** THIS ARTICLE HAS HAD AN AMMENDMENT MADE TO IT SINCE ITS ORIGINAL PUBLICATION! **
With Thanks to the Melon-Farmers site, for linking to the original article here on which mine is based.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while now, know that different censorship standards apply depending on the country you live in. The two most notable Film Classification Bodies relevant to my blog, are the BBFC in Britain, and the MPAA in the USA.
Despite what many people think, the MPAA aren’t always the “open” Classification Body they would like you to think they are. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. They would much prefer you know as little about them, and the way they run their organisation, as humanly possible. In effect, they operate as clandestinely as they can.
This has been best demonstrated, in the excellent documentary from US film-maker Kirby Dick, in the brilliant film THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, from 2006 – a documentary I’ve recommended many times in the past! In it, Dick and various private investigators try to discover just who the MPAA actually are, and why they operate in the way that they do. What they discover is more shocking than you could ever imagine.
Unlike the BBFC, who publish a list of most of the main staff as seen here the MPAA are extremely cloak-and-dagger. Other than the current CEO, former US Senator Mr Chris Dodd, it’s almost impossible to find out who works for them. Even their own website here only mentions Mr Dodd, and the film distributors who make-up and run the MPAA. Note that the MPAA only lists companies, not personnel, as the MPAA is owned and run by the major film studios, namely:
– Walt Disney Studios,
– Paramount Pictures Corporation,
– Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.,
– Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation,
– Universal City Studios L.L.C., and,
– Warner Bros Entertainment Inc
Even on the “Contact Us” page, only three other people are named – Kate Bedingfield and Howard Gantman for the MPAA’s Media Inquiries department, and Ana Soellner for any Programming Inquiries. So trying to get in touch with the people, team(s) or personnel who actually classify the films submitted to them is almost impossible.
One of the main discussions in Dick’s documentary, was it’s unfair treatment of homosexual subject matter, or homosexuality-themed material. In the UK, the BBFC makes no difference in its treatment of sexual material. So, it matters not one jot if the characters are straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender. It only matters on the “strength” of the material depicted. Thus, a film like BLACK SWAN (2010, Darren Aronofsky) which famously features a sex scene between two women, was classified uncut at 15, but in the USA, was given an R rating for “strong sexual content“.
The MPAA’s mission statement is: “advancing the business and art of filmmaking, protecting the creative and artistic freedoms of filmmakers, and ensuring the satisfaction of our audiences worldwide“. However, many gay and queer film-makers and stars question this, because the classification process is run by six major studios and whom it is in their interests to restrict and damage films released by minor and independent studios and film-makers. And as many minor and independent studios and film-makers have discovered, trying to appeal an “R” rating from the MPAA is a financially-impossible struggle, with no rational appeals process.
You see, unlike the BBFC, when classifying a film, the MPAA will only tell you if a film is “too strong” for a certain rating, or “is unlikely to be acceptable at ___ rating, in its current form“. So, if you ask them, “What do I need to remove, to get the ___ rating“, they won’t tell you. Thus, as a film-maker, you have to keep editing, submitting, and re-editing and resubmitting, until you get the MPAA’s final seal-of-approval.
With the BBFC, they’ll tell you exactly what the problem is, what to cut, and will do their best to help you out. They’ll give you lists of specific cuts, and what the results will be if you agree to make the cuts, or not. In many ways, they are one of the most open classification boards anywhere in the world. They actually make a film-maker’s life easy, and don’t treat you any differently, whether you’re a big major studio churning out blockbusters since the dawn of time, or a first-timer submitting your very first film to them, on a shoestring budget. It’s a very even playing field. All they care about is, how “adult” is your film, and is it suitable for its intended audience. Nothing else matters.If anything, if you are a newcomer to them, they will bend over backwards to accommodate and help you out, at every step of the classification process.
In the UK and USA, there have been numerous gay-themed films and films aimed at a gay audience. From DESERT HEARTS (1985, Donna Deitch), GO FISH (1994, Rose Troche), through to TAXI ZUM KLO (1981, Frank Ripploh), QUERELLE (1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), SEBASTIANE (1976, Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress) and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (aka LA VIE D’ADELE – CHAPITRES 1 ET 2) (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche). Some have been crossover hits to the mainstream, others have resolutely stayed true to their arthouse homes. But none were treated more harshly, than their heterosexual brothers and sisters… …in the UK.
In the USA, the merest hint of homosexuality, and the MPAA will slam it with an instant R rating, irrespective of its theme, treatment or suitability! And thus, we arrive to their latest classification, for a low-budget comedy/drama called LOVE IS STRANGE (2014, Ira Sachs) which stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who are a happily-married, middle-aged gay couple, who are facing being made homeless, when one of them loses their job.
Here in the UK, the film has been classified as a 15, purely for the strong language. If it weren’t for the language, it would have received a 12A, meaning that – in theory at least – parents of under-12’s could take their children to see this film, should they have wished to do so.
So why does the MPAA seemingly hate gay people and gay movies?
Well, as shocking as it might seem, American sensibilities on gay sexuality in 2014, is still very much in the dark ages, in terms of the media portrayal of gay people and gay-life! Yes, HBO has shows such as GIRLS, LOOKING and TELL ME YOU LOVE ME, but these are limited to Cable-only receivers, not mainstream Network TV. In fact, there’s almost no gay or gay-themed shows on any of the main networks, such as CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC Universal. It’s still a verboten subject. Of course, we had comedy shows such as WILL AND GRACE, and FRIENDS, that included gay characters, but they were – for the most part – hardly the best presentation of what being gay in the USA is like, and were very much treated as a joke, at the expense of the characters themselves. In effect, being gay was just a bit of a parody! Something to deride, laugh at, and poke fun at! Hardly modern and culturally sensitive!
Even the 1993 PBS mini-series TALES OF THE CITY based on Armistead Maupin’s classic San Franciscan novels, was met with a ripple rather than a wave of shock in the USA. Only ABC’s ELLEN (aka THESE FRIENDS OF MINE) which ran from 1994-98, tried to make the portrayal of gay life seem normal, acceptable, and benign, rather than something to be shocked by. Unfortunately, once Ellen DeGeneres came-out for real, in Season 3’s “The Puppy Episode”, the fall-out and controversy was too much, and the show was promptly axed just over a year later, with ABC even adding a “Parental Advisory” notice to the start of all future episodes, lest sensitive American families be morally-affronted by the concept of a gay woman appearing in a sitcom! Being Gay really was a problem for modern America, and was still something that should only be spoken of in hushed terms, lest it corrupt audiences.
On Cable, you had QUEER AS FOLK USA (2000-2005), the acclaimed mini-series drama ANGELS IN AMERICA (Mike Nicholls, 2003), and the rather iffy 2004 series QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY, a reality show, in which gay men would try and help straight men/women, with their fashion choices!
It took until 2004, before US Cable network Showtime allowed a full-on portrayal of what being gay meant, to appear on screens, and treated gays and lesbians as equals. THE L-WORD, revolved around the lives of a group of lesbian women in Los Angeles, where the sexual orientation wasn’t the sole reason for the characters or the plots! But even that show, imploded by its final season, when one of the lead characters is murdered by one of the other main ladies, and the show limped along until its derisory conclusion. What started-out as being a refreshing, frank, and ultimately generally forward-thinking show, portraying gay women (and men too) as being normal people, with jobs, families, friends, took a wrong-turn and outsmarted itself.
Today, ABC’s MODERN FAMILY has done a lot to move the portrayal of gay life in America, forward and in a positive manner, but that show is very much the exception, not the norm. Cable TV shows are really the only major venues for modern gay audiences, either as main characters or in supporting roles where they are treated with dignity and respect, and their sexuality is not the be-all and end-all of their appearance.
But if TV can at least make some attempt to move forward, even if that movement is at a snail’s pace, why cannot the MPAA do the same with cinema?
What is so wrong with the fact that two men or two women may fall in love with each other, and want to have a relationship?! Why is being gay, seen as immoral? Why is being sexually and physically attracted to someone of the same sex as you, seen as an abomination in some countries, and a practice worthy of such people being stoned to death?!
In 1993, Jonathan Demme directed the acclaimed Tom Hanks movie PHILADELPHIA, about a gay lawyer removed from his firm, allegedly on the grounds of being unsuited to the job. He then hires a rival, but extremely homophobic lawyer, to file a civil suit against the company.
For its time, the film was groundbreaking. Not afraid to show gay people as being just like everyone else; as normal, well-balanced, committed, hard-working and prosperous individuals, just trying to get on in life, doing the best they can. Although the MPAA rated it a PG-13, for some graphic language and thematic material. Was the language really “graphic” in the truest sense of the word? No, not really. Maybe to very closed-minded people it would have been, but for the rest of us, the language was refreshingly honest, rather than tip-toeing around the issue. So, yes, words like “faggot” and “queer” (in the pejorative manner) were occasionally used. But the overarching theme of the movie, was about tolerance, not intolerance! Thus, the “offending” language was justified, by the context of the movie.
When recently rewatching the film, it does have its problems. The film does try to paint Hanks character as a little too perfect at times, and the ending is both brilliantly emotional, but also horribly mawkish at the same time.Many reviewers pointed-out that Denzel Washington wasn’t just chosen because he was a great actor, but also because he was a great African American actor. Thus, his legal fight with him and Opposing Counsel (Mary Steenburgen) could also be seen as a Black Vs White and Man Vs Woman triumph too. All lovingly balanced, to the point of almost keeling over itself! I can see that point, and whilst I’m sure Demme never intended that viewpoint to be taken, there are points in the film that raise some rather difficult questions. Why, for example, is Beckett (Hanks) shamefully admits in open-court that he once had an anonymous sexual encounter in an Adult Theatre, but only once, is the implication that that encounter was wrong? Are we meant to judge Beckett for this tryst? More to the point, if he’d had 10, or 50 encounters, should that give us permission for us to judge/condemn him for such encounters? Does it make his win over his ex-employers ultimately any less worthy, legal or moral for that matter?
Demme pulled the same tactic, in THE ACCUSED in 1987, which deals with Jodie Foster as a provocatively-dressed woman who is gang-raped in a bar, and seeks justice, but the Defence claims that what she wore, and how she acted, played a part in the rape, and thus mitigated it. Whilst in that film, Demme was being far more progressive, as his “opinion” was actually based on many genuine rape trials that had collapsed or failed, based on what the victim had been doing, and thus, they were partly to blame. So, in that instance, he was actually making the point that this is not just his view, but one that the higher echelon’s of society also hold, and because of that, there are people being failed by the US Justice System. Thus, his point has far more impact.
At times, PHILADELPHIA almost seems to tolerate the very prejudice it tries so hard to condemn. The joke about the hot yogurt being thrown on someone’s back, seems almost philistinal, nigh schoolboyishly-naive! It’s as if Demme is saying “You can laugh at the joke, but don’t laugh too much, because that would be offensive”! I can see why the director includes it, because he wants the audience to condemn the lawyers at Wyatt, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow and Brown, where Beckett worked. It implies there was an atmosphere that was hostile, and that it was prevalent amongst the top-brass! So, I get it. I just can’t see past the crassness. It feels shoe-horned in. If the joke, had been less in-your-face, then we’d still have gotten the point, but it would have come across as being far more subtle and thus, far more culturally disturbing.
Still it seems that the MPAA sorts to restrict movies that have gay themes, or feature/depict homosexuality. Darren Stein’s G.B.F (2013) was given an R rating, for “sexual references”, despite featuring no bad language, no overt sex, and no sight of anything more than two people of the same gender kissing/touching one another. BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (1999, Jamie Babit) was given an NC-17 rating, before the MPAA had an appeal submitted to them, and reduced the rating to an R. And this is a film in which the only offending moment, is a fully clothed lesbian sex scene and a female character, similarly fully clothed, masturbating. THE CELLULOID CLOSET, a 1995 documentary about gay cinema, and gay actors, also obtained an R, for “some graphic footage of sexuality and violence, and for language“.
In each of those three instances, the BBFC gave the film a 15, meaning that young teenagers could see them, without parental accompaniment!PHILADELPHIA was given a 12, though the current UK Blu-Ray is a 15, due to the extras being rated at a higher classification than the main feature itself. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR gained an NC-17, which means you pretty much can’t advertise it anywhere, you can’t show trailers for it, most newspapers won’t let you even have it listed as showing at a cinema, and most US cinemas won’t even book it. That said, some US cinemas felt that it should be shown without its official rating, and several did so, because they felt the film was ideal for older teenagers to see. (In the UK, the film was given an 18, purely because of the two main sex scenes being quite extended and a little too explicit for the lower 15 rating, and that there might be concern if such content was passed at the lower classification.)
So why does the MPAA have a problem? I suspect it’s because of the large number of politically-motivated, Christian organisations that play their part in the USA, who utilise some pretty overt techniques to keep America a distinctly white, and very heterosexual country! Organisations like Forever 21, a budget clothing company with stores all over the USA. There plastic carrier bags come marked with “John 3:16” printed on them, referring to the Bible passage that reads:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In-N-Out Burgers, also surreptitiously print Biblical book/chapter headings on their food and drinks packaging. Alaskan Airlines will serve you breakfast on your flights, complete with specially-chosen Old Testament Biblical passage to “enlighten” you. Marriott Hotels stock Bibles in their rooms, for the “enjoyment and education of all of our customers“. Hobby Lobby, the Wal-Mart of the arts and crafts industry, is run on the basis of “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles“! Religious proselytisers broadcast 24/7 across various TV and radio networks in the USA, assuring their respective audiences, that a belief in God and Jesus, is a straight road to Heaven. The list goes on and on! Religion is big business in the USA! And some of that money and proselytising finds its way into the people who work and run the MPAA.
Now, I’m sure you’re all asking me “But where’s your proof”? And that’s the main point here. I can’t provide any evidence because the MPAA do not want you to know who classifies your films, and works behind the scenes. They deliberately avoid telling you who works there, so that their organisation can remain as cloak-and-dagger as possible, so that they never have to explain themselves. As such, for all we know, you could have a board of film classifiers, who are all heavily religious, who are deliberately restricting any content they don’t personally agree with, irrespective of whether that content is legally or morally acceptable.
I should probably state, here and now, that I am absolutely not anti-Christian. So, even though the predominant religion in the USA, is Christianity, with 83 per cent describing themselves as holding a belief in Jesus Christ- see this article here for the details – I don’t have any issues with anyone holding religious beliefs of any persuasion! It’s your choice to believe in whatever you wish too.
The problem I do have, is when those beliefs start to impinge on your work, and thus, are then used as justifications for doing or not doing something, that affects other people. Thus, if most of the MPAA were Buddhists, and cracked down on any portrayal of violence, then I’d also have a problem. Ditto, if many of the MPAA’s classifiers were devout Muslims, who were happy to forbid anything they felt should not be seen, because of what it says in The Quran.
As there is no “proof” per se, we then have to look at trends, and on that issue, we can prove something. We can factually demonstrate, that under the MPAA’s roof, films depicting a gay lifestyle, or anything to do with homosexuality, are almost certainly going to be rated harder, and with more restrictive ratings, than their heterosexual equivalents. Does the MPAA believe that if it’s not seen by the masses, that homosexuality will just disappear? I sure as hell hope not, because that would be a ludicrous reason to try and remove any material of a gay or queer lifestyle.
Change happens. Societies morph, and grow, and evolve. The MPAA stemming material depicting the lives of a one section of their audience, will do them no favours. And in 2014, I find it abominable, that any organisation thinks it has the right to remove material pertaining to one audience demographic just because it takes a material dislike to it. Worse still, when that same organisation is happy to pass more and more violent material at a PG-13 rating, to pre-teens, with larger and more substantial body-counts, and implying that violence is okay, but any depiction of two men or two women kissing one another, is an atrocity! The old adage that if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, is blown completely out of the water.
One day, we will treat everyone as an equal, irrespective of who or what they are. We’ve moved a long way in the past 40 or 50 years, both in societal-terms and cinematically. Now, if only the MPAA could be persuaded to move alongside us, rather than trying to swim against us, maybe they can be dragged into the 21st Century too. It’s okay to be gay. It’s equally okay not to be gay. But it’s not okay to try and segregate people based on their sexuality. Has America learned nothing from its past?
The MPAA and America has more pressing issues it needs to deal with, than quarantining cinematic depictions of homosexuality from anyone under 17 years of age. It’s insulting that their priorities are still so skewed!
America: The Land Of The Free, The Home Of The Brave, And The School of The Ostracised!
Addendum: Since I originally published this article, the MPAA has demonstrated once more, that gay-themed movies are not welcome through their doors, as the British hit comedy film PRIDE (Matthew Warchus, 2014) has been given a heavily restrictive R-rating for “language and brief sexual content”. Here in the UK, it was given a 15 for “strong language, and sex references”. As far as the MPAA are concerned PRIDE is as controversial and provocative as any of the SAW franchise, as the HOSTEL series, and in the same leagues as the original THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE! Make of that what you will!