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Rated “SA”? Jack Valenti and the Skirmish Over Movie Ratings in the Reagan Era

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

What is inspiring the relaxation of social mores regarding marijuana use? Today, theories abound. Perhaps anti-marijuana laws are too expensive to enforce. Or: a growing number of Americans have tried marijuana, and consequently, come to view its health effects as relatively benign. According to Nancy Reagan’s supporters in the mid-1980s, one driving force for pot permissiveness could be easily pinpointed: Cheech and Chong.

Reagan’s anti-drug campaign is well documented. Her campaign stops, speeches, and talking points are spread across more than three series in the Reagan Presidential Library (which was where I got the idea for this post). Likewise, many authors have covered the political debates about depictions of sex and violence in the 1980s, noting that media moguls almost always managed to outmaneuver their critics. Today’s post describes a forgotten episode in this moral epic: in 1985, Reagan’s anti-drug allies urged the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its ratings system and return the silver screen to its substance-free, pre-Sixties glory.

Cheech and Chong's Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (via Wikipedia)

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (image via Wikipedia)

Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign helped rehabilitate the former actress’s image after several public relations missteps early in her husband’s presidency. Reagan wanted to win the hearts of the American people who viewed her as icy and out-of-touch. With the support of staff member Ann Wrobleski, Reagan soon focused her attention on listening to suffering, substance-abusing children and meeting with concerned parents’ groups. With this strategy, her poll numbers eventually surpassed the President’s, topping 70 percent by January 1985. Hearts conquered, Reagan and her staff moved on to minds.

Time, January 14, 1985 (via

Time, January 14, 1985 (via

“The private sector, whether they be parents or corporations, as they became more and more aware of the drug problem, they wanted to help,” said Wrobleski in her White House exit interview. “They can’t help with law enforcement and they can’t help with the diplomatic initiatives. Where they can help is education.” Education initiatives did not end with the public service announcements most commonly associated with the era of “Just Say No.” Wrobleski argued that her office’s educational initiatives also involved taking on the Hollywood culture brokers who promoted a liberal attitude toward drug-taking through profitable films like 9 to 5, Private Benjamin, and Cheech and Chong’s buddy comedies.

Both parents and entertainment industry executives took aim at Jack Valenti, former advisor to Lyndon Johnson, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and architect of the MPAA’s movie rating system, which officially displaced the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the “Hays Code” or simply the “Production Code”) in 1968. From 1934 until the 1960s, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America voluntarily enforced regulations regarding acceptable and unacceptable film content, as interpreted by the national film censor Joseph Breen and local film boards. The Production Code (detailed here) was crafted at the behest of religious leaders and forbade some subjects entirely: profanity, “suggestive” nudity, and drug traffic. It required producers to treat other specified content, such as drug use, with “special care.” For Breen and other code enforcers, “care” meant “consequences.” By the end of a film, gangsters, loose women, and drug users were supposed to get their comeuppance.

In Ronald Reagan's (center) last dramatic role, he played a villain who gets his just desserts in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers." (1964, via movieposterexchange)

In Ronald Reagan’s (center) last dramatic role, he played a villain who gets his just desserts in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers.” (1964, via

Ronald and Nancy Reagan worked in Hollywood during the Code’s heyday, and Reagan later counted entertainment industry leaders among his political supporters. In 1983, the Reagans’ allies helped found the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), an organization committed to using the mainstream media for health promotion. On October 24, 1985, the EIC made a case for new film ratings criteria before a Senate subcommittee. Valenti’s system then classified movies as suitable for general audiences (G); appropriate for children and young adults with parental guidance (PG); not advisable for children under 13 (PG-13); restricted to minors without parent accompaniment (R); and forbidden to viewers under the age of 17 (X). EIC representatives Brian Dyak and Larry Stewart faulted the ratings for failing to warn parents about movies’ treatment of substance abuse.

They proposed a seemingly modest fix: add a subcategory rating called “SA” to any movie that depicted substance abuse. (So this drug joke in Goonies, for example, might have earned the 1985 film a “PG-SA” rating). But the EIC’s rationale for the adjustment was a radical throwback: “We are not saying to anyone ‘don’t make the movies.’ We are simply saying that when such movies are made, in which such incidents occur, that the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse be portrayed with equal concern and reality,” testified Dyak and Stewart. “During the days of the Hays Office, their main concern was ‘to see that the bad guys got theirs.’ We have the same concern, we are looking for the same results.”

The rules of the Code were widely known throughout the middle of the twentieth century, which is why, when the combined influence of television, foreign film, and the courts finally decimated them in the 1960s, critics noticed. The MPAA’s rating system needed to restore order without appearing to adjudicate when explicit sex or drug use qualified as art or trash. “I firmly believed the rating system should not become an agent of social change,” wrote Valenti in his 2007 autobiography. “It could not become an arbiter of public conduct.” It could provide a useful guide for parents’ purchasing decisions. According to the MPAA’s opinion research in 1985, more than 70 percent of parents believed it served that function.

But a more unscientific mail-in poll placed by a coalition of anti-drug groups in Parade magazine reported different results. The Parade survey found 90 percent of respondents wanted depictions of substance abuse to factor into the motion picture ratings. The accompanying article in the July 21, 1985 issue of Parade marked Easy Rider (1969; rated R) as the turning point in cinematic depictions of drug trafficking and abuse. After Dennis Hopper’s drug-fueled ride, the article argued, it became acceptable to show drug use as an act without consequences. While Easy Rider’s antiheroes appeared to meet fiery deaths, the same couldn’t be said of all the recreational drug users later featured in Footloose, Poltergeist, Romancing the Stone, Desperately Seeking Susan, Terms of Endearment, Risky Business, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High— just a few of the “drug favorable” films surveyed in the Parade article.

Movies containing positive and negative drug messages, according to Michael Satchell, Associate Editor of Parade magazine (Hearing on the role of the feature film industry in a national effort to diminish drug use among young people before the subcommittee on investigations of the committee on governmental affairs, 99th Cong., 1st session, October 24, 1985)

Movies containing positive and negative drug messages, Michael Satchell, Associate Editor of Parade magazine (Hearing on the Role of the Feature Film Industry in a National Effort to Diminish Drug Use Among Young People before the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental affairs, 99th Cong., 1st session, October 24, 1985)

In addition to the EIC and the associate editor of Parade, the campaign for the SA rating was supported by community and religious groups and by representatives from parent groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth, Families in Action, and the Parents Resource Institute for Drug Abuse.

In testimony submitted to the Senate subcommittee, Keith Schuchard, co-founder of the Parents Resource Institute for Drug Abuse, argued that many movies of the early 1980s did more than encourage youthful drug abuse: they rewrote history. In 1962, Schuchard said, less than 1 percent of American teens had ever used an illegal drug; by 1980, over 60 percent reported using illegal drugs. She claimed Hollywood was at least partially responsible for the 6,000 percent increase:

 “We saw the ordinary, mainstream teens of the Seventies— distanced by a decade from the political issues of the Sixties— given a steady dose of revisionist history. More and more movies implied that drug use has always been an All-American, normal part of teenage social life, even in the Fifties and early Sixties. The movie Animal House showed fraternity and sorority students smoking pot in 1961, behavior unheard of then. The Academy Award winner, Terms of Endearment, showed upper middle-class young ladies smoking pot in Houston, Texas in 1962, something doubly unheard of then. Many nostalgia films about the Fifties showed drug use as routine stuff. This deliberate re-writing of history feeds the sense of pervasiveness and inevitability of the drug epidemic.”

Screen shot, Pre-wedding pot smoking, Terms of Endearment (1983)

Screen shot, pre-wedding pot smoking in 1962, Terms of Endearment (1983)

In their attempt to reverse the popular acceptance of drug use, supporters of the SA rating harkened back to a more idyllic vision of the Fifties as a time when mass culture still reinforced moral norms. They believed the movie industry’s self-censorship could reshape audience’s preferences, and that wholesome messages could deter youth from engaging in risky behaviors. Valenti was skeptical. Rather than return to the Code, he imparted his self-described “Valenti law” to Congress: “If you make a film that nobody wants to see, no rating will help you. If you make a film that a lot of people want to see, no rating will hurt you.” The shift in film content would be driven by audience preferences and profit, not MPAA meddling. And the prescient Valenti argued that shift had already occurred:

 “The big winners today in the motion picture box office are not the slashers and the chain saw murderers and that sort of thing; it’s a different kind of movie. If you took the 10 all-time high grossers of the last several years, they would be Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and E.T.”

Valenti also countered EIC’s challenges by forming his own association, the Creative Coalition Against Drug Abuse, dedicated to supporting educational messages about drug abuse in popular television and film. The MPAA ratings board agreed to consider substance use in its deliberations, alongside the previously established variables of sex, nudity, violence, and profanity—though SA ratings advocates failed in their efforts to make drug-taking grounds for an “automatic X.”

In the end, the industry buzz died down, and the socially conservative campaign for the SA rating fizzled out. Though Valenti was a well-known Democrat, he wrote, “I always felt good about being nonpartisan in my movie job, because I considered the movie industry to be a national asset, not beholden to either party.”

While the screens in need of supervision have since multiplied, the Valenti ratings and Valenti law have endured. Parents and guardians, often operating in the dark, still shoulder the responsibility for shaping children’s viewing habits. And entertainment industry leaders and media conglomerates are still primarily motivated by plaudits and profit, not politics.

Jack Valenti and Ronald Reagan at the White House, 1981 (

Jack Valenti shakes hands with Ronald Reagan at the White House, 1981 (



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