People often assume that because I study censorship at university, and write a blog on censorship, I am opposed to it. If I did not want to take a stand, I’d say that whether one is for or against censorship is irrelevant: It exists, and is worthy of attention to gain understanding of how it works and what it does. But I can go further, and say that censorship can be appropriate and beneficial. Unfortunately there are no shortage of examples of silly censorship.
The Toronto Public library has a review committee that considers requests to withdraw materials from library holdings. To their credit, they recently dismissed seven requests, including a request to withdraw the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop. According to the request, the book is violent and encourages children to be violent with their fathers.
Fathers have some legitimate beefs when it comes to their portrayals in the media. We are stereotypically distant, and when it comes to children we vary from weak or useless in fairy tales to weak or useless in commercials. Hop on Pop normalizes children playing with their father, albeit in a stereotypically masculine manner, but it was written in 1963. Besides, dad is rescued (weakness again) and social order restored with the line “Stop! You must not hop on Pop!”
There might be gender problems in some Seuss works, but nothing on the level of the Dick and Jane readers, and nothing that encourages violence against fathers. Small children do enjoy hopping on pop, at least in my experience and according to Laura Bush, but it’s play, and that’s a good thing. Fortunately and appropriately the library rejected the request to ban the book.
Meanwhile, at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the student newspaper has to find a new printer for their current issue. The usual printer refused the job due to the nudity on the cover. It is of course the right of the printer to refuse the job. Just because you are allowed to say something does not mean others have to listen. However, the printing company claims they are scared of litigation. The legal right to free speech is useless if fear prevents it. The full issue, including the beautiful cover art, is available online.
The x-rated comic book Omaha almost ran into printing problems. According to artist Reed Waller, when he took the first copies to local printers:
One blanched when he saw the material. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said grimly. “What is it, all the sex?” “No,” he answered, “all the black.”
Hopefully Acadia can find a printer with neither technical nor topical fears.
Censorship is often presented as a struggle between artists who want to express themselves and a repressive government. Others take sides, either arguing that they have a right to be protected, or that they have a right to see whatever they want. Striking a balance is challenging. It’s even harder when the material facing censorship is news, not entertainment.
The Toronto Star recently asked its readers whether profanity should be spelled out. The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo: Use the first letter, and dashes for the rest of the word. Readers felt it was not necessary to spell things out. I find this a curious position. Almost anyone who can read knows what is meant by f—, so who benefits when it is not spelled out?
The Star’s Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide states that “swear words and sexually charged terms” should never be used except in direct quotations. This is a sensible policy. Journalism should never resort to swear words, not out of respect for readers, but out of respect for language. There is always a better word choice than a swear, and since they are usually used as meaningless intensives, the writing is of better quality without them.
The Guide goes on to state “Even in quotes, they should be used sparingly (i.e. only when the words — and the speaker — are central to the story).” This is a less sensible policy. I believe a person’s use of language, including swearing, reveals character. When the Star edits people’s language, especially public figures, it distorts their character. Similarly, soft-pedaling their language, even when it is just by using the first letter and dashes of a word, is an attempt to clean up the speaker’s phrasing. If Justin Trudeau swears, let’s not pretend it did not happen. In any event, swearing is not the worst sin of politicians – they can be offensive on many levels.
However, a democracy, or a public facing organization such as a newspaper, has to bow to the will of the people. It seems the majority of the Star readers who care about such things want swear words to continue to be suggested but not spelled out. For better or worse, there is popular demand for censorship. I can always read the Economist or the New Yorker – two respected journals that aren’t afraid to call a s—- a spade.
Making and broadcasting pornography is legal in Canada, and it is a regulated industry. It is true that the Canadian content regulation helps support what many consider to be an undesirable industry. However, it can be argued that the product is going to be made and consumed anyway, and keeping some of the production at home ensures greater control. CRTC license conditions for adult channels have included production requirements such as meeting USC 2257 proof of age requirements, passing provincial board review, and the stipulation that “Performers must be paid a competitive fee for the type of scene they appear in and the locale in which they shoot.”
Snickering aside, there is distinctly Canadian pornography. In some cases it is labeled and promoted as Canadian, and within the dominant American market it is a niche or fetish product. In other cases the Canadian origins are downplayed or hidden. One series is produced in Edmonton, but set in Milwaukee. Despite the disguised location, the Canadian regulations under which these films are made, and other local factors, influence the content and result in a product that is slightly different than that made in the United States. A common assumption is that pornography is the same everywhere, but national differences are being discovered and explored, in work such as International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000.
Canadian pornography exists, whether we like it or not. Maybe one day the media can stop snickering about it, and move on to more substantive issues such as ensuring the production is well regulated – something we can only do if we ensure it is made here.
A few weeks ago the Huffington Post published a list of “8 Films That Forever Changed Sex As We Know It” (NSFW). These are supposed to be the eight essential films that reflect changing sexual mores on screen. I found the selection odd and limited. A friend challenged me to do better. Here’s my list of influential films in the history of cinematic sex, with special attention to films that affected censorship, particularly in Canada.
Irwin-Rice Kiss (1896)
May Irwin (from Whitby, Ontario) and John Rice starred in the New York stage comedy The Widow Jones, and they re-created their kiss for Edison’s film company. A reviewer noted: “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)
In 1975, film scholar Laura Mulvey wrote an influential essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” essentially claiming that films were all about presenting women as fantasy objects for men. There’s a long history of that, and the objectification is noted in this annotated version of The Gay Shoe Clerk.
Among other things, this film showed black men as sexually aggressive to white women. It was controversial when it was released, and some of the newly established state censor boards banned the film. The Ohio ban went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a case known as “Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” the court ruled:
The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.
In other words, state governments were free to ban films, since they were not constitutionally protected speech.
This forty minute Italian parable features a peasant who becomes pregnant by a tramp, whom she believes to be Saint Joseph (played by an uncredited Federico Fellini). An American theatre owner brought the film to New York in 1952, obtained clearance from state censors, and played it on a triple bill called Ways of Love. Catholics were outraged, and the state censors decided the film was sacrilegious and banned it. The case went to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the 1915 Mutual decision was no longer valid, and that films were in fact entitled to First Amendment protection.
Even if it be assumed that motion pictures possess a greater capacity for evil, particularly among the youth of a community, than other modes of expression, it does not follow that they are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment or may be subjected to substantially unbridled censorship.
This was the beginning of the end of film censorship in the United States.
Films set in nudist camps and promoting naturism were a staple of the exploitation circuit in the United States, though not legal in Canada. The nudity was limited to breasts and bums. The Garden of Eden was among the first of these films in colour, and, in the moral climate of the time, it was considered less exploitative than many films of this type because it included children. New York state censors banned the film, but the ruling was overturned by the courts, citing the decision in the Miracle case.
Russ Meyer’s first film, a low budget voyeur comedy with extensive female nudity, was the first exploitation picture to drop any premise of education, artistic merit, or examination of the nudist lifestyle. Sexually explicit films were illegal, but this film narrowed the gap between the legal exploitation sex films and the illegal explicit sex films.
The first American Film to show female breasts and be approved by the Production Code was 1965’s The Pawnbroker. Meanwhile, in Ontario, a theatre planning to show a Japanese erotic fable, Woman in the Dunes, threatened to sue the Ontario Board of Censors if the female nudity in the film was cut. The Board passed the film uncut.
This very sixties black and white socially conscious two hour Swedish epic attracted a lot of attention, and made a lot of money, due to its politics and full frontal male and female nudity. It’s also very, very boring. As Roger Ebert commented, “two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks.” It was approved in Ontario, with cuts.
There is also I Am Curious (Blue), from 1968. It’s a different version of the same film, with the same cast and crew. Yellow and Blue refer to the colours of the Swedish flag.
The 1960s quiet revolution in Quebec meant new possibilities for film. History teacher and film maker Denis Héroux, who had friends at the National Film Board of Canada, started Cinepix (later CFP and now Lionsgate Films) and made Valérie, a low budget black and white exploitation picture about a nun who becomes a topless dancer. A series of similar films led to Variety coining the term “Maple Syrup Porn” for Canadian made soft-core porn films. In Quebec, the names were cruder. Héroux went on to produce many films, including Atlantic City and Black Robe, and received the Order of Canada for his contributions to the film industry.
In 1968 the Motion Pictures Distributors Association of America (MPAA) introduced a series of age based ratings, replacing the one-size-fits-all requirements of the Production Code. (Ontario introduced age based ratings in 1946.) The highest level, for adults only, was X, and distributors were permitted to use the X rating without submitting the film for approval. Both Hollywood and the adult sex film industry started to release X rated films, but neither group liked sharing a rating. The adult sex film industry switched to XXX, and Hollywood eventually switched to NC-17.
Midnight Cowboy is the only X rated film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The MPAA changed the Midnight Cowboy rating to R in 1971, even though there were not any changes to the film.
One of the few adult sex films to go almost mainstream. This 61 minute sexually explicit comedy was reviewed by respected critics, most of whom, including Roger Ebert, panned it, and for better or worse it entered popular culture. Bans and trials in many jurisdictions only added to its notoriety. Although criticized for its minimal plot and low production values, in the world of adult sex films it was noteworthy for having a plot and some production values.
It was quietly approved for distribution in Ontario in 1990, though it was not until 1992 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that consensual portrayals of explicit sex were not obscene. (British Columbia started allowing sexually explicit films in the 1980s).
A Toronto theatrical showing in 2000 attracted protests, on the grounds that the film portrayed sexual violence. At issue was not the content, but the abusive conditions under which Linda Boreman made it. The board noted that they could only consider the on screen content, and that the film was “a cut above 99% of the films that we now see at the board.”
This German film received the 1980 American Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and eight other Best Foreign Film awards from associations around the world. However it also challenged censors with scenes of simulated sexual activity involving a male character who is outwardly three years old, mentally an adult, and portrayed by a young teenage actor. The director agreed to a twenty second cut for England, but refused three cuts requested by the Ontario Film Review Board.
Ontario already had a reputation for strict censorship (for example, see my essay on In Praise of Older Women), and the Tin Drum cuts were the last straw. The government appointed a new chair and restructured the Board with part time citizen reviewers instead of civil servants. The film eventually passed with two cuts. During media coverage of the issue, the scenes to be cut were shown during television news broadcasts.
In 1997, an Oklahoma County judge declared The Tin Drum to be child pornography. Police subsequently seized video copies from stores, libraries, and from the homes of people who had rented the movie. Eventually federal courts ruled that the confiscation had been unconstitutional and the film was not obscene.
This experimental documentary from Canadian film maker R. Bruce Elder won Best Independent Experimental Film by the Los Angeles Critics Circle. It includes 46 seconds of explicit close up sexual activity, but the newly re-organized Ontario Film Review Board passed it uncut on the grounds of artistic merit.
In April of 2000, undercover Theatres Act Inspectors purchased the adult sex video Descent in a Toronto specialty bookstore. The video had not been rated and as a result the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial relations charged the store, Glad Day Bookshop, and its owner with Distributing an Unapproved Film, in violation of the Theatres Act. Four years later, the Ontario Supreme Court ruled that mandatory film rating was unconstitutional.
The Ontario government created a completely new Theatres Act, with changes such as allowing an unlimited amount of explicit sexual activity in mainstream films, but mandatory rating is still in place, and films can still be banned. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia also still have mandatory rating and the option to ban films. Alberta has ratings for theatrical releases only.
In the past few weeks, the health journal Pediatrics has published two studies concerning violence in movies. “Gun Violence Trends in Movies” found that gun violence in American PG-13 movies has increased over the past twenty years to the point where there is now as much gun violence in PG-13 films as in R films. It is well established that the mere presence of weapons increases aggression, and this study suggests that both the increased presence and use of guns in PG-13 films are examples of ratings creep.
Both studies note that producers aim for the PG-13 rating to maximize revenue, and imply that there is no significant difference between a PG-13 rating and an R rating. The studies also note that exposure to violence increases aggression, and provides “scripts” for impressionable youth to emulate. Their conclusions are that the level of violence in PG-13 movies may be harmful to teens, and that the MPAA may not be effective in reducing teens’ exposure to violence.
Canadian film ratings tend to give more weight to violence than American ratings, but not so much that the studies’ outcomes would be significantly different here.
Given the publication, it’s no surprise that the studies are concerned with the effects of violence on children. However the logic of most film ratings systems is that adults should be allowed to see as much of anything they wish and that only children need to be protected. Unfortunately this approach ignores the reality that viewing violence affects everyone, not just children. While it is reasonable to be concerned that children now have more exposure to violence in movies, we should also be concerned that everyone is exposed to more violence in movies.
Limiting movie content through censorship is probably no longer feasible. What is possible, and perhaps desirable, is that the potential social harm of violence in films be recognized. It could be treated much the same way alcohol or gambling is – as something to be enjoyed in moderation. I’m not sure how one determines what moderate consumption of violence is, but any limits would be better than none.
Four theaters in Sweden have added a sexism rating to their movies, resulting in a great deal of publicity for these theaters and a Scandinavian cable channel that also plans to use the rating. It’s a simple pass/fail of the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test is from a 1985 comic by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who credits the idea to Liz Wallace. It’s a deceptively simple test that few movies pass: Does the film have at least two female characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man? Whether this is truly a test of sexism is debatable. It is possible for a highly sexist movie to pass, and for a film with a positive portrayal of female characters to fail.
The test only considers the portrayal of women. To truly gauge a movie’s sexism, one would have to rate the inclusion and portrayals of straight men, gay men, bisexual men, straight women, gay women, bisexual women, and trans characters, as well as people who reject these labels. Such a rating would be complete, but how useful would it be? Imagine the rating: “This film is rated C for sexism. Positive portrayals of most genders, but three genders absent and a negative portrayal of no more than two genders.” Somebody’s going to be offended, but who? And if it were more detailed: “Warning: This film includes negative portrayals of gay men.” This would warn away one set of viewers, and sadly attract another.
It is true that some gender groups are under portrayed or often misrepresented in movies, and this is a frequent topic of essays and articles about the movie industry. Start here: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, by Laura Mulvey, 1975. Buried in the pop psychology that mars much film analysis is the notion that film is a male dominated tool where women are passive objects who exist only for the pleasure of the active male characters and the male audience. Beyond sexism, movies have many other sins of ideology, such as promoting the consumer society or glorifying individualism, but ratings are not the place to address this.
The Ontario Film Review Board came close to gender based ratings in the 1990s. The 1991 version of Cape Fear included a “Brutal Violence” warning, in part because a woman is attacked. Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg supported the call for an additional “Violence Against Women” warning for such scenes. The chair of the film board rejected the notion, stating it would be unfair to “elevate violence against one gender to a higher level than violence against the other.” The NDP government supported the introduction of a “Violence Against Women” warning. They appointed a new board chair, but the furor over approval of explicit sex scenes following the Supreme Court Butler decision shifted priorities and the warning was never established. The board has continued to be gender neutral despite occasional complaints. For example, the board was criticized for not including gender information along with the “Sexual Content” warning for Brokeback Mountain.
For the past fifty years, most of world has used movie ratings solely to label what is appropriate viewing for children. The criteria is relatively objective: How many swear words are used, how detailed is the violence, and how much sexual activity is shown. Sweden explicitly takes this approach. The Swedish Media Council only classifies films intended to be shown publicly to children under 15, and only for the risk of harm, not suitability. Using the Bechdel test to rate films provides more information about film content, not a bad thing, but it also sets a precedent for rating a film’s suitability for adult audiences.
At best, film ratings are a crude measure of film content, and the Bechdel test as a rating is particularly crude. All it tells you is that at some point two women will talk about something other than a man. The chances of it actually affecting anyone’s decision to see a movie are so slight it becomes meaningless.
In recent weeks there has been minor panic in the world of ebook retailing, as big vendors such as Amazon and Kobo overreacted to the discovery of self-published pornography in their catalogues. Their shock at their own content and their reactions bring Captain Renault to mind. Content featuring non-consensual and underage sex was removed, along with less offensive work. Predictably, this has led to cries of censorship.
It is certainly true that there is a double standard in book publishing. Established publishers and authors can get away with any manner of perversity, while the less successful see their works, with with equal perversity, rejected. The sad truth is that not everyone who writes about the joy of sex with underage girls is Nabokov. Judging artistic merit is difficult with works at the margins, so when in doubt, vendors are likely to err on the conservative side.
Authors would be wise to read site submission policies with a similar conservative mindset. If your work is pushing the boundaries of a site’s acceptable content policy, perhaps some revisions are in order. No vendor is obligated to carry your work, and just because you are self-published does not mean there are no rules. It’s not censorship if a book seller refuses to sell your book. You are free to sell it yourself.
If marketing your own book makes you pause because of the obscenity or hate speech laws you might be breaking, then maybe it’s not a book you should be writing. Put it aside and establish your artistic credentials with something less extreme.
When it comes to protecting children from finding inappropriate material, some commentators suggest the book industry should take a page from the film industry and use ratings or “adults only” sections on their sites. A children’s area would be preferable. Most of the content in a book store, from “adult” fiction to self-help books to auto repair manuals, are for adults. Brick and mortar book stores and libraries tend to keep children’s books in a separate area, and there is no reason why online stores cannot do the same. At the same time, online books are more self-age-limiting than other online materials such as games or video clips. The child needs to be old enough and inclined enough to read. Unless a preview is available, the child also needs a credit card in order to actually read the book, which suggests another possible solution for adult content is no previews or no previews of possibly objectionable content.
For illegal or potentially illegal content, it’s sensible for the bookstores to be cautious, especially with self-published material. As for protecting children, there are solutions less drastic than shutting down ebook stores, but their need is debatable. As a parent myself, concerned about what my children might be viewing online, erotic fiction is among the least of my concerns.
A couple of weeks ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will begin blocking access to pornography, unless customers specifically request otherwise. The announcement was followed by a predictable flurry of complaints about the technical and legal challenges of doing this, cries of censorship, and defenses of the idea.
The motivation, according to Cameron, is to protect children from inappropriate sexual imagery. Well and good, but apart from all the technical and legal difficulties, there seems to be a curious assumption that households with children will not request access to pornography. Or if they do, the parents will take steps to ensure the children are not viewing pornography…which puts us right back where we are now, with parents responsible for what their children see online.
Granted, it can be difficult to monitor children’s internet access, but it is not impossible, and there are plenty of software programs and resources to help. The best solution would be if web pages contained content information, similar to movie ratings. This was tried in the 1990s, but failed. SafeSurf still has a website, but their last press release was in 2007. ICRA, the Internet Content Rating Association, became more popular than SafeSurf and was incorporated into Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, but it shut down in 2008. One of the key proponents of the ICRA has written a detailed paper on the challenges of web site ratings systems.
Meanwhile, the adult entertainment industry has set up its own system for putting a content warning into web pages. Unlike the thorough, detailed, and complex ratings created by SafeSurf and ICRA, the RTA Label is a simple identifier that tells filtering systems a web page contains adult content. However, participation is voluntary and the labels only work if a filtering system is installed. British ISPs could use this as part of their approach to filtering content, but if a household has opted in to pornography, and has children, the parents would need to ensure filtering software is installed…and we’re back to parental responsibility again.
Cameron also announced new restrictions on content featuring sexual violence, such as portrayals of rape in sexually explicit films. The assumption here is that portrayals of rape are okay on TV and in mainstream movies, but substantial research demonstrates sexual violence in mainstream films has serious harmful effects.
Opting in to receive pornography online is hardly a censorship issue – it is no different than choosing a pay-per-view porn film or renting a DVD. It’s hard to argue that the opt in program and new restrictions will cause any harm, but whether they will do any good is questionable. Pornography is frequently the scapegoat for a wide variety of social ills. However, an argument can be made that at least some pornography is hate speech and should be restricted. The sexualization of children and sexual violence are real problems that deserve more attention than just internet filters, but a little attention to what’s out here is not a bad thing.
CBC News reports that an accomplished twenty-two year old male ballet dancer was forced out of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for appearing in gay porn movies. The school won’t comment other than to say that they have a code of conduct for all students. The code does not appear to say anything about the moral expectations of their students, but there is a clause that requires permission to do any performing outside of the school program. Is the Ballet suggesting porn movies are an artistic performance?
The dancer, Jeppe Hansen, seems to think so. He claimed the adult film work allowed him to “express himself in a new way,” without the restrictions of the ballet program. And his producer seems to agree, claiming that he’s striving for a more artistic approach to porn. I’m not sure how seriously to take any of this, other than to acknowledge that performers always benefit from publicity. I would not be surprised if the school reverses their decision due to the publicity. Meanwhile, the film producer, Jake Jaxson, makes a valid point about the acceptability of mainstream movies versus porn:
“I don’t like movies that show young people’s heads cut off or their arms ripped from their body. And everyone goes and watches that … and those performers are not looked at as being outside of the mainstream.”
The standard response to this argument is that the violence is fake, while the sex is more or less real. The problem is that watching violence, even fake, has real and measurable harmful effects on viewers. I’d rather see people make love than fight…but a good ballet performance would be even better.