The King’s F* Speech

I recently attended The King’s Speech with my two oldest sons. This was significant for a number of reasons. The last film we attended together was the muddled Tron: Legacy, and I have fond memories of being up all night with my oldest when he couldn’t sleep, watching Toy Story over and over again. So a bit of a milestone – first grown up film. Or rather, first grown up film with no nudity, no violence, no shoot outs, and no explosions. Just an intelligent story well told, with a modest PG rating here in Ontario.

My oldest actually listens when I talk, and knows that a film rated PG in Ontario is limited to three uses of the dreaded F word (yes, I am aware of the irony of censoring a blog on censorship). So, during a scene where the King launches a string of expletives, exceeding the three count limit, my son leaned over and asked how the film managed the PG rating. Fortunately I was ready with the answer: “…guidelines may be set aside at the Panel’s discretion (where social, historic, and documentary significance warrants).” Had the panel not exercised its discretion, children under 14 would need to be accompanied by an adult to see the film. Not a huge problem, perhaps, and doubtless there will be complaints to the board, but still, kudos to the board for exercising common sense. The rating includes a warning that “Language May Offend.”

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) originally rated the film as “15,” roughly the same as Ontario’s “14A,” but the distributor appealed. On appeal, the rating was reduced to “12A,” with the warning: “Contains strong language in a speech therapy context.” Children under 12 would need adult accompaniment to see this film in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in the United States, the MPAA rated the film “R” for language, meaning anyone under 18 needs adult accompaniment. Quite a difference, and all over the use of one little word.

Do people even care?  Yes, they do. Christian Spotlight on the Movies discusses the swearing, and consequently notes that the film is not recommended for children, even though the reviewer admits that the language is not gratuitous. Commentators on the review also discuss the language.

With all the minor fuss over the language, did it really need to be there? Couldn’t we just gloss over that little incident, for the sake of our children’s precious minds? But if we did that, then we would be guilty of hiding them from the real world, or limiting what adults can view in the name of protecting children. And besides, this language had “social, historic, and documentary significance.” Or did it? Little is known about what Lionel Logue actually said to the King or anyone else. His grandson denies the informality of the relationship as presented in the film. So maybe the swearing was just a cheap laugh….and some free publicity.

Update: The distributors have prepared a version with all that foul language muted, and earned a PG-13 rating from the MPAA.

Movie Theatres are Dangerous, and so is Nationalism – Censorship in 1920

After an early experiment “judging each film on its own merits,” Ontario re-instated formal standards in 1920. Prohibited films included those that were degrading, immoral, improperly suggestive, harmful, and indecent, or that showed foreign flags, cruelty to animals, firearms, violence, crime, arson, insanity, murder, suicide and breaking the law (except in good natured comedies).

Also new for 1920, unaccompanied children were allowed in theatres on Saturdays and holidays between 9 AM and 6 PM, provided a matron was on duty to “supervise the conduct of such children and of adults toward them.” This guideline simultaneously granted some freedom to children, and their parents, and preserved the notion of the theatre as a place dangerous for children.

The notion of theatres as disreputable was persistant. From a 1922 legal textbook on films:
“There is an undoubted effect on standards of conduct resulting from the fact that the audience, often young girls and boys, are packed in narrow seats, close together, in a darkened room. … It is significant that the phrases ‘movie masher’ and ‘knee flirtation’ are coming into use. ” … “No one considering the effect of moving pictures can neglect the possibilities for bad behaviour through the darkness of the hall in which the pictures are shown. Under cover of dimness, evil communications readily pass, and bad habits are taught. Moving picture theatres are favourite places for the teaching of homosexual practices.”

A federal MP claimed that theatres are places where only undesirable people go to hide; and said “pictures that are shown are an invitation to the people of the poorer classes to revolt, and they bring disorder into the country.”  The media did not less this pass, providing some evidence of resistance to this notion of film as a source of evil, foreign influence. A Montreal paper claimed that not all 50,000 people at the theatres every day are hiding from the law. An Ottawa paper went further, stating that “there can only be one censorship – public opinion.  If people object to certain pictures, they will be unprofitable to exhibit.”

In 1921 the various provincial censors held a national meeting in Toronto, to discuss national cooperation. They agreed to move to one set of standards, based on Ontario guidelines, and agreed to discourage profane or suggestive titles. They also agreed to to ban all films made in Germany or that appeared to support German ideals. Finally, they agreed to meet once a year.

Next year in Montreal they agreed to cut the phrase “Passed by the National Board of Review” from American films. Then the censor from Alberta proposed that handling of German pictures be at the discretion of the provinces. At this time, German speaking immigrants were about 10% of the population of Alberta. The end result of the proposal was a decision to continue individual provincial standards, “as each province has a different class of people.” The next known meeting was in 1961.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover coverFifty years ago, a British court determined that the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, was not obscene.  It was originally published in 1928, but could not be published in England (or Canada) until 1960. The story (an affair between a working class man and an upper class woman), some sex scenes, and some specific words were all considered offensive. The trial’s not guilty verdict is generally considered a landmark in increasing freedom for literature.

The Globe and Mail noted the anniversary in an article typical of stories about past censorship. For example, the trial was described as one where “the soldiers of moralism – those who believed some people had a right to tell others what they could read and how to behave – battled a pack of liberals who insisted these were individual decisions.” Naturally we make fun of the lead prosecutor’s opening line: “Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” However, the notion that censorship is required to protect ‘weaker’ individuals has long been a guiding principle of censorship.

At the time, English law described obscene material as that which had a “tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Today, we have age ratings for movies, to protect the weaker minds of children. Women still require special protection too. Canada’s current standards for defining obscene material, the 1992 Butler decision, note that some material may be harmful to women, and when the Ontario government brought in the new Film Classification Act in 2005, it retained the right to ban some adult sex films, at the request of women’s organizations.

The Globe and Mail article notes that book banning continues to occur when readers are offended by something, and claims the “obvious conclusion” of the Lady Chatterly Trial (Regina v. Penguin Book Ltd.) is that “being shocked is not the same as being done harm.” In theory, this is the logic of our current obscenity law. In practice, being shocked may be enough. The Butler decision (Regina v. Butler) reads in part:

material which may be said to exploit sex in a “degrading or dehumanizing” manner will necessarily fail the community standards test [the first and most important of a series of tests to determine criminal obscenity], not because it offends against morals but because it is perceived by public opinion to be harmful to society, particularly women.

I am not suggesting our current obscenity laws are no more valid than the laws of fifty years ago. What I wish to point out is that the Lady Chatterly trial, the Butler trial, and a host of other court cases have lowered the standard of what is considered obscene, and increased artistic freedom. Generally this is considered a good thing, but it follows that what is obscene and therefore illegal today may be considered a quaint hangup in the future, following some future trial. Eventually there would be no limits on what you can say, or show, to anyone. Or is there a line that cannot be crossed? And if there is, what if we have already crossed it?

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.