This Essay Is Rated PG-13

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Kids will be streaming into multiplexes this weekend for Austin Powers in Goldmember. They will be lured by a flood of TV spots, a million-dollar-giveaway fast-food tie-in — and the chance to see Mike Myers pee into the mouth of a supine villain. This is what the sexually adventurous call a golden shower, and what the movie-ratings board calls PG-13.

All right, the bit is a joke, a trompe l'oeil of forced perspective. But it's one of dozens, a veritable sluice, of gags about penis size, urine, excrement and farts. In silhouette, Austin appears to gratify himself in nearly impossible ways. Fat Bastard, the studiously repellent Myers character whose very image is an affront to this hallowed page, expels something into his shorts, then muses on whether it's solid, liquid or gas. The film's title says its wit is in its groin. Laugh or groan at Goldmember — and Myers wants you to do both — it is not for kids.

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Yet the industry's ratings system has labeled this and other popular gross-out comedies (like Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds and Eddie Murphy's remakes of The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle) as O.K. for adolescents and, implicitly, their younger sibs. Same for certain violent action films, like Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. These films are labeled PG-13, which does not restrict kids from seeing them (that, supposedly, is the job of the R rating) but does advise parents strongly cautioned about some of the content.

The idea is that parents are responsible for their charges' leisure time and, having read the warning sticker, will decide if a film is appropriate. That notion is naively anachronistic in an age when the family as a unit of cultural consumption hardly exists: Dad watches espn, Mom does Lifetime, Little Bro works his Game Boy Advance, and Kid Sis is a Powerpuff Girl. Besides, children can read too. They know that parents strongly cautioned means kids desperately wanted. The whisper of the forbidden is their siren call.

These PG-13 gross-outs are the movie equivalent of a flaming turd left by pranksters on a teacher's doorstep. And the teacher — the victim — is not the nation's parents but its kids. Children are victims because they are being deprived of a prime rite of passage: the discovery of naughtiness in a furtive setting. Once upon my time, dirty jokes were passed from older child to younger like sacred texts from the Gnostic Bible. They had the frisson of the forbidden. Now they are the official culture, imposed by film stars, sanctioned by a PG rating.

Myers' humor isn't even adolescent, really. It's infantile. It's babies blissfully playing with themselves and their poop. Any parent knows that children don't have to be carefully taught potty humor; they are born with it. Then the parent teaches them that a fascination with body parts and functions is wrong, dirty, forbidden. Now pop culture teaches them that because it's forbidden, it's funny.

Crude humor and violence used to earn films R ratings. These days, to get an R, you need to show something really outrageous, like a naked woman. (The system is still Puritanical in matters of sex, adult romance and flesh.) This trend, festering for a few years, looks rampant now. Why would that be?

Greed. Infectious greed. However unsuitable the material may be for kids, Hollywood wants their disposable income. The 10-to-12 crowd helps pay the salaries and points of pricey artistes like Spielberg and Myers. A studio pays them so highly, it needs a guarantee that the film will be available to the widest possible audiences, so a PG-13 rating is often built into the contracts. The only thing dirtier than the gags in Goldmember is the money that's made from them.

Lighten up, I hear some of you saying. I say it myself. I fret I'm in danger of living out a haunting truism: that a conservative is just a liberal who has finally grown old or grown up. But I don't think I'm wrong here. I think the easy, sleazy PG-13 rating makes truly adult movies an endangered species. If even our most powerful filmmakers are afraid to make an R-rated film, how will American movies ever mature? And what will the preteens raised on Austin Powers have to watch — or want to watch — when they grow up?