How did taking a kid to see a movie become such a decision-making minefield? There are now more cinema certificates to distinguish between different types of children's films than there are to distinguish films for kids from films for grown-ups.
There's U for Universal, suitable for anyone aged four and over (although, as the British Board of Film Classification warns: "It is impossible to predict what might upset any particular child"). There is PG for Parental Guidance, films that "should not disturb a child aged around eight and over". There are 12A (which replaced the old 12) films, suitable for children of 12 and over, or for children under 12 so long as they are accompanied by a "responsible adult" over 18. And there are still 15 and 18 certificates, for big boys and girls.
If the increasingly elaborate certificate system doesn't provide all the info you need, the BBFC also issues "consumer advice" on film posters and commercials for some PG and 12A films. So Spiderman got a 12A certificate, but came with the warning that it "contains some scenes of strong fantasy violence". The Lord of the Rings trilogy scraped into the PG category, but adults were advised that some of the battle violence and fantasy horror might disturb children under eight.
This tendency to provide advice on top of certification spills over into video classification, where there are no plans at present to change the 12 certificate to 12A. Video films, whether PG, 12, 15 or 18, now come with a "consumer advice box". This gives information on the frequency/ intensity of bad language, sex/nudity and violence. There is also a brief description of the theme and content of the film (provided by the BBFC) and forewarnings of potentially controversial subject matter, such as drug use or domestic violence.
All this certification and consumer advice is no doubt intended as a means of "empowering" adults to make "informed decisions" in the "interests" of themselves and their children, etc. I think there's more to it than that. Our seeming inability to make a clear distinction between films suitable for everyone and films suitable only for adults suggests a deeper cultural uncertainty about where to draw the line between childhood and adulthood.
From 1951-70, there were three simple film certificates: U for Universal, A (for which children had to be accompanied by "a parent or bona fide adult guardian") and X for those aged 16 and over. X marked the spot, between immaturity and maturity, between youngsters who might not be able to deal with adult content and adults who could. In 1970, the age limit for X films was raised to 18 and the new AA certificate was assigned to films suitable for 14-year-olds and over. In the early 1980s, we got the U, PG, 15 and 18 system of certification. For cinema-goers, this system provided something of a cinematic life-map, a means of negotiating your way from childhood to teenagerdom to adulthood via films. Successfully blagging your way into a 15 or 18 could be a defining moment in a young person's life. I saw my first 18 at a cinema - The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover - in 1989. My friends and I were 15 years old. I don't know whether our tactic of speaking gruffly and looking miserable worked or whether the cinema attendant simply took pity on us. But we got in, providing a clear sign that we weren't kids any more.
Today, officialdom assumes that it has to hold children's and adults' hands every time they visit the cinema or buy a video. At a time when the lines between childhood and adulthood are increasingly blurred, when kids want to be adults and adults want to go back to being kids, film certification has become a mess of numbers, factboxes, advice and warnings. Our uncertainty over whether to take little Johnny or Emily to see a 12A simply mirrors a wider uncertainty about growing up in contemporary society.
Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)