Do We Really Need Film Censorship?

Film censorship is when a group of people or an organisation or even a government tell us what we can and can’t watch in films. This all started in America in the 1930’s when a man named William H Chaise put an organisation together called the MPAA. The organisation is still going strong. In the UK we have the BBFC. They tell us pretty much which kind of content is okay to put in a film.

In America, the rating system starts with a G, which is General Audiences. Anyone of any age can go and watch. Then they have PG 13, which means parents have to go along with their children but the film is not suitable for the age of children under the age of 13. Next, they have R which is Restricted and means no one under the age of 17 can go and see the film unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Finally, they have the NC 17 rating which means no one under the age of 18 can go and watch the film.


In the UK, the BBFC has created a bit more of a detailed rating system. We have U for Universal which means anyone can watch, PG or Parental Guidance which means they’d like parents and guardians to check out the film before they allow their kids to go and see it. Then we have 12 and 12A. The first allows children over the age of 12 to watch the film on their own, and if they are under 12 they need to be accompanied by a responsible adult.


The next categories are 15 and 18, which means anyone over the ages of 15 and 18 respectively can go and watch the correctly categorised films.


Censors can also get it wrong


Now, you may have noticed that all these ratings are made for parents. And most parents take their censorship responsibilities very seriously. They welcome the ratings as a guideline to deciding what their kids can or can’t watch. But a lot of them also think that the system doesn’t always work. The latest remake of The Woman in Black is just one example of a very scary film rated at a mere 12, which caused widespread concern amongst worried parents.


These days, a lot of people believe that a film audience can’t think for itself and that viewers are likely to repeat acts they see on film. But are we really that malleable? There is an argument which suggests we become desensitised to certain acts the more we see them. If this is true then it follows that the consequences of those acts lose on significance. For example, how many of us have counted the number of times we’ve seen someone shot (with a gun) on film? Or decapitated. Or being killed in car crashes. Clearly, some kind of desensitisation is taking place. Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep going back for more.


But doesn’t our concept of shock value change with our depth of viewing experience? For the more mature film fan, shock value doesn’t necessarily have to mean extreme violence, nor extreme sexual content or anything at all similar. It can be something that leaves an emotional resonance, or which connects with us on a deeper level. In other words, what shocked us in our teens doesn’t have the same impact when we’re in our 30’s and 40’s.


Many times in film history ‘higher people’, governments and organisations have repeatedly told us what we can and cannot watch. But is this really fair? Especially in light of the fact that we are all capable of self-censorship. We CAN turn the TV off. We CAN get up and walk out of the cinema. So shouldn’t the responsibility lie with the individual and not government?


People will always watch what they want to watch


Relevance is also an issue. When it comes down to the rub, how do organisations stop people from seeing something they want to see? With film piracy rife on the Internet, pirate copies of brand new films are available within days of release. Sometimes even hours. Which makes the policing of any kind of film censorship a very difficult prospect.


One of the biggest factors of censorship is violence. But where does the line need to be drawn? And why does it need to be drawn at all? When Saving Private Ryan arrived in British cinemas, a lot of the viewing public were dumbstruck by the intensely graphic portrayal of the Normandy beach landings. Of course, the film was based on fact, but what makes that kind of violence in a film more acceptable than others? Liam Neeson’s Taken is another good example. Many critics and fans alike may have thought the first film was a bit silly, that it was a lot of fun and probably not violent enough. Yet, this is, without doubt, a film that celebrates violence. And while part one had an 18 certificate, the sequels went from 15 and then down to 12.


This is a clear instance of filmmakers collaborating with the censors. The more people who are allowed to see the films the more money the filmmakers earn. In return, they follow the BBFC guidelines and agree to tone down the violence to acceptable levels. And the same thing happens to films with high levels of sexual content and bad language.


Many people become affected by films, in good ways and bad. And it can happen at any time in their life. But does this justify a censorship system? Certainly, no one would argue that our younger audiences need protecting and most people agree there should be a line drawn in the sand when it comes to sex, violence, exploitation and any kind of cinematic celebration of all the other vices out there. But in a world where freedom of choice and free will is constantly under threat, can we really sit back, reach for the popcorn and accept that film censorship is a necessary evil?



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