Censorship is Secular

In a recent post on Hollywood.com, C. Robert Cargill compares the controversy over a non-published comic to the lack of controversy over a non-published movie ad. The ad was not published as the film, a remake of I Spit on Your Grave, was released unrated after 5 MPAA submissions all earned the shunned NC-17 rating. Most American theatres will not play NC-17 films, and most American papers will not advertise them. Cargill claims the pressure to not play and not advertise this and similar films is entirely religious. He suggests that free speech has always been inhibited by religion, and claims “The problem with film censorship in this country isn’t the MPAA branding films NC-17; it is religious groups trying to keep us from seeing them.” He concludes “we have the God given right, as Americans, to watch what we want, when we want and no fundamentalist extremist group is going to tell us different.”

I’m not sure that anybody has a God given right to watch whatever they want. In fact the Bible mentions turning away from evil several times, and Matthew 18:6-9 could be read as pro-censorship. However, Cargill describes himself as very religious, and I would not describe myself that way, so let’s move on.

My concern with Cargill’s statements is not his opposition to censorship, but his demonization of anyone who supports censorship as a religious extremist. Censorship in the United States has been officially secular since the “Miracle Case” in 1952 (Burstyn v. Wilson). This case determined that movies were protected free speech, and thus The Miracle could not be banned on the grounds of sacrilege. Some religious organizations do support some censorship, but the desire to censor has made strange bedfellows. Feminist organizations, gay and lesbian groups, political associations, and other groups, have all protested various movies (see The New Censors). The notion that certain ideas and/or images need to be prohibited or restricted is fairly common, and not motivated solely by religious extremism. The challenge is determining how to censor in a way to satisfies multiple voices for and against censorship.

That said, maybe in the United States, the problem is the MPAA. The Ontario Film Review Board granted this film an 18A rating, equivalent to the MPAA Restricted rating (and lower than the Ontario Restricted rating). Some sources imply the Ontario version is the cut version that was granted an MPAA Restricted rating, however the distributor has confirmed that the version rated 18A in Ontario is the same version identified as Unrated in the United States.

By the way, Cargill correctly notes there is no such rating as XXX, and claims XXX is a porn industry marketing gimmick. There’s a little more to this. When the MPAA ratings were developed in the late 1960s, the X rating was not trademarked. This allowed porn films to identify themselves as X-rated. During the 1970s, Hollywood produced some films which were not strictly speaking pornographic, but did get an X rating, and took advantage of the association with porn films. One film advertised “X like you’ve never seen it before.” The porn industry responded with the XXX rating, to make it clear that their product was not the same as Hollywood X. Meanwhile, the association of the X rating with pornography led theatres to reject any films with this rating. The MPAA tried to resolve this by introducing the NC-17 rating in 1990, but the taint remains.

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