What is “Family-Friendly” Content? That question appears to be the topic of debate right now among Disney fans. One side believes true family-friendly content can include more sexually open and “gender fluid” subjects. At the same time, the other sees such decisions as an attempt to sexually groom and confuse the youngest and most impressionable.
While we Disney fans are currently focused on that specific angle, a step back will reveal–at least, it did to me–that Disney has been pushing the boundaries of family-friendly movies and programming for some time. No, I am not referring to the currently-popular over-analyzation of the horrific deaths found in Bambi, The LionKing, or Finding Nemo. I am referring to what I am calling Walt Disney Pictures’ “Family-Friendly” PG-13 Movies and the fans’ reaction to them over the years.
Since 2003, The Walt Disney Company has worked to pass off PG-13 movies as “family-friendly,” and for almost 20 years, fans have tolerated what they have been given and unintentionally given both Disney and the Motion Picture Association of America a new definition of parents automatically consider appropriate for their children.
A Brief History of the PG-13 Rating
It began with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At the time, the Motion Picture Association of America had four different movie ratings–G, PG, R, and NC-17–and director Stephen Spielberg was pushing the boundaries of PG and R ratings in his near-horror sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Temple of Doom would go on to get a PG rating, but the issue persisted with Spielberg, and he felt new precedence should be set to identify a sort-of middle ground for films that arguably went too far for a simple PG rating and did not deserve to suffer the audience loss associated with an R rating. Thus, the PG-13 rating was established, and in August 1984, the patriotic film Red Dawn starring Patrick Swayze, was the first-ever movie to receive the new rating.
Since that historic summer, the realms of PG, PG-13, and R have been stretched repeatedly, but specific determining criteria remained steadfast. For example, it is well-known among moviegoers that only one F-Bomb is allowed in a PG-13 movie. Rating decisions are also based on the amount of sexuality and nudity. A film with G-rated dialogue could end up with a PG-13 or even R rating based solely on the level of violence and moments of peril.
Now, there are times when less-than-G-rated content is often necessary to properly tell individual stories, and for most of those times, the moviemakers have probably taken advantage of the liberties that come with the higher rating. I can imagine the round table discussion where they say, “well, the base level of violence alone is going to give us a PG-13 rating, might as well add some cursing and more adult humor.” But there was always one studio that did not fall to this temptation–at least regarding the movies under its flagship label–and that studio was Disney.
Disney’s First PG-13 Movie
The first official Disney movie–not counting any movies made under Touchstone or any of the other Disney-owned studios–did not come until Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003, but in terms of content, it arguably changed the game.
Visually, Pirates was undoubtedly a PG-13 movie. We see pirates pillaging and plundering Port Royal, people getting shot with muskets and cannons, stabbed with swords, and all kinds of disorderly, drunken debauchery. Oh, and the pirates weren’t scary-looking enough, so Gore Verbinski gave them a curse that turns them into walking skeletons in the moonlight.
But if we close our eyes and listen to the movie, it is actually quite tame (relatively speaking). The final script upheld elegant dialogue with few curse words, its central relationship between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan maintains–albeit satirically–a chivalrous manner, and it added comedic relief seemingly every chance it could. At his core, Captain Jack Sparrow is as much a comedic character as he is an edgy anti-hero.
But despite its less-than-family-friendly attributes, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a box office hit and launched an entire franchise of successful films (well, three out of five), and even inspired a change to the Theme Park attraction that inspired the original film.
Today’s “Family Friendly” PG-13 Movies
In recent years, the “Family Friendly” PG-13 movie became best defined by superhero movies. A lot of violence and perilous adventures, but very little in terms of language and overtly adult content–at least, when it came to the movies of The Avengers Saga. After all, films and shows about World War II, the Cold War, savage alien invasions, black-market criminal activities, and evil creatures threatening to eliminate exorbitant amounts of people rarely get anything less than a PG-13 and TV-14 rating.
The same situation can be seen for installments of the Star Wars Universe. All three movies in the Skywalker Saga Sequel Trilogy, as well as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Solo: A Star Wars Story, all received a PG-13 rating for similar reasons as the Pirates and Superheroes that came before them. And while the group of animated series that include Star Wars Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels was able to water down its content to earn a TV-Y7 rating (a sort of middle-ground between G and PG ratings), live-action series such as The Mandalorian received a TV-14 rating.
The latest PG-13 film to be released under the Disney name was the live-action remake of its animated classic Mulan, as the ’90s family was turned into a full-blown war epic. However, that film has come under scrutiny as Disney turned a blind eye to China’s Uyghur genocide to create what some have called a love letter to Xi Jinping’s communist government. But I digress.
For a studio that created the likes of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and has prided itself on content for little children, one has to wonder how and why Disney has been so successful in its exploration of PG-13 content. Well, perhaps it is due to the one thing that the Pirates, Jedi, Superheroes, and legendary warriors have in common: they all belong to legacy franchises that touch the parents’ generation.
Parental Approval and Disney’s “Family” Audience
There is no family-friendly content without majority approval from the ticket-buying and subscription-paying parents. Nowadays, those parents grew up riding Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland and Disney World. Those parents grew up watching Star Wars and admiring the bounty hunter Boba Fett, reading Marvel Comics, and watching the older Marvel movies. And evermore so, those parents grew up watching the animated classics from Disney’s Renaissance Period.
Because of that, Disney is still targeting parents, but rather than appealing to parents’ desire to give their kids something whimsical and wholesome, Disney is targeting the parents’ own self-interest. They’re targeting parents’ eagerness to see the cinematic furtherment or fulfillment of their favorite childhood characters and stories and to experience the new stuff with their children just as they watched the old stuff with their parents. This newer group of parents also includes vocal millennials who arguably still hold a youthful passion for their college-born sociopolitical “openness” to what subjects are appropriate for children.
It is confirmation bias at its most–or least–magical. The definition of “family-friendly” content is a subjective term that changes with each generation. As parents continued to approve higher-than-G-rated content for their kids, they changed the idea of what was considered appropriate for the whole family. Thus, Disney storytellers were given new precedence for what they could get away with and make a financial profit, and the Motion Pictures Association was given new precedence on which stories were considered inappropriate for children under 13 without parental guidance.
“Family Friendly” 20 Years Later
The 20th Anniversary of the release of Disney’s first “Family Friendly” PG-13 movie is on the horizon, and Disney fans are now seeing the result of what happens when that fanatic confirmation bias has free reign.
Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red gave fans a “daughter’s first period” movie that targets the young millennial parents through its ’00s nostalgia and lingering intergenerational angst, and only received a PG rating that is arguably due to the past recorded precedence and also due to the fact it was an animated film. And now, Disney is looking to stretch that “family-friendly” definition further by introducing a more open pro-LGBTQ+ agenda into lower-rated content.
Disney+ also sent into an uproar as more of ‘ TV-14, R, and TV-MA-rated segments of the like , Daredevil, and were uploaded from Netflix. While Disney updated its , the idea that was on the instead of being sent to Hulu–the seemingly designated for Disney’s not-so- –did sit right with them.
Meanwhile, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Dumbo, The Lion King, and everything else that always held a is getting blasted as racist and ignorant for the “outdated portrayal” of certain characters. Vocal viewers and corporate executives have made it clear violence is okay, sexy stuff is okay, cursing is okay, gay stuff is okay, but a film that does not include any of that is not okay because the Native Americans were drawn in a funny way.
But as more and more parents begin to speak up in protest to the direction Disney is taking its content, perhaps a line is finally being drawn, and the overall standards of what is a G, PG, and PG-13 movie will be reinstated as something objective and separate from the subjective approval of individual parents.
In the meantime, we at Disney Fanatic will continue to update our readers on Disney Movies, and TV news as more developments come to light.