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One MPAA Rule Can Give A PG-13 Movie An R-Rating - But There Are Exceptions

The Motion Picture Association (MPA) has many functions, but the general public probably knows it best for assigning ratings to movies. The organization is responsible for determining whether a movie should be rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. Sometimes its ruling can seem arbitrary, with some movies being rated completely wrong, but there are certain guidelines when it comes to profanity and when exceptions can be made. 

Specifically, the F-bomb is a major source of contention. PG-13 movies can have characters say "s***" and "a******," but "f***" is often a step too far for some reason. In fact, PG-13 movies can typically only have one mention of the F-word, or else it gets bumped to an R-rating. Kelly McMahon, who currently works as the Senior Vice President and Chair of the Classification and Rating Administration for the MPA, told CNBC, "Used more than once as an expletive, it gets kicked up to an R."

That's why "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" can have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) say, "Open the f***ing door," and still retain a PG-13 rating. However, there are exceptions to this "No more than one f***" rule. These include instances where the word is repeated over a short period of time or used if the scene is particularly emotional. As such, there are PG-13 movies where "f***" is stated more than once, but you really have to look hard.

In rare cases, PG-13 movies can drop more than one F-bomb

If the machinations behind the MPA seem kind of arbitrary, they are to an extent. The rule of PG-13 movies being granted one F-bomb isn't a hard and fast rule, as there have been numerous films over the years that have gotten away with quite a bit.

For example, "The Social Network," the PG-13 movie about the founding of Facebook, contains two instances of the F-word. More than likely, the MPA saw fit to still give the movie a PG-13 rating because its inclusion is still spread pretty thin (and it's not like there's excessive violence or nudity). Additionally, documentaries seem to get greater leeway when it comes to how many F-bombs they can drop. The 2004 movie "Gunner Palace" has 42 instances of the profanity despite being PG-13. The same can be said for 2011's "Bully," which has three uses. The assumption would be since there's a greater element of realism in a documentary, people can say the word more often. 

Ultimately, the MPA designates ratings as it sees fit, so it determines whether multiple F-bombs are allowed in a PG-13 movie given additional context. In some cases, just one F-bomb is enough to bump a movie to an R rating if it's said in relation to sexual activity. But the generally accepted rule is that a PG-13 movie can use it once. Honestly, some films have made the most of it, like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) saying, "Go f*** yourself" in "X-Men: First Class." When it comes to swear words, sometimes less is more.