Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Outline of Censorship in Film

Think of film censorship. The examples which spring to mind tend to be of violent and sexual content that has led to outrage and claims that the 'fabric of society has broken down'. However, there are a great many films which have not been banned, but either by a process of self-regulation on the part of the director or studio, or through some cuts on the part of the censor or, and far more commonly, through classification are either released in a form different to the original, or are only released for some of us to see.

Even the record-breaking Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, though not censored raised concerns. It was teachers who warned that a dangerous interest in the occult could be s possible outcome of the film's huge influence over children. As is often the case, it was only the film release that raised any concern (the same was true of A Clockwork Orange and Crash, both acceptable in novel form).

Below is the list of concerns which must be addressed by the British Board of Film Classification when judging whether film content is acceptable (and acceptable to what age groups) or whether it needs to be cut and censored. The BBFC is neutral and independent (although there are suggestions that, despite this claim, it is accountable to the government).

  1. Sexual violence
  2. Emphasis on the process of violence and sadism
  3. Glamorisation of weapons that are both particularly dangerous and not already well-know in Britain
  4. Ill-treatment of animals or child actors
  5. Details of imitable, dangerous or criminal techniques
  6. Blasphemous images or dialogue

The question that needs to be considered at the beginning of this topic and throughout is simply who decides?

All of the Media Debates and Issues demand an opinion and personal engagement to the degree where you have your own informed view to argue in an intelligent and balanced manner. For instance, what is the cultural value of soap opera etc. The difference with the topic of film censorship is that you probably have your own opinion already, before you learn about the academic perspective.


  • What is censorship and why does it happen?
  • What are the different kinds of self-censorship or what different kinds of material get censored?
  • Is censorship necessary; are there some kinds of material that need to be censored more than others?
  • Which kinds of material should be censored to certain groups of people and which banned altogether?


  1. History of film censorship
  2. Different motives for censorship
  3. Arguments for and against censorship
  4. Debates containing effects theories

You will need to relate these to contemporary examples. This section will point you towards some famous examples, but at the time of reading there will be films that are being censored, banned or are causing certain sections of the public to call for their withdrawal from circulation.


This body came into being in 1912 to enforce the Cinematograph Act of 1909. Cinemas were licensed by local authorities and films were classified as suitable for everyone or adults only.

Middle ground was introduced in the 20s, recognising that there were some films which children could see under the supervision of parents.

Horror films were classified separately in the 30s as 'H' films. Shortly afterwards, the 'X' rating was introduced which barred all under-16s.

In the 70s, the X-rating was raised to 18 and 'AA' was introduced for 14 plus only.

In the 80s the framework became U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 and was also applicable to video retail and rental. In 1982 the Board changed its name from Censors to Classification to acknowledge the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, their role was not to prevent exhibition of films, but to control the audience.

Before the 1909 Act, censorship was voluntary in the sense that filmmakers wanted their new medium to be established as a respectable art form. The Act led to the establishment of the BBFC and then films were either cut or banned fairly frequently when they were deemed unsuitable for the public. This notion of unsuitability has always been fiercely contested. Who can say what is suitable, who has the right to judge?

Censorship has tended to operate around the following key kinds of examples:

SEXUAL CONTENT Damaged Goods (1919) was not given a certificate. Plot was about a soldier with sexually transmitted disease.

VIOLENCE. Two 1992 films, Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers both fell foul f censor at video release stage.

TASTE. A hard category to define. Many films have been cut for this reason e.g. Night and Fog (1959), contained unacceptable documentary footage of corpses in Nazi concentration camps.

POLITICS. A controversial area. Films were refused certification on fears that political content could lead to public unrest. Fear of revolution led to banning of Battleship Potemkin (1926) because of its pro-communist slant.

BLASPHEMY. Local councils used powers to ban Monty Python's Life of Brian because of its comical treatment of the story of Jesus.

MORAL PANIC. This term describes the hysterical reaction that mainstream society sometimes has to groups of people who challenge conventions and behave in ways that threaten the status quo. Films that offer an insight into such subcultures are often banned or edited lest they serve to encourage people to participate. Example The Wild One (1954) starring Marlon Brando as a Hell's Angel. It was banned as a bad example to the young.

The examiner suggests you look for three examples of every type, including current examples.

Examining the discourses of censorship tells us a lot about its functions. The following are all quotes from either censors or other groups, ranging from the 20s to recent years:

The Exorcist (1973): the most shocking sick-making and soul-destroying work ever to emege from filmland' - The Daily Mail.

The Wild One (1954): 'the police were shown as weak characters and the teenagers did not get the punishment they deserve' - the BBFC.

Straw Dogs (1971): 'if anyone tries to re-enact this, god help Britain.'- The Sunday Times.

Crash (1996): this film is about sexual autoeroticism - a movie beyond the bounds of depravity' - The Evening Standard.

Examine the statements above. What do they have in common? What do they all assume about the viewers and the effects of films on them?


Those who believe in some form of film censorship hold the view that censorship protects the moral values that are prevalent in society, thus it reflects our values.

The counter-argument is that censorship imposes the values of certain people, who do not necessarily respect the rest of us, and it assumes that we are not capable of mature, safe responses to 'immoral' material.

Most people's views on censorship depend on the context. There is a kind of continuum - at one end there is the view that media, including cinema, influence people and teach behaviour, like the hypodermic needle injecting 'effects' into passive viewers. At the other end, there is the anti-censorship view, which feels that we are able to understand texts as works of fiction or art; if an individual commits an act of violence in response to a media experience, then the psychological condition of the perpetrator is the problem, not the film. In between are those of us who think that classification is needed and those who believe that some kinds of films might be 'harmful', but that others are not.

One famous advocate of censorship was the late Mary Whitehouse. For many years she lobbied for the banning of films and TV programmes, on the grounds that media images of sex and violence are in part responsible for the decline of moral standards in society.

Whitehouse claimed that it is indisputable that young people are vulnerable to harmful screen images. She used accounts from psychologists and researchers to apparently prove the link between violent acts and exposure to violent images. In particular, Whitehouse decried films where violence is depicted without moral context, or where violence is not punished. In this sense, those concerned about the effects of film images differentiate between the contexts for such images (i.e. the rationale for, or the justification for the violence).

Whitehouse believed that the burning issue is one of protection, arguing that it is a matter of getting filmmakers to accept a sense of their own responsibility for the health and welfare of the whole of society, especially for the welfare of children. She may be a rather extreme example of the pro-censorship lobby (and here we have dealt only with violence, remember there are at least six other criteria which have been used to scrutinise film content), but her views do resonate, in part at least, with those who believe that:

  1. Films are potentially influential
  2. Viewers of films receive messages, which, in some cases, they need to be protected from
  3. There are certain people who are capable of judging what others should be able to see


There is a difference between an argument that disagrees with all of the three statements above (i.e. a view that suggests films are not influential) and an argument that asserts that films can influence, but that citizens should not be all treated as though they cannot interpret filmic images safely.

What is really at stake is the assumed link between viewing and behaviour. This is referred to as the 'media effects debate'.


This debate rests on whether or not people agree with the 'effects model'. This way of understanding the relationship between film and viewer is grounded in BEHAVIOURIST Psychology which examines taught behaviour and 'stimulus-response'. In this framework, viewers of violent images take part in various tests. These determine the extent that people's likelihood to respond to certain situations violently is increased, as a result of exposure to violent images.

However, this approach has been refuted by those who think that this way of examining media violence is 'topsy-turvy'. That is, looking first at film violence and then at the social problem of violence as an effect is less useful than to look at the social problem first and research violent behaviour and the experiences and psychological profiles of violent people.

David Gauntlett, a much publicised critic of the effects model suggested that this approach is like implying that the solution to the number of road traffic accidents in Britain would be to lock away one famously bad driver from Cornwall! In other words, the effects model tries to approach things the wrong way.

The many academics who have opposed the effects model have all argued against its central thesis - that we receive media messages passively, that violent films have a causal effect in the same way that cigarettes harm the lungs. While effects experiments and hypotheses have offered 'spins' on this notion, they have all tended to assume this passivity.

Another outspoken critic of the effects model and the justification for censorship that it offers, is Mark Kermode. It is useful to look at two arguments he has put forward against censoring films. Kermode argues that, to the true horror fan, the pleasure of the genre lies in the ironic, excessive send-up nature of 'graphic' scenes.

Hence, the horror fan is a sophisticated 'reader' of film references. Horror can offer a post-modern approach to film (where horror films all relate to each other in what is essentially an intertextual game). This means that nobody is more aware that horror films are not real than the viewers who the censors are trying to 'protect'. To take this argument to its logical conclusion (and it is up to you to decide whether you agree), the only people truly qualified to judge how harmful a horror film might be, are people who have seen other horror films and have viewed than with the sophisticated engagement that only a fan is capable of.

Kermode claims that the reason for the difference of opinion between censors and genre fans is not because horror fans have become hardened or insensitive to violence through years of exposure to sadistic material. Rather, the experienced horror fan understands the material through knowledge of a history of genre texts and this actually makes any sense or arousal, sadistic or otherwise, unlikely.


Since the New Labour Government came to power in 1997, the BBFC has been seen to be mellower in its response to films, largely to the appointment of Robert Duval as Director of the BBFC who took over from James Ferman. Duval continued Ferman's roadshows which travel around the country and where members of the public can take part in the 'Citizens' Jury' to give their view on classification issues.

It might be possible to contact the BBFC to see if you can take part in one. In September 2000 the Board published new guidelines, relaxing the 18 category, but becoming tougher at younger levels. Most significantly, but least publicised, Duval's regime liberalised the R18 category, which essentially means that some forms of hardcore pornography are now legal in Britain.

Duval's main tactic was to increase the transparency of the Board's decision-making in order to reduce the Board's motives by the media. In 1999 the BBFC Annual Report stated that: 'harm will remain the abiding and central concern of the BBFC'.

This notion of harm, and subsequently the importance of protection, remains at the heart of this debate. A famous recent example of this was the cutting of a few seconds from Fight Club (1999). The cut was criticised by many as merely 'tinkering' and unlikely to have made a tremendous amount of difference. BBFC News justified this: 'There were two scenes in Fight Club in which the violence was excessively sustained. In both scenes there was an indulgence in the excitement of beating a defenceless man's face to a pulp. The Board required that cuts be made.'

Duval's intention is to move towards a less mandatory, more advisory system and thus place more trust in the public. To this end, the BBFC has experimented with a 'PG-12' rating which allows the parent to decide whether a films suitable for 12-year-olds might be suitable for their 10 to 11-year-olds. Duval's desires revolve around a trust of the public to decide for themselves and a form of self-regulation as opposed to imposition from the censor.


This section has introduced you to some of the arguments for and against censorship and / or classification. However, the most useful way to move towards a personal, informed response is to 'test' these perspectives on a case of your own. While you are working on this topic, there is sure to be a film released which is either banned or provokes calls from censorship. Investigate the reasons for the reactions to the film, noting the following:

  • Provocative content
  • Type of censorship / type of censorship called for
  • Arguments in defence of the film
  • Notion of protection (who and from what)
  • Your views