Censoring the Sizzle

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, is due for release in August. The Weinstein Company has released a series of promotional posters featuring each of the stars, but the sixth, featuring Eva Green’s character in a transparent top, was deemed inappropriate by the MPAA. Take a look for yourself. Apparently a new poster is being prepared. Most reports of this poke fun MPAA’s prudishness, but others recognize a publicity stunt when they see one.

Regardless of this little tempest, it’s a fair question to wonder why film rating boards care about advertising, when there are other agencies dedicated to advertising standards. All the boards in Canada have the legal right to review film advertising, and it is occasionally exercised. The Ontario Film Review Board banned the poster for Yana’s Friends in 2000. This right was not so much a power grab by the Boards as a way to stave off complaints.

Back in 1920, the Ontario Board of Censors was receiving a lot of complaints. It was not that people disapproved of film censorship, even though it was widespread: the approval rate was 60%. People found the board was too lax. A few years earlier the Board had tried abandoning rigid standards in favour of judging each film on its own merits, but public outcry led to the return of standards, including any prohibiting films which were “degrading, immoral, improperly suggestive, harmful, or indecent.”

Other 1920 reforms included new rules about attending screenings, to end the practice of “office boys” and the postman dropping in, and the Board appointed a female censor. A number of moral reform associations had complained to the Board that only women could properly judge the morality of films, and the chair recommended appointing a female censor to address that concern.

Another common source of complaints was the posters promoting films. Ordinary decent people walking down the street would see posters promising or suggesting all manner of decadence in a film, assume the film delivered what the poster implied, and complain to the Board. The Board decided to review and approve the advertising, to eliminate these complaints. In hindsight it seems silly to censor the sizzle, but perhaps some viewers were spared disappointment by more restrained posters. The rules are still in place, and the boards still get complaints about being too lax, often from people who have not seen the films they are complaining about.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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