Censorship is Secular

In a recent post on, 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 used the X rating, in some cases to take 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.

The Customs Hurdle

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone has  “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” However, this does not extend to material that is criminally obscene. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)  has a mandate to “prevent obscene material from being imported into Canada.”  The courts have ruled that prohibiting books and movies from entering the country is a justifiable infringement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are conditions, including the requirements that heterosexual and homosexual material must be treated equally and review of material must be completed within 30 days. Full details of how obscenity is determined are available in CBSA Memorandum D9-1-1.

CBSA also publishes a quarterly list of items reviewed as possible obscene material or hate literature, and whether the items were admitted or prohibited. You can obtain the lists by email. Please note that some of the titles listed may be considered disturbing.

Unlike the review boards, the CBSA does not appear to maintain ongoing records of films reviewed. As a result, it is not unusual to see older titles turn up on the list, or for titles to turn up repeatedly. Occasionally films that have already been rated for distribution turn up on the review list. For example, the 1980 porn hit Taboo and its sequels repeatedly turn up as prohibited films, however they have been classified, i.e. accepted, by the Ontario Film Review Board. The list also illustrates the fine line that exists between legal and illegal material: sometimes some films in a series are admitted, while others are prohibited.

The inconsistencies are a source of concern, as is the inclusion of books and comic books. On the other hand, free speech has limits. By publishing the standards, and the material reviewed, the CBSA is being as transparent as possible while maintaining its requirement to keep illegal material out other country. Whether all of that material should be illegal is another matter.

Banned Books Week (United States)

Banned Books week is just wrapping up in the United States. Books are not rated or subject to prior censorship by state authorities, but calls to remove them from public libraries or school collections are routine. These requests to ban are often unsuccessful. The real danger is that other jurisdictions may then quietly remove “controversial” items from their collections to avoid challenges. Book ban requests in schools may extend to cancellation of author tours, and in some cases publishers react to controversy by withdrawing books from some markets.

Mary Brown, chair of the Ontario Film Review Board in the early 1980s, once claimed that since censorship is the suppression of ideas, the Board’s demands to cut specific film images were not censorship. Although there are risks with any censorship, an argument can be made that the immediacy of  realistic moving visuals justifies limiting or banning some images. Words are another matter. Books are less immediate and less accessible than movies, but they present ideas.

Although complaints sometimes originate from specific language, more often it is ideas that offend.  A typical complaint is that the Harry Potter books provide a positive view of magic (i.e. witchcraft or Wiccan beliefs) to children. Assuming this is correct (quite a leap of faith, so to speak), magic in some form or another plays a role in vast quantities of children’s literature, not to mention fairy and folk tales. Why would anyone attempt to suppress so widespread an idea? The scary part is that the most enthusiastic of the book banners would like to move on to ban all fairy tales, folk tales, and most children’s literature. However futile the efforts of the book banners may appear, they need to be addressed each time a single book is questioned.

I would not go so far as to say that all ideas are good. A book could be libellous, or hate speech. But even if an idea is anti-social, its presentation in a book does not necessary mean it will be believed, or influence behaviour. Books, like movies and other entertainments, are often the scapegoats for aspects of society we do not like.

Canada has freedom to read week each February.

Want to know more about banned books, but don’t like reading? See the movies

Porn Panic II

While Canadian Business reports the decline of the porn industry (see blog entry Porn Panic I), academic Gail Dines claims the industry is taking over contemporary culture in her new book  Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. She was recently on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition. I have not read the book, but excerpts and introductions have left me suspicious of the content. Alarmist claims such as “Given that the average boy first sees porn at the age of 11, we are raising a generation of boys who are cruel, bored and desensitized” or “competition in the industry and consumer desensitization have pushed porn toward hard core extremes” may be true, but they are certainly not new. Similar claims were made decades ago.

The 1970 Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography included discussions of early exposure and desensitization, and ultimately dismissed concerns such as those raised by Dines. The report was controversial, and Dines argues that modern porn is a far different beast than the material we now look on with a fond nostalgia. Fair enough, but there are other concerns with her work, which Clarisse Thorn describes as “breathtaking in its lack of evidence.” Several claims are not only unsubstantiated, but in this Ms. Magazine blog, claims are contradicted by those in the industry, including a former research assistant to Dines.

President Nixon rejected the findings of the 1970 Commission, stating in part:
“The Commission contends that the proliferation of filthy books and plays has no lasting harmful effect on a man’s character. If that were true, it must also be true that great books, great paintings, and great plays have no ennobling effect on a man’s conduct. Centuries of civilization and 10 minutes of common sense tell us otherwise.
“The Commission calls for the repeal of laws controlling smut for adults, while recommending continued restrictions on smut for children. In an open society, this proposal is untenable. If the level of filth rises in the adult community, the young people in our society cannot help but also be inundated by the flood.
“Pornography can corrupt a society and a civilization. The people’s elected representatives have the right and obligation to prevent that corruption.
“The warped and brutal portrayal of sex in books, plays, magazines, and movies, if not halted and reversed, could poison the wellsprings of American and Western culture and civilization. ….
“Moreover, if an attitude of permissiveness were to be adopted regarding pornography, this would contribute to an atmosphere condoning anarchy in every field–and would increase the threat to our social order as well as to our moral principles.

Forty years later, Gail Dines seems to be sounding the alarm again. I’d be the first to agree there is less social order than there was in 1970, but that may just be nostalgia, and in any event I am not convinced porn is the cause.

Porn Panic I

A recent cover story in Canadian Business announced “Sex Isn’t Selling.” The all American analysis suggests there are some shifts in the porn industry, but using the story for the cover illustration contradicts the article’s conclusion that we are all bored by matters sexual. Meanwhile, the last annual report of the Ontario Film Review Board suggests there is still a demand for porn, at least in the old-fashion buy or rent DVD  format. The 2008-2009 report states the Board reviewed 2,786 adult film titles, up from 2,548  the previous year. Here’s the trend:

2002: 2386 films
2003: 2226
2004: 1997
2005: 1644
2006: 2061
2007: 2525
2008: 2548
2009: 2786

Rumours of the death of the industry may be exaggerated.

Movie Night: Student PSA Films and the BC Cougar

In 2006 the Ontario Film Review Board invited student film makers to submit proposals for Public Service Announcements. The PSAs were to explain ratings systems to theatre goers, and remind parents that they are expected to consider ratings when selecting films for their children. The Board often receives complaints from parents angry that their child was exposed to something objectionable in a film, but in many cases the parents were unaware of the film’s rating or content advisories.

Selected proposals were given funds to create the PSA. The competition was repeated in 2008, and in 2009 British Columbia held a similar competition. The PSAs produced are a mix of various takes on the topic. British Columbia Film Classification posted the films to YouTube, and they are still available.  The OFRB posted the films on their own site, and later removed them. A few are available on YouTube.

A little earlier, in 1960, British Columbia adopted the cougar as a symbol for restricted movies. Chief Censor Ray MacDonald selected the cougar to identify restricted movies as it was dramatic and the largest native cat in BC (yes, it is copyrighted). Meanwhile, Ontario was using a key as the symbol for restricted movies. Theatres played a bumper (short clip) before all restricted films. This (or something very close to it) is the bumper I saw before Body Heat in the early 1980s:

In 1989 the BC film classification office, with NFB animator Hugh Foulds, produced a new series of warnings, still featuring the cougar, though a little sleeker.

All of these are a lot more fun than they had south of the border. No PSAs, and no frills bumper: MPAA Restricted Bumper.

Ratings and Publicity

In a curious twist, the new film Easy A is using the lack of any censorship scandal, and content determined by ratings, for promotional purposes. Director Will Gluck is proud of the lack of sex in a sex comedy, though that is no great achievement: Any number of screwball comedies in the 1930s, from It Happened One Night to Trouble in Paradise managed that quite well. He’s also proud of avoiding “bad language,” though there was enough to help bump the film to 14A in Ontario, with advisories about sexual content and language. Clearly he was not that hard on himself with his “self-imposed censorship.” Read the full article.

Censorship and Publicity

Omri Silverthorne was the chair of the Ontario Film Review Board from 1934 to 1974. By the 1960s, he was publicly calling for an end to censorship, and on his retirement he encouraged the government to end film censorship. In 1963, he noted that “Banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.”  Film makers and distributors know there is nothing like a censorship scandal for free publicity. Robert Lantos took full advantage of the newly conservative Ontario Board in 1978 to promote the slightly silly In Praise of Older Women.

Canadian author Annabel Lyon is not the shameless promoter that Lantos was, but she must be enjoying the publicity given her book The Golden Mean after BC Ferries decided the shocking cover image was not fit for the family nature of their gift shops.

The Goldern Mean book cover

The story has since been covered internationally, including articles in England, South Africa, Iran, and closer to home in the New Yorker.

As noted on Lyon’s blog, Random House declined to add a wrapper for distribution on the ferries. However, the controversy may have influenced the tamer cover choice for the American edition.

Are Ratings Censorship?

Film ratings, in use in Canada since the 1950s, and in the United States since the 1960s, are often considered more progressive than censorship. Ratings presume that children need more protection from film content than adults do, and that everyone benefits from warnings about content. This may be true, although films that are suitable for all ages can act as a unifying social force, and can make a lot of money. Films targeted to age groups are an aspect of cultural fragmentation accelerated by the internet, and are not necessarily a good thing.

Ratings influence content in two directions. A film maker or distributor seeking the widest possible audience may self-censor, before or after production, in order to achieve a lower rating. A famous case of this was the post-production changes to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick was contractually required to produce an ‘R’ rated film, and when the MPAA issued an NC-17, the distributor digitally added objects to block the offending content. When obtaining a desired rating requires removing or blocking content, ratings are no different than traditional censorship.

On the other hand, a film targeted at a specific audience, for example teens, may deliberately add content to ensure a film rating high enough to make attendance cool. Teens may reject a film rating General as being too childish. While adding material might seem the opposite of censorship, it is still a case of regulations influencing content. Rating films is more progressive than cutting or banning films, but it is still censorship.