03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

PG-13 at 25: Will the Movies Ever Grow Up (Again)?

In 1984, Steven Spielberg released Gremlins and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, two PG-rated films sold to children, and the intensity of this box-office blockbusters (understandably) rattled parents.

Rather than chastise Hollywood's foremost money-machine, however, the MPAA created a new ratings category specifically tailored to serve Spielberg: the PG-13. As a result, the majority of films released since 1984 have been rated PG-13.

The PG-13 rating provides an opportunity for studios to "soften" and, in fact, "dumb down" films to the point where "soft" and "dumb" are presently Hollywood's key ingredients for success.

So while movies have grown ever more mechanically violent, nudity and sexuality have been edged out of mainstream cinema, especially serious and, indeed, "adult" treatments of such subjects.

It's easy to see how PG-13 has diminished the punch of genres that employ sex as a sales element -- e.g., horror and teen farces -- but let us consider what else this lowest-common-denominator-expanding ratings option has cost us.

Specifically: movies by grown-ups, about grown-ups, engaging in that most definitively grown-up activity, presented in a grown-up fashion.

Each year, a sprinkling of titles may contain legitimately mature sexual material (and the real number may actually be close to one), but such elements are usually relegated to dark and foreboding art films.

Two recent examples: the Kate Winslet titles Little Children (2006), about parents coping with a pedophile in their midst, and The Reader (2008), about an illiterate Nazi's love affair with a teenage boy.

Beyond even more accessible dramas, though, the sexual content of classic comedies such as The Graduate (1967), Carnal Knowledge (1971), 10 (1979) and the work of Woody Allen at his '70s peak seems gone forever (not too mention those films' dark undercurrents).

In their stead is an endless succession of Sandra Bullock/Kate Hudson/Reese Witherspoon rom-coms, plus an occasional disease-in-the-family weepie, that function as an extension of family entertainment.

Will Hollywood ever look past the financial attractiveness of the PG-13? Can it afford to? Can it afford not to? Or are we forever at the mercy of adolescent buying power? And how do we get rid of these gremlins?

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