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.

“Sit on it!”

With all the bad news coming out of Russia, a new censorship law is a minor item, though symptomatic of a state flexing its muscles over people and culture. As reported by the ITAR-TASS News Agency, “Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law prohibiting explicit language in literature and arts, mass media products, at concerts, theatrical performances, entertaining events, and in film.”

Films will be refused a distribution certificate if they have obscene language, however DVDs with obscene language can be sold if they are sealed and labelled. The different treatment appears to be due to the law’s concern with public performances, and DVDs are generally for private consumption. In a nod to nationalism, films cannot be considered truly Russian if they contain foul language. The law is not retroactive.

I’m not opposed to some limitations on swearing, as I noted in this post and this post, though fines and the possibility of imprisonment are harsh. Restrictions on foul language on TV brought us the memorable phrases “sit on it” and “up your nose with a rubber hose,” as well as the infamous “melon farmer.” Such a law is certainly repressive, but in the scheme of things more a nuisance than a  harm. The likely effect will be more creative and meaningful expressions replacing meaningless intensives.

Silly Censorship

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.

Keeping it Decent

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.

Canadian Content in Porn

All television channels in Canada must meet Canadian content regulations, including “adult entertainment” channels. The CRTC recently noted that three of these channels are not meeting the requirements for content and captioning. The news was reported with the usual level of adolescent snickering that occurs whenever the mainstream media contemplate what might make pornography Canadian. An editorial cartoon in the Globe and Mail was typical of the media response (scroll to image 17). It’s also been fodder for groups like the Fraser Institute that are always eager to throw out the Canadian content baby with the dirty bathwater.

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 when it is made here.

Fourteen Films that Influenced Cinema Sex and Censorship (NSFW)

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.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Among other things, this film showed black men as sexually aggressive towards 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.

Il Miracolo (1948)

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.

The Garden of Eden (1954)

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.

The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)

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.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

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.

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

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.

Poster - I Am Curious Yellow - with Ontario restricted logo. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9703641

Valerie (1969)

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.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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, particularly since the contents were different.  The adult sex film industry switched to XXX, and Hollywood eventually switched to NC-17, but the NC-17 rating still has the taint of being associated with adult sex films.

Midnight Cowboy is the only X rated film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The MPAA gave Midnight Cowboy an R rating in 1971,  though there were not any changes to the film.

Deep Throat (1972)

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 any 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.”

The Tin Drum (1979)

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 on 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.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1979)

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.

Descent (2000)

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.

Viewing Violence

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.

Violent Film Characters’ Portrayal of Alcohol, Sex, and Tobacco-Related Behaviors” considered the occurrence of violence associated with other rating affecting behaviours such as sexual activity or alcohol use. This study found that PG-13 movies and R movies have equal frequency of violence combined with other mature or risky activities. Again, ratings creep is suggested.

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.