say, however, that they would consider allowing their girls to see Moore's political film "Fahrenheit 9/11," a highly critical look at the Bush administration and the Iraq war. She or her husband would have to see it first to gauge the violence, Cindy says.
Cheverly mom Nikki Greco says she doesn't use the MPAA ratings to decide which films are acceptable for her children, ages 17, 15 and 12. Rather, movies with a lot of sex and nudity are off limits, but violent ones are often fine if she likes the acting, directing and story line, she says. She allowed her two older kids to see "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill," both R-rated films.
She also let her children see "The Passion of the Christ" after viewing it herself first. When the family saw it together, they went home and discussed the movie, she says.
Though Greco and the Azzaras are willing to make allowances for some R-rated films, neither said they would use an R-card.
Nell Minow, movie critic for Yahoo who is known as "Movie Mom," says that with her children, now ages 18 and 20, "I always made my decisions based on the movie, not on the rating." A few years ago she allowed her kids to see the R-rated "The Insider" because it contained "all kinds of issues of integrity," she says.
Similarly, she believes movies like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion" raise important questions for parents to discuss with teens.
For "9/11," for example, there are questions such as: Whom do we believe about controversial matters? How do we decide whom we believe? And, how do we make sure we see all sides?
"That's exactly the kind of movie that requires parental judgment and exactly the reason the R rating says kids under 17 must be accompanied by a parent," says Minow, who is also the author of "The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies."
Both Minow and Thompson, the child development specialist, believe parents must know their own child's tolerance level.
Parents must constantly reexamine whether their child is ready for certain films, and not hesitate to say no to a nagging teenager about a particular film, Thompson stresses.
"Our job as parents is not to make kids happy," she adds, "but to raise well-developed children who can make themselves happy and to contribute to others' happiness."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company