In this study I will make specific references to Ken Loach’s 2002 film ‘Sweet Sixteen’, which holds significance in relation to the censorship debate and especially the Censors attitudes towards strong language. Film censorship in any country or context is a multifaceted debate, which when looked at in detail, is as much to do with psychology and politics, as it is the art of film making itself. And if set against the continuingly shifting attitudes and beliefs of our diverse society, the issue of censorship and indeed the modernisation of it, is extremely complex. Therefore, to provide a context for my study to be based within, I will explore the comparisons of both domestic and international censorship and look at the progression of censorship historically.
‘Sweet Sixteen’ is a powerful drama documentary film with a socialist agenda, which essentially documents the struggle caused by unemployment, deprivation, depression and a black economy of drug dealing in the town of Greenock. The film centres on a local boy approaching his 16th birthday, and seemingly holds immense relevance to other youths of that age bracket in similar situations. Thus, an unfortunate irony is apparent as the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) certified ‘Sweet Sixteen’ as an 18 purely based on the ‘strong language’ within the text, and so 15, 16, 17 year olds are required by law not to view the film. In effect the censors are telling the youths the film portrays, who have no presence in any form of mainstream media that their company is so harmful that they have to be put in the same bracket as pornographers just because of the way they speak.
The case put forward by the BBFC focuses on the frequency of the word ‘fuck’ and the aggressive use of the word ‘cunt’. According to the BBFC’s 15 rating guidelines ‘There may be frequent use of strong language; the strongest terms (eg ‘cunt’) are only rarely acceptable.’ And ‘Continued aggressive use of strong language and sexual abuse is unacceptable’. Although these are ‘guidelines’ they do pay little attention to one of the most important factors to do with spoken language, context. Loach’s films have always had a very grainy documentary style to them and the actors, although aware of the story line up to the specific scene they are acting, are improvising, so to enhance the realism of the film. Therefore, the strong language used by the actors is purely coincidental to the situation’s intensity, as it would be in real life.
The vast majority of swearing in this sense is used for rhythm or just to stress a sentence out, and thus does not constitute aggressive use. However, there is one scene in the film where the main protagonist’s ‘Liam’ step father ‘Stan’ gives ‘Liam’ a 7 second beating, during which the ‘f word’ is used 12 times and the ‘c word’ is used twice. There is no denial that the language in this scene is used aggressively, but this is the one and only scene in the film that can be criticised for such aggressive use, and I believe the BBFC is going to far in saying that such a scene is going to corrupt 15, 16 and 17 year olds.
Especially when such age groups can witness extreme violence where mutilation is commonplace documented in such films as ‘Black Hawk Down’ where no warning is given about the violence, never mind the poisonous re-writing of Somali history. The BBFC definitely have an issue with their continuity of guidelines and which specific issues are more harmful to children. The censors ignore that this is the way the vast majority of teenagers speak, and especially youths in poorer areas of West coast Scotland such as Greenock. And so, to not have these actors, who were all from the Glasgow area, not speak as they would in the contexts of the film, would be an injustice to the true representation of such characters.
Paul Laverty the writer of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ had previously visited many schools, children’s homes and secure units for teenagers, so to research exactly how to represent his characters. In Laverty’s introduction to his published screenplay (4/9/02) he recounts a letter persuading the BBFC to change their classification of the film to a 15, in which he states he found many of the subjects of research had seen his and Loach’s previous films, namely ‘My Name is Joe’, and enjoyed them because of the similarity they presented to the youths’ own experiences.
‘They recognised their own world reflected back at them via the story and the dilemma of the characters, principally because of the language we used’ Laverty. Surely this means there has been an injustice to the society being portrayed, as similar teens that had so enjoyed previous films that reflected the society they are familiar with, are not allowed to view this film about 15 to 16 year olds.
Paul Laverty, Ken Loach and the executive producer Michelle Poter claim class prejudice suffuses the BBFC’s guidelines and the decision to classify ‘Sweet Sixteen’ an 18. Although to an extent bias, echoing Laverty and Loach’s personal socialist views, it does seem to be somewhat correct. ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ which depicts the higher classes and is also expletive rich, holds a rating of 15. Although the characters don’t use swear words in the intonation of their speech as with ‘Sweet Sixteen’, strong language is used aggressively when the characters are angry.
There are obviously far fewer swear words all together in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, however, this is simply because the characters being represented do not talk like those in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ as they have different ‘class’ backgrounds. In effect the BBFC are promoting a film representing the higher classes as more acceptable for a larger age group to view, thus in relation to strong language, they are holding an elitist view that Standard English is more acceptable than a North West Scotland youth dialect. In terms of language this is a prescriptive perspective on language, meaning that the censors take a view of right and wrong language, or in relevant censorship terms, non-harmful and harmful language, instead of taking into account the context and identity attached to a certain dialect.
However, the BBFC is probably at its most liberal at present due to arrange of factors including changing moral standards, increased audience understanding in terms of media analysis, and probably most importantly the internet. The BBFC has certainly changed in relation to its values since being set up in 1912 as the ‘British Board of Film Censors’ rather than ‘classification’. 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 that children could see under the supervision of parents, however, a lot of films were simply banned instead of classified, usually on moral, blasphemous or political grounds – fear of revolution led to banning of Battleship Potemkin (1926) because of its pro-communist slant. In the 70s, the 18 rating was introduced and ‘AA’ was introduced for 14 plus only. Although class prejudice, morality and political censorships were still enforced by the ruling class, institutions like the Greater London Council (GLC) and the BBC both recognised the changes that had, in reality, been in the air since the mid 1960s, by conducting surveys into public attitudes to censorship and the depiction of sex and violence on film and television.
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 since been fiercely contested as it suggests a very passive and easily influenced public who have decisions made for them as to what is ‘suitable’. Examining the discourses of censorship seems to indicate lot about its functions. The following are all quotes from either censors or other groups, ranging from the 50s to recent years:
The Exorcist (1973): the most shocking sick-making and soul-destroying work ever to emerge 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.
All these quotes hold recurring connotations of a passive audience who do not have the textual understanding to view these films as art or a personal perspective of art. They show how in the past ‘the press’ have referred to ‘taboo’ films in a Hollywood style, using sensationalist terms like ‘soul-destroying’, ‘god help Britain’ and ‘beyond the bounds of depravity’, which is very ironic. The BBFC’s comments assume that because ‘The Wild One’ does not reflect a morally sound system, youths will be influenced into re-enacting crimes shown on the cinema screen. However, more recently ‘the press’ and the BBFC have modernised their opinions and therefore their discourse, to account for the increasingly ‘media aware’ audience that transcends our society.