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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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Cinema Age Restrictions: Harsher for Sex Than Violence?

Cinema Age Restrictions: Harsher for Sex Than Violence?

Feminspire is blocked by the “parental controls” on my university’s internal network. This confused me when I discovered it, because I don’t consider us a site unsafe for young people. In fact, one of my very great hopes for this website is that young women feel they can come here, to a safe space, without all of the negativity that faces women elsewhere in the media. There is no violence on these pages, no blood and gore, no pornography. Sometimes we swear, though. And sometimes we talk about sex.

This led me to think about how society categorises what is suitable for young people to see, and what should be restricted. The best example of this kind of age restriction is in the film industry, where movies are given a classification that describes how appropriate they are for different ages.

The British Board of Film Classification rates films as Universal (U), Parental Guidance (PG), 12A (under 12s must be accompanied by an adult), 15 (no one under 15 may watch), and 18 (no one under 18 may watch). The Motion Picture Association of America rates films like this: General Audiences (G), Parental Guidance (PG), PG-13 (a stricter warning to parents), Restricted (R – young people under 17 must be accompanied by an adult), and NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted).

When you watch a lot of films, you start to notice trends in the industry. One such trend is the tendency of the BBFC and the MPAA to place higher restrictions on films containing sex and profanity than films containing violence. Let’s take the recent release of Taken 2, which was given a PG-13 rating in the US and a 12A rating in the UK. This film contains some seriously violent scenes, including a woman’s throat being cut and her body hung upside down. People are killed in this film by guns, by knives, by electrocution. A head is slammed against a wall of coat pegs. Fist fighting, shooting, car crashes, a train crash, several references to rape and violent prostitution – all included in Taken 2, and all certified as suitable for young people to view. Oh, and it’s a terrible film.


Meanwhile, the film awards darling Blue Valentine was originally given an NC-17 rating. Derek Cianfrance’s film is a poignant and powerful story of the dissolution of a marriage, of the sacrifices we make for love, of the point when the sacrifices take over the relationship and the heart breaking decisions that follow. And, shock horror, the couple in this movie has sex. There is no full frontal nudity, although breasts and buttocks are shown. The vast majority of audience members have at least one of these body parts, and at some point in their lives will experience and grow comfortable with sex. Humans are sexual beings, and sex is natural. By contrast, the vast majority of audience members will not be involved in the violence shown in Taken 2 and I would hope never grow comfortable with seeing it around them.


Blue Valentine’s MPAA rating was controversial, because an NC-17 rating means a lot more than “kids under 17 won’t see this movie”. Films rated NC-17 are generally not played in major cinema chains, and television adverts for the film are also rare. After an appeal from the Weinstein Company, the rating was reduced to R – more appropriate, but still more restricted than Taken 2. As if you didn’t already have enough reasons to love Ryan Gosling, he helped this reclassification along by accusing the board of misogyny:

There’s plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it’s a man receiving it from a woman – and they’re R-rated. Ours is reversed and somehow it’s perceived as pornographic. How is it possible that these movies that torture women in a sexual context can have an R rating but a husband and wife making love is inappropriate?

He’s right, of course. It’s not just that violence is treated as appropriate for young people’s eyes while sex isn’t – it’s that a woman’s sexual experience is somehow more explicit and inappropriate than a man’s. 2002 movie The Sweetest Thing had a scene in which Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate returned to their apartment to find crowds outside, including police. The emergency was that their friend, played by Selma Blair, had been giving a blowjob to a man whose penis piercing had become stuck in her throat, behind her tonsils. This frightening and frankly unrealistic scene was in an R-rated movie, but the loving act of a man giving oral sex to his partner in Blue Valentine was somehow rated NC-17. And what about Shame, a stunning and emotional look at a man broken by his addiction to sex, and at his struggles to maintain familial relationships. Sexual content, but no violence – and an NC-17 rating.


The BBFC’s Universal rating allows for “mild violence” but “no sexual content,” only “kissing.” At PG level it’s “moderate violence,” but sexual activity may only be “implied.” At 15, young people can see violence that “may be strong” but sex can only be “portrayed without strong detail.” The MPAA is run similarly. A PG film may only have “brief nudity” but can have “some depictions of violence.”

All of this is harmful because, believe it or not, young people watch and appreciate movies. And if they are allowed to watch films like Taken 2 but not films like Blue Valentine, what is the film industry teaching them about life? That violence is the norm, guns are the norm, driving recklessly is the norm, but sex and particularly the female sexual experience are realms of forbidden mystery. Art is supposed to mirror life and vice versa, so if the art available to young people portrays violence but not sex, appreciating violence becomes natural while sex becomes unnatural. The discourse among young people becomes violent but healthy discourse about sex is absent. Violence is fun and playful; sex is embarrassing. Toy guns are bought for children; sex toys are taboo even amongst adults.

It’s a frustrating and unhealthy state of affairs.

Written by Abbey Lewis
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