How to be an Anti-Porn Activist

I recently read Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, (2013) by Whitney Strub. Strub discusses the origins and operations of the anti-pornography group Citizens for Decent Literature in the 1960s, and touches on later individuals and groups such as Robin Morgan and Women Against Pornography in the 1980s. It struck me that much of the rhetoric of these earlier groups is the same as that used by contemporary anti-pornography individuals and groups, such as Gail Dines and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. There are several common approaches:

  1. Do not define pornography. It can be anything that is vaguely sexual, from lingerie ads to risque TV comedies, from erotic videos to photos of child abuse, from artistic nude paintings to stolen topless selfies. It can also refer to prostitution, kidnapping, or any number of sex crimes.
  2. Declare a crisis. Claim pornography is more common than ever, due to the new technology of cheap paperbacks / storefront 16 mm theatres / 8 mm home movies / videotapes / phone sex lines / DVDs / the internet / mobile phones / high speed internet. Also claim it is more violent / explicit / depraved than ever before.
  3. Stress that this is a public health matter, not a moral or censorship issue. Pornography causes masturbation, homosexuality, communism, rape, aggression, passivity, premature sexual activity, delayed sexual activity, erectile dysfunction, cheating, loss of interest in sex, sex trafficking, prostitution, abortions, divorce, child abuse, suicide, nightmares, drug addition, racism, sexism, brain damage…
  4. Blame greed. Point out the massive profits of pornography producers, to make it clear that this is not about free expression or artistic desire.
  5. Fudge or fake data. Since pornography is never defined, it’s hard to verify if any claimed facts or conclusions are valid, but that does not stop them from getting made up and repeated. The massive profits reported in the 1960s originated in Citizens for Decent Literature‘s completely unsubstantiated claim that porn was a two billion dollar a year industry. More recently, in her book Pornland, Gail Dines lent her academic authority to the claim that porn is a thirteen billion dollar a year industry in the United States. Her source was a web page on an advertising website. There are no sources provided for the financial numbers, or any of the other shocking statistics on the page. The information is not just unsubstantiated, the source is biased: The company that maintains this page sells the internet filtering program Net Nanny. As another example of false data, many sources claim 300,000 children are sexually exploited in the United States, despite this figure being debunked. Claims about porn’s effects, contents, availability, viewing by children, and internet dominance have similarly been debunked.

If pornography is harmless, why are so many people devoted to stopping it? Notwithstanding the statements of some anti-pornography advocates, the primary concern is often old fashioned morality. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, known on Facebook as Pornography Harms, was founded as a Catholic group, and until recently was known as Morality in Media. Anti-porn groups typically stress that they are not opposed to sexuality, but the sexuality they support tends to be straight, married, and limited to procreative vaginal intercourse (pulling out is not only poor birth control, it’s apparently inspired by porn). Anti-porn feminists have dismissed gay porn as simply substituting men in the women’s oppressed positions, and dismissed lesbian porn as simply a show for men, effectively denying these sexualities.

There’s also money in fighting pornography. The many non-profits that fight porn, including Gail Dines’ own Stop Porn Culture, all raise funds to pay their staff and raise more funds. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation‘s Finances page is a broken link. Citizens for Decent Literature collapsed when its founder, Charles Keating, was jailed for financial fraud. Women Against Pornography, which actively opposed sex shops in New York’s Times Square, received generous financial support from developers eager to see the businesses shut down, so that the properties could be purchased at low prices. When it comes to academics, current concerns about campus sexual assault and providing safe spaces for students make being an anti-porn academic a safe route to publications and tenure.

An old tactic for fighting pornography is to distribute it. Citizens for Decent Literature did this, and Stop Porn Culture continues the tradition, with several downloadable slide shows on their website. This is hypocritical for two reasons. First, it presumes that enlightened anti-porn viewers will be immune to the claimed harms of the images. This is reminiscent of old obscenity laws which were intended to protect the easily corrupted (i.e. women, children, servants, the poor, foreigners, etc.). Second, the examples allow viewers to indulge whatever interests they may have in the material, in a ‘respectable’ manner.

Anti-pornography advocates do raise some valid issues about the consumption of porn. What is often overlooked is that the issues raised are not unique to porn. For example, many films and television shows promote sexual violence. Most obscenity laws and anti-porn advocates are only concerned with this when there is explicit sexuality, but studies have shown that the degree of sexual  explicitness has minimal impact on changes in attitudes. Studies have also shown that there is considerably more sexual violence in mainstream films than in pornography. In other words, if we are concerned about portrayals of sexual violence, we need to be looking at Hollywood, where most of it comes from. For the film review boards in Canada, extreme sexual violence is not a concern in widely seen mainstream films, but limited distribution porn films can be banned for simple coercion, even as mild as the ‘sex to pay for the pizza’ storyline.

There are also valid issues about production. Defenders of pornography often note that performers participate of their own free will. Successful performers sometimes promote their work as a lifestyle choice. However, many other performers, such as the countless young people in the pro-am genre, make the choice due to economic necessity and limited employment options. Some producers encourage consumers to shop for ethical porn, which acknowledges the exploitative nature of parts of the industry. Rather than attack a symptom of dysfunctional economies, efforts to stop young people from being exploited for pornography should ensure they have other options.

Anti-pornography advocates have the advantage of a simple, strong argument: Porn is bad. People who defend pornography rely on more complex arguments. They call for considerations of  cultural and media context, acknowledge social and production concerns, quote research studies, and struggle to balance sexual expression with freedom from offense. Pornography makes many people uncomfortable for various reasons, and makes a great scapegoat for social ills. Anti-porn advocates take full advantage of this to advance their own moral or financial interests. They have been making their claims of a public health crisis for more than fifty years, with false or fudged data, but there are still people happy to donate to the cause, in the vain hope that fighting pornography will make a better world.

Ontario Film Authority

The Ontario Government has spun off the Ontario Film Review Board to a new agency, the Ontario Film Authority. This is an independent non-profit agency which will administer the Film Classification Act. In letters to distributors and retailers, it appears the only change is that fees are now payable to the agency instead of the government, and that there are taxes on some of those fees. According to a news release,

the OFA will:

  • Offer the convenience of a single point of contact for the film and theatre industry

  • Have more effective and efficient service delivery and enforcement

  • Reduce the regulatory burden on the film sector and businesses

It’s not clear how the new agency will deliver these changes, since, at least for now, nothing is changing. In addition, the Film Review Board has operated at a profit for many years, and the government is now losing that income. However, the web site has received a long overdue update. Check it out here:


Provincial Right to Ban Films confirmed by Nova Scotia Ban of “Last Tango in Paris”

Last Tango Appeal to Cabinet - Dartmouth Free Press headline

All provinces and territories in Canada have the legal right to ban any film, for any reason. This was confirmed by a Supreme Court case in 1978. The case started in 1974, in Nova Scotia, when the Nova Scotia Board of Censors banned Last Tango in Paris.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a number of films that challenged audiences and censors with previously unseen levels of violence and sexuality (at least in widely distributed films). The United States brought in a new ratings system in 1968, grudgingly accommodating adults only films, and across Canada, most of the already more liberal boards were reorganizing to place greater emphasis on classifying films, and less on censoring. In 1972, the year Last Tango in Paris was released, Manitoba adopted a policy of not banning any films.

Last Tango in Paris was approved as a film for adults only in every jurisdiction except Nova Scotia. The retiring chair of the Ontario Board of Censors, who spent the later part of his career arguing against censorship, said “we just closed our eyes and ears and let it go.” In Manitoba, the owner of a theatre showing Last Tango was charged with exhibiting an obscene movie. The trial considered the artistic merits of the film, and the court ruled the film was not obscene. An appeal was dismissed, in a split decision (Regina v. Odeon Morton Theatres Ltd. and United Artists Corp.).

The Dartmouth Free Press decided to appeal Nova Scotia’s ban to the provincial cabinet. The paper also attacked the Board, noting that the three members, appointed for life, were patronage appointments. The chair had previously run a variety store. At the time he was appointed, his brother was a member of the provincial legislature. Another Board member had previously been a teacher, and briefly held the patronage appointment of county road superintendent. The third Board member was a bar owner who was active in the premier’s constituency.

Censors appointed through patronage are not necessarily less qualified than anyone else. The job consists largely of watching movies and filling out forms. However, the Free Press  also noted that the Board understated the number of films it had banned, and that sixteen films had been banned in the last two years. In defense of Last Tango, the Free Press noted:

Last Tango in Paris is regarded as anything but a peep-show, Eve type movie. American critic Pauline Kael said it is to movies what Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring was to music. It is on Time Magazine’s list of best movies, and it has already won important awards. When CBC’s Information Morning radio show (6 A.M. – 9 A.M.) polled listeners,  an astounding more than 600 gave their views, the majority saying they felt the movie should not have been banned.

The appeal to cabinet was unsuccessful, so the Free Press attempted to take the province to court over banning the film. The case promptly got bogged down over whether or not an individual can request that the constitutionality of a law be reviewed. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 1975 that the editor of the Free Press did have standing to challenge the law (Nova Scotia Board of Censors v. McNeil, [1976]).

The case returned to provincial court, to consider whether or not a province had the right to ban a film, particularly without giving any reasons, and for a film that was not criminally obscene. Among the considerations was that criminal obscenity can only be determined by a federal court. Again, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Gerard McNeil, editor of the Free Press, was on one side, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. On the other side was the Crown, as well as the Attorneys General for Canada, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Alberta.

In a five/four split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that provinces did have the right to ban films. The Court ruled that banning films was simply trade regulation. In addition, banning a film was not an action that punished anyone. As such, film bans were  unrelated to criminal matters such as obscenity, or to  constitutionality.

…the pro­vincial government in regulating a local trade may set its own standards which in no sense exclude the operation of the federal law.

There is, in my view, no constitutional barrier preventing the Board from rejecting a film for exhibition in Nova Scotia on the sole ground that it fails to conform to standards of morality which the Board itself has fixed notwithstanding the fact that the film is not offensive to any provision of the Criminal Code; and, equally, there is no constitu­tional reason why a prosecution cannot be brought under s. 163 of the Criminal Code in respect of the exhibition of a film which the Board of Censors has approved as conforming to its standards of propriety (Nova Scotia Board of Censors v. McNeil, [1978]).

The United States determined that film censorship was merely trade regulation in 1915, but rejected that in 1958, and declared that films were subject to the First Amendment free speech provisions.

The constitutionality of the provincial right to ban films has never been tested, at the Supreme Court of Canada, under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The year the Charter was adopted, a group of artists launched a challenge in Ontario, over that Board’s handling of four films. The court sided with the Board for three of the films, but in the case of the fourth, noted that the Board had no legally defined right to ban a film. The province appealed, but the appeal was dismissed. The province could have taken the issue to the Supreme Court, but instead chose to update the laws and regulations to legally define how films could be banned (Re Ontario Film & Video Appreciation Society and Ontario Board of Censors, 1984).

Updating the laws legally defined the Board’s rights, but created a constitutional problem. In 2000, Glad Day Books was charged under the Theatres Act with selling an unapproved film. The store argued that the cost and delay of getting a film approved was unconstitutional. (The film in question was 123 minutes long, so at $4.20 a minute the approval cost was $516.60. For a mainstream theatrical release, this is negligible, but for a single store selling perhaps ten home video copies, it is prohibitive). Glad Day lost, and appealed. Among other arguments, Glad Day suggested that the McNeil case from Nova Scotia no longer applied. The court did not accept that.

Glad Day and Scythes did not persuade me that the adoption of the Charter undermines the McNeil case as controlling authority as to whether the Province of Ontario has the constitutional competence to enact the legislation from a division of powers perspective. In a division of powers analysis, the court must begin with the presumption of constitutionality. It was held in McNeil that the purpose of the film censorship scheme was to regulate the film industry within the province and, therefore, it was validly enacted by the province. The Charter does not change the division of powers analysis or its result. After the adoption of the Charter, just as before, the province has the jurisdiction, pursuant to its property and civil rights power, to enact legislation to regulate the film industry, including the censorship of images that are harmful to society, and such a provincial regulatory scheme can operate concurrently with the federal government’s penal obscenity law. What has changed since the adoption of the Charter is that both federal and provincial laws must comply with the Charter’s guarantees. (R. v. Glad Day Bookshops Inc.)

Considering that last point, the appeal ruled that while classification was fine, mandatory submission for approval was an unconstitutional prior restraint. The court gave the government a year to separate classification from film approval. This was widely reported as the end of censorship and putting the Board out of business. Again the government chose to update the law rather than appeal to the Supreme Court. The new law defied the court, and kept prior restraint and the right to ban films. In effect, nothing changed.

Nova Scotia did eventually approve Last Tango in Paris. The records on when it was approved have been lost. Nova Scotia and other provinces have since restructured their censorship boards. Nova Scotia, like several other provinces, now uses a part time public board, with members who work a few days a month for a modest payment. Alberta became the second board to declare a no ban policy. The other boards all continue to have the right to ban films, often without clear reasons. This is Quebec’s statement on censorship and bans:

Censorship in Québec was officially abolished in 1967 with the creation of the Bureau de surveillance du cinéma. Should the Régie du cinéma feel that a film interferes with public order, it can refuse to classify it, which would mean that the film could not be distributed in Québec.

In practice, bans are exercised against adult sex films, and may be used as a threat to demand cuts. It is also adult sex films that are occasionally approved by a provincial board, and then found to be criminally obscene by the courts, to the dismay of the convicted retailer. These films have few defenders, and at this point no one seems too concerned about the right of provinces and territories to ban films. Maybe there is no reason to be concerned, and the law will eventually join the list of out of date laws that are mocked. However, a change of government and public mood is all that is required for film bans to become headline news again.


It’s a Bond movie, and we know what to expect. As the Irish Film Classification Office notes, there is “frequent intense action violence consistent with the franchise.” Across Canada, violence is the advisory. Everyone gave it a PG classification, except Quebec. Quebec does not have a PG equivalent. Quebec noted the film was not suitable for young children, and Manitoba also noted that, even though their PG clearly indicates films with that rating are not suitable for children under 12.

Most agencies give additional information on their web sites. Ontario is the only jurisdiction to warn about a little sexuality, and Alberta and Manitoba warn of alcohol use. British Columbia, which always counts coarse language, noted three uses. The BBFC noted the following uses of “mild bad language:” ‘bloody’, ‘bastard’, ‘shit’, ‘moron’, ‘asshole’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘hell’. Presumably not all of those words are considered coarse language in BC.

As usual, Canada’s ratings come in below the MPAA rating, however their PG-13, though higher than PG, does not have any age restrictions. Overseas, some countries have age suggestions, some have a requirement for adult accompaniment, and South Africa has an age limit, not allowing any children under 13. New Zealand’s age 16 suggestion seems high, but this classification is automatic when Australia classifies a film as M. Australia’s M means recommended for ages 15 and over. Mature can be a confusing term, since Manitoba uses it to mean viewers over 12.

The BBFC notes that the distributor made changes at the post production stage, in order to achieve the desired classification. These were presumably cuts, and the DVD release might include them as additional footage, though this could only be a few seconds of material, or different angles.

Area Classification Advisory Additional Information
Maritimes pg Parental Guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children. Violence
Quebec generalq Visa Général Déconseillé aux jeunes enfants
Ontario pg Parental Guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children. Violence Use of expletives, embracing and kissing, mild sexual innuendo, restrained portrayals of non-graphic violence
Manitoba pg Parental Guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children. Most suitable for mature viewers over 12. Not Recommended For Young Children, Violence Use of expletives/profanity, frequent non explicit violence, torture, alcohol use, incidents of suicide
Alberta pg Parental guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children. Violence Infrequent use of scatological slang, mild profanity and cursing, and mild vulgar expressions. Frequent portrayals of gun, weapons, and hand-to-hand violence – little blood or detail. Infrequent portrayals of alcohol use.
British Columbia pg Parental guidance advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children although there is no age restriction. Violence Several scenes of violence depicting beating, shooting, torture, burning and/or explosion. Three instances of coarse language.
MPAA (U.S.A.) PG-13 Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language.
BBFC 12A Under 12 requires adult accompaniment. Moderate violence, threat  Details include spoilers
Australia M Recommended for Mature audiences. Action violence.  View Chart
Ireland 12A Under 12 requires adult accompaniment. Frequent intense action violence consistent with the franchise. View Chart.
New Zealand M Suitable for Mature audiences 16 years and over. Violence
South Africa 13V Not suitable for persons under 13 (i.e. No admission under 13) Violence
Hong Kong IIA Not Suitable for Children Contains violence and mild shocking scenes.
U/A Parental discretion required for children below 12 years According to media reports, two kissing scenes were shortened, and two instances of bad language were removed.

Click the name of the jurisdiction for more details about the classification.

What Price Glory (1926) banned in Nova Scotia

What Price Glory? is an anti-war comedy, along the same lines as M*A*S*H. It’s a silent film, made by Fox in 1926, and re-released in 1927 using new technology to include sound effects and music. It was adapted from a successful but controversial 1924 play. The language and disrespect for military traditions both caused offense. The film version had no issues with language, except for people who could read lips and understand the generous profanities the actors used. There were complaints, but mouthed though unheard and untitled obscenities did not break any censorship rules. However, the disrespect for military traditions caused the film to be banned in Nova Scotia.

The story tells of two rowdy US Marines, who alternately fight together and with each other. Set in France, during World War I, both men are trying to win the affections of a French girl, improbably portrayed by Mexican star Delores Del Rio. Realistic battle scenes and the dynamic relationship between the two men contributed to the film’s success, and the two male leads continued their characters in a series of buddy comedies.

Anti-war films, and any films that showed the military in a negative light, or showed anything close to the realities of warfare, were usually banned in Canada during World War One. Under the War Measures Act, the federal government had the power to censor films, but in practice the understaffed federal military censors relied on, and received, the enthusiastic cooperation of provincial film censors. Following the war, as the grim realities sunk in, there was some opposition to the extensive censorship that had occurred, and support for anti-war sentiments. What Price Glory? could never have been shown during the war, but a decade later it was approved in every province – except Nova Scotia.

Film censor Colonel C. E. Bent, a veteran of the war, later explained why he condemned the film.

One of the reasons I gave for condemnation was ‘holding the discipline of the Army up to ridicule.’ Certain scenes between an Officer and a Sergeant showing them arguing and even fighting over a girl was, to my mind an insult to the Army in Peace or War. It certainly could never happen in our Army, they why should a picture be shown that would create a wrong impression on the minds of those who were not permitted to serve? The memory of the days of war, the wonderful discipline, the unparalleled examples of devotion to duty, the great comradeship, the sacrifice, is too real and far too sacred for me to allow it to be treated lightly.

The distributor appealed, and the appeal upheld the ban. The Casino Theatre in Halifax opposed the ban, and showed slides before other films advertising that What Price Glory? was banned, but only in Nova Scotia. This did not always have the desired effect. One patron wrote the Evening Mail to thank God for the Nova Scotia Censors, and praise them for ensuring that “Nova Scotia is holding herself just a little higher than her sister provinces.”

The Casino Theatre also arranged for a private showing in January of 1928, hoping publicity might overturn the ban. Following the showing, at least two local papers voiced support for the film, and the head of the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Canada wrote to Premier Rhodes to request the ban be overturned. The letter pointed out that while Colonel Bent may not have approved of the military portrayal in the film, the story concerned the US Military. “Applying British ideas and ideals to the story, there is something to be said against it, nevertheless the picture is frankly American and all other British Censor Boards have taken this view.”

Promoting the American nature of the military portrayal was a risky argument. Anti-American feeling was high in Canada, over trade issues and their late entry into the War. Censors in all provinces routinely cut “gratuitous displays of the American flag” and were particularly sensitive to American war films that ignored the contributions of Canadians. However, as one paper noted, the nationality of the soldiers was not unduly stressed in What Price Glory?

The Premier responded that while the Board may have erred in banning the film, he could not overturn their ruling. He noted that if he were to express such a lack of confidence in the Board, he would then have to either review all films personally, or hire a new Board. More seriously, he pointed out that the Board of Appeal had twice rejected the film, and that three of the seven appeal board members were appointed by the owner of the Casino Theatre.

The Association tried again, complaining that because only Nova Scotia banned the film, this was another example of burdensome “local prejudice.”

For example – A picture is put on the screen in which a Salvation Army lassie appears and immediately the Salvation Army raises a protest. Another picture presents a Boy Scout in a way that Boy Scouts do not appreciate, another protest is made to some local Censor Board. … we can only be successful in our business if Censorship in the eight provinces is based on general principles, rather than on local prejudice.

This was a doomed argument, since the provincial censors took pride in reflecting the concerns of their populations. The censors had decided in 1921 to move to a single national set of standards, based on the Ontario guidelines. However, in 1922, the censor for Alberta, mindful of the population mix there, suggested that banning all German films should be left up to the individual provinces. When the dust settled, the censors decided the provinces could not share standards, since “each province has a different class of people.” In recent decades there have been some sharing agreements, but Canada still has seven boards to approve and classify films, for the eleven provinces and territories that require it (the Yukon and Newfoundland do not).

The Secretary and the Chair of the Censor Board both wrote the Premier to insist that that ban stay in place, pointing out that, in addition to the offensive nature of the film, the distributor was probably hoping to capitalize on the publicity, and this should not be allowed. A couple of Legions sent telegrams insisting the ban stay in place. The North Sydney branch declared “We who know the price of glory do not want to see it prostituted before the public.” The Premier promised the Legion that he would uphold the decision of the Board of Censors.

Eventually the film was approved, and it now has a G rating. The Maritime Film Board ratings database shows the approval date as 1928, however this date was estimated in the 1980s, and may not be accurate. Board records are not archived, and the information about this film has been obtained from archival records of the Premier’s correspondence.

The film was remade in 1952, directed by John Ford and starring James Cagney, but an attempt to make it more humorous and less anti-war, in keeping with the tone of the times, resulted in a dull and unsuccessful film. The 1952 version has not been approved for showing in Nova Scotia, but it has probably never been submitted.

Colonel Bent of the Censor Board, members of the Legion, and some members of the public wanted to avoid saying anything bad about war, but there was also local support for an antiwar message. The labour oriented Halifax Citizen newspaper not only praised the film, but felt people should see it, and criticized past support for the war.

Why was the splendid picture, “What Price Glory?” rejected by the Nova Scotia Censors? This was the question asked by the representative gathering of prominent citizens who attended a private screening of the picture by invitation of Mr. R. J. McAdam, proprietor of the Casino. This picture should not only have been passed by the Censors, but a special effort should have been made to have EVERYBODY see it.  With perhaps a slight elimination, it should be shown in churches, where the glory of war was preached for five years; in the Sunday schools, where the pupils were taught the GLORY of being a soldier; in the public schools, where the pupils were filled up to the neck with war glorification during that period; in the colleges, where all the students were exhorted and even shamed into going to their death, and helping the perpetrators of the world’s greatest crime; in all public organizations and institutions where men or women gather together. All the people should see this picture and the Board of Censors should reconsider their decision. “What Price Glory?” IS THE BEST WAR WARNING EVER PRODUCED. It presents war in all its hideousness and shows that the “Glory,” so called, does not amount to shooks compared with the terrible cost, the awful sacrifice, the horror, suffering and , more than all, the disillusionment of those who thought they were going into a high and noble struggle.
Click the clipping for a clearer image or to enlarge it.


Vacation 2015/1983



I’m not sure if the latest Vacation is a sequel, a reboot, or a remake, but whatever it is, something is missing. Rotten Tomatoes gives the original 93%, and this one a mere 25%. The new one has the same general storyline and crude humour, but in a misguided effort to refresh the story, the crude factor is turned up. The respective trailers show the difference in tone. By comparison, the original looks like a masterpiece of sophisticated comedy.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia. The ratings of the original and new version, posted below, are the same in many jurisdictions, though Quebec, the BBFC, and Australia felt a higher rating was required. However, there is also ratings creep, the well documented tendency of each classification to allow more mature content over time. In other words, the current 14A allows more crude materal than the 14A of twenty years ago. While this is not deliberate on the part of the agencies, they are required to keep up with social trends, so if we are more relaxed about crude humour than we used to be, then permitting more of it in the same age classification is reasonable. The new Vacation is cruder in absolute terms, but not much cruder in relative terms.

Whether more crude humour is a good idea is questionable. Box office returns have been fair at best, and some American critics have blamed the R-rated humour, pointing out that previous sequels were more family friendly. However,  the similarly crude (but ultimately family values promoting) “We’re the Millers” did better box office than Vacation is doing. Perhaps the problem isn’t too much crude humour, but too little of anything else entertaining.

Area Classification
Advisories (2015 Version)
Maritimes 14a 14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Quebec  generalq  c13 Langage vulgaire
Ontario  14a  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Manitoba  14a  14a Crude Content, Coarse Language
Alberta  N/A  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
British Columbia  N/A  14a Coarse & sexual language
MPAA (U.S.A.) R  R Crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.
BBFC 15  R Strong language, sex references, nudity
Australia M  15+ Strong nudity and coarse language

Click the name of the jurisdiction for more details about the classification.

Why Restructure the Ontario Film Review Board?

According to news stories in the Toronto Star and on CBC, the Ontario government is planning to restructure the Ontario Film Review Board, as part of a larger project involving the hundreds of provincial government boards. The expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” comes to mind. The Board has operated more or less the same way for thirty years, with no significant controversy for the last ten. Significantly, it makes a profit, which is turned over to the provincial treasury.

The Star emphasizes the amount of adult sex films the Board reviews, and their contribution to the income, but there no suggestion that this will be changing, other than a vague mention of considering the fees. Ontario charges $4.20 a minute to review films, and while other provinces charge half that for mainstream films, they typically charge a similar amount for adult sex films. Reviewing fees are inconsequential to major distributors, but a significant burden to smaller companies, such as adult sex distributors, and are prohibitive for adult sex companies and independent producers that specialize in niche markets such as gay, lesbian, and feminist erotica.

If the government is feeling guilty over the income from reviewing adult sex films, and the burden on that industry, they could simply stop reviewing them. Unlike other films, there is no question that the classification will be Restricted. Unlike other films, the review process does not provide any content information or warnings. Adult sex films may contain nothing but softly lit romantic, loving sex, or graphic close ups of people being murdered during sex (murder during sex is permitted as long as it is not for sexual pleasure). The mandate of the Board is to provide “the public with sufficient information to make informed viewing choices for themselves,” but they do not do this for adult sex films.

Board approval of an adult sex film does not mean it is legal, either. Obscenity laws are federal, not provincial, and only the criminal courts can determine if a film is legal or illegal (criminally obscene). As a result, the Board can and has approved films which have subsequently been found criminally obscene or seized at customs (it has also banned films which are not criminally obscene). Since the review of adult sex films does not confirm they are legal, or provide any information for viewers, it appears to be nothing more than a sin tax.

Government and Consumer Services Minister David Orazietti says he wants the board to make less money (?), and Board chair Bruce Davis is complaining that board members are required to watch pornography (in fact they fast forward through it), so perhaps they will scrap reviewing adult sex films. Civilization would not collapse. Alberta does not review any home video, including adult sex films, Manitoba does not ban any films, and Newfoundland and the Yukon have no film classification at all. Things would improve for small distributors of adult sex films, but I’m confused as to why any government would want to abandon existing revenue in order to make things easier for the pornography industry. Is no one thinking about the headlines?

The CBC story takes a different tack. Orazietti says he wants to talk to the other provinces about greater consistency in ratings, thus revealing his lack of knowledge about film classification in Canada. The story also suggests Ontario and Quebec are the only provinces that rate films, and the others rely on them or the American MPAA ratings. It’s not clear if this central-Canada-centric ignorance is Orazietti’s or the CBC‘s. Manitoba, Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia all rate films. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island use Nova Scotia’s ratings, Nunavut and NWT use Alberta’s, and Saskatchewan uses BC’s. The days of other provinces accepting Ontario’s cuts because the bits of film have already been removed are long gone.

The five English language agencies harmonized their classification schemes in 2004, and across Canada, even taking Quebec’s significantly different classification scheme into account, three-quarters of all films get the same rating. My own analysis of ratings has shown that the only factor affecting consistency of ratings is whether the films are rated by appointed part time board members, or full time employees (as in Alberta, BC, and Quebec). It should be no surprise that a small group of full time employees give more consistent ratings.

The CBC story also mentions The Hunger Games as a film with inconsistent ratings, noting the unusually high 14A in Ontario. What they don’t mention is that The Hunger Games was originally rated PG in Ontario, and re-rated several weeks after release, in response to complaints.

The Ontario Film Review Board is not without problems. It would benefit from a few tweaks and an updated website. Film classification never makes everyone happy, and that’s okay. It is an example of the compromises that occur in functioning democracies. The Ontario Board has been working smoothly for years, makes money, and responds to the public. It’s hard to see how this new proposed Ontario Film Authority could be an improvement, which raises the possibility that things might get worse.

More than you ever wanted to know about the provincial film review boards: Film Classification in Canada and the United States: The Freedom of Government Control?

Mad Max: Fury Road

The first three Mad Max films are all violent, but different in tone. The third, Beyond Thunderdome, was not even originally a Mad Max film, which explains some of the differences. Mad Max: Fury Road promises to be different again, if nothing else because of time that’s passed. It’s been thirty years since Beyond Thunderdome. The film makers promised minimal use of CGI, but if you are using it to remove safety cables, you’re still taking advantage of new technologies. They also have a bigger budget for cool vehicles (and have finally corrected the questionable but cinematically impressive use of a clutched blower). Purists might argue that filming in Namibia instead of the Australian outback is a cheat, but thanks to climate change, the actual environmental degradation of the outback does not look like environmental degradation, so another location was necessary. (Read an article about the actual and imagined environmental issues of Fury Road.)

Consistent with the earlier films, Fury Road is violent. There’s not much else to cause offense – a touch of non-sexual nudity, a couple of swears – but lots of violence, as noted by classifiers everywhere. There are many deaths during the chase sequences (i.e. most of the film) but less gory violence than I was expecting, based on the advisories. A few disturbing moments were narratively justified, not simply to show off effects or for shock value.  Across Canada the rating was consistently 14A, and most other jurisdictions also set a mid-teen age limit, though in several countries that limit is regardless of adult accompaniment.

There is a controversy about the portrayals of women in this film – not because they are victims, but because they do something about being victimized. One men’s rights reviewer called for a boycott of this subversive film, while feminist reviewers have celebrated the film. The best response is this one. The argument that Max is relegated to a lesser role in favor of a female hero is silly. In both Road Warrior and Thunderdome, Max is a helper to other leaders – a pregnant teenage girl in Thunderdome. He’s the wandering stranger that comes to restore social order, but does not become part of it. There’s still a traditional romantic subplot in Fury Road, and the presence of strong female characters and gender issues adds depth. However, the biggest difference in tone compared to the earlier films is not the strong female characters or the gender issues, but the ending. There’s no place like home.

Area Classification Advisories
Maritimes 14a Under 14 requires adult accompaniment Violence, Disturbing Content
Quebec c13 Under 13 requires adult accompaniment Violence
Ontario 14a Under 14 requires adult accompaniment Gory scenes, graphic violence
Manitoba 14a Under 14 requires adult accompaniment Not Recommended For Children, Violence, Disturbing Content
Alberta 14a Under 14 requires adult accompaniment Violence, Not Recommended For Children
British Columbia 14a Under 14 requires adult accompaniment frequent violence
MPAA (U.S.A.) R Under 17 requires parent or guardian Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.
BBFC 15 No admission under 15 strong violence, threat
Australia 15+ No admission under 15 Strong violence and post-apocalyptic themes
Ireland 15A Under 15 requires adult accompaniment Frequent strong bloody action violence
New Zealand R16 No admission under 16 Violence and content that may disturb
South Africa 13V Not suitable for persons under 13 Violence
India UA (Unrestricted Public Exhibition-But With Parental Guidance)
Hong Kong IIB Not Suitable for
Young Persons and Children
Contains strong violence,strong shocking scenes and occasional nudity

Click the name of the jurisdiction for more details about the classification.

Speech and Music

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has decided to cancel a performance by pianist Valentina Lisitsa, apparently due to complaints about her online postings concerning the war in the Ukraine. Lisitsa was born there, has expressed strong feelings about the conflict, and apparently some people found her comments offensive.

Strictly speaking, this is not a censorship issue. No one is telling her she cannot express her opinion. And although she is an artist, this is not an artistic issue either. Her performances are completely apolitical. Nor is this an issue of private life spilling into the public arena, as she was speaking publicly. She is simply, like many people before her, someone who said something unpopular on social media and lost their job over it.

It’s hard to blame the employer. Protests are bad publicity, and while some businesses ride it out, not all want to, or can afford to, stand behind an unpopular employee. Suggestions that people should keep unpopular or controversial opinions to themselves are pointless. Innocent statements are taken out of context, and beliefs change. The fault lies with the mob.

The mob has a certain set of views, and tolerates no discussion. Issues are simple – you either agree, or you are the enemy. Thus a piano player who expresses an opinion about a war in another country should no longer be allowed to play the piano. This intolerant, black and white view of the world benefits no one. It allows small differences to separate us from other people, and makes it harder to resolve any issue, because solutions are seen as winning or losing. Unfortunately, two-party democracies reinforce this binary world view. Politicians trying to score votes make it worse by promoting and exploiting all manner of social binaries – criminals vs law abiding, hard working vs welfare cheats, gun owners vs non-gun owners, unions vs management, men vs women, foreigners vs citizens, and so on. Wars are both a result of intolerance and way to further it. A question we ask in almost every dispute, from a romantic disagreement to a war, is “whose side are you on?”

Imagine if we didn’t take sides? We could all agree that Valentina plays very well, regardless of her political opinions, which she in turn may not feel so compelled to express, ideally because there would be no war at her birthplace. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

Update: The TSO originally arranged for Stewart Goodyear to play the scheduled piece of music, but he has been bullied into declining. ‘Goodyear says he was accused of supporting censorship and what began as one of the happiest moments of his life turned into a “shattering display of mob hysteria.”‘ The mob scores another victim.

Fifty Shades of Grey

The publishing phenomenon arrives in theatres for Valentines Day, though it might not be the best choice for a date movie. Much has been written about the books, and the coming movie, and what it all means. It’s good to have conversations about sex and power in relationships, and to remember that most of us can separate reality and fantasy, but I’ll let others dwell on that. I’m interested in how film classifiers handle an erotic film that is based on a popular book yet portrays what is essentially an abusive relationship.

All the English language agencies agreed on 18A as the classification. This is roughly the same as the Restricted rating in the United States. Restricted in the United States, and 18A in Canada, allow anyone to attend if accompanied by an adult (except in Manitoba and the Martimes, where there is a lower age limit of 14. Quebec used its 16+ rating, allowing older teens to attend but not allowing anyone younger. The Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, B.C., has decided not the show the film, on the grounds that the 18A rating admits minors. Countries outside of North America are a little stricter than most of Canada and the United States. Malaysia, one of the strictest jurisdictions, has banned the film, as has conservative Kenya.

Advisories are part of the classification and must be included with all advertising, but agencies often list additional warnings on their websites. Ontario noted “nudity, sexual content, disturbing content” as part of the classification, but online also warns of:

  • Limited use of slurs
  • Coarse language
  • Sexual references
  • Partial or full nudity in a brief sexual situation
  • Limited instances of nudity in a sexual situation
  • Illustrated or verbal references to drugs, alcohol or tobacco
  • Crude content
  • Occasional upsetting or disturbing scenes
  • Embracing and kissing
  • Fondling
  • Sexual innuendo
  • Implied sexual activity
  • Limited instances of brief simulated sexual activity
  • Restrained portrayals of non-graphic violence

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

 Area Classification Advisories
Maritimes 18a Under 18 requires adult accompaniment, no admission under 14. Nudity, Sexual Content
Quebec c16 No admission under 16. Érotisme
Ontario 18a Under 18 requires adult accompaniment Nudity, Sexual Content, Disturbing Content
Manitoba 18a Under 18 requires adult accompaniment, no admission under 14. Sexual Content, Substance/Alcohol Abuse
Alberta 18a Under 18 requires adult accompaniment Sexual Content
British Columbia 18a Under 18 requires adult accompaniment  Sexually suggestive scenes, Nudity
MPAA (U.S.A.)  R Under 18 requires adult accompaniment Strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, language.
BBFC  18 No admission under 18 Strong Sex
Australia  15+ No admission under 15 Strong sex scenes, sexual themes and nudity
Ireland  18 No admission under 18 Explicit sexual content.
New Zealand  R18 No admission under 18 Sex scenes & offensive language
South Africa  16 No admission under 16 Strong Language, Nudity, Sex
France  -12 No admission under 12
Singapore  R21 Restricted to persons aged 21 and above Mature Theme and Sexual Scenes

Click the name of the jurisdiction for more details about the classification.