It is long past time that the BBFC fundamentally reassessed their ratings guidelines.
I’ve known about Sean McAllister’s A Northern Soul, a documentary about Steve Arnott and his Beats Bus project for disadvantaged kids in Hull filmed across 2017 (the year in which Hull was the UK’s City of Culture), for several months due to it being set in and a celebration of working class Hull life so people around here have been talking about and pushing it for a good while. It’s apparently an uplifting and inspirational but still emotionally honest picture of working class life just barely above the poverty line that acts as an overdue antidote to mainstream media depictions of said as either relentless misery porn, like Benefits Street, or Daily Mail-style baiting scumbaggery designed to stoke boogeymen-type fears in more comfortably well-off viewers, like 99% of Channel 5’s programming. (I must confess to not having seen it, ironically due to being too broke to be able to attend the run of screenings in the city that occurred this month, and the one that would have happened when I had the money to be able to attend was cancelled at the last minute.)
You, however, may only have heard about A Northern Soul for the first time fairly recently because McAllister has been raging against the BBFC’s decision to slap his documentary with a 15 certificate. When he ran a bunch of pre-release screenings at Sheffield Doc Fest and in Hull, the two cities’ respective councils rated the film 12a which was in line with McAllister’s intentions for the film – he wanted to make a film about these kids, that these kids could see, and which other kids might also be able to see and be inspired by or reassured about their life experiences as well. But, halfway through the film’s first run of preview screenings in Hull, the BBFC came back with their official rating of 15 for “strong language.” Specifically, the film features a total nineteen spoken instances of the word “fuck,” which McAllister chose to keep in because that’s a word Steve Arnott and a whole bunch of people say in their daily lives and this documentary is all about ordinary working class people so taking out the language, according to McAllister, would be akin to censorship of his subjects.
In the wake of this decision, the independent distributors showing the film in Hull had to cancel all pre-sold children’s tickets, but McAllister’s not been taking this lying down. For the rest of the week’s preview screenings in Hull, he pledged to give out free tickets to all under-15s who turned up to a screening. Hull City Council voted overwhelmingly to ignore the BBFC’s ruling and reset the age certificate to 12a for the remainder of the film’s screenings in the city. McAllister has been vocal about how this decision limits A Northern Soul’s ability to be played in schools as a teaching resource about modern life on the poverty line, one of his aims in making the film, and this past Monday he penned an op-ed in The Guardian about the issue, calling out the hypocrisy in the BBFC’s decision when it will gladly slap a 12a certificate on all manner of violent movies or the similarly-profane-but-otherwise-harmless The King’s Speech.
And whilst you can sit there and roast him for his grand ambitions towards A Northern Soul and the idea of kids wanting to view a documentary at all, or have no sympathy for a man who released a film with nineteen usages of the word “fuck” when the rules (as clarified in statements sent out by the BBFC) state that no more than four are permitted in a 12a film – all for a film that you haven’t seen, and neither have I in fairness… He does have a point. More specifically, he’s drawing focus to something that a group of us who pay attention to both US and UK ratings systems have been saying for a while now: the BBFC is fucked.
I’ve been bewildered by the BBFC’s various ratings for several years now, beginning way back in 2012 when I was watching Skyfall and there was that scene where Q said “shit,” a proper naughty no-no of a word prior to then in both movies and life, about five times in the span of ten seconds. I remembered the prior-cited uproar around The King’s Speech potentially being rated a 15 because of the one scene where Colin Firth rattles off a whole heap of profanity in rapid-fire as part of his therapy, in a film that otherwise had absolutely nothing untoward. And I definitely remember the bewildering decision to award the film version of The Woman in Black a 12a certificate despite, y’know, it being The Woman in Black. That last one caused such a backlash, it was the most-complained-about-film of 2012, that the BBFC had to “review” and then “rewrite” their guidelines when it came to horror movies going forward – which basically meant that they are now automatically rated 15, in contrast to America where the PG-13 horror industry is alive and kicking.
As the years have gone on, however, my reactions toward such bewildering rating decisions have gone from that, bewilderment, to active frustration and even anger at times. See, as the limits of 12a keep being pushed well past breaking point (as McAllister points out in his essay), it’s started to dawn on me that the way in which the BBFC actually rates many films hinges on a whole bunch of arbitrary guidelines that are not only out of step with modern society, but also strip out almost any and all context from the films in question in a manner that frequently displays itself as hypocritical.
McAllister points out that Mission: Impossible – Fallout is rated 12a, therefore perfectly acceptable for children to watch with their parents, despite featuring multiple people being shot point blank in the head. That is, objectively, pretty damn weird to class as family-friendly entertainment – and, before we go any further, it is important to establish that 12a is effectively an endorsement of something being “family-friendly” because ALL blockbusters, regardless of content, aim for that rating nowadays since it guarantees the biggest potential audience pool. But McAllister also left out the multiple stabbings, the bit where the bad guy has a lot of his face burnt on-screen thanks to leaking gas tank from a helicopter, and the giant pool of blood that gets a prominent display despite the fact that the only thing separating violent action movies from 12a and 15 ratings is blood.
How do I know that last bit for a fact? Because that’s how A Good Day to Die Hard was rated 12a in the UK but rated R in the US. The film was originally going to be rated 15, the BBFC gave them a list of cuts to make in order to reduce that down to a more-lucrative 12a, specifying “sequences of bloody violence” and “punches to restrained individuals” as deal breakers (plus the franchise standbys of “fuck”), to which 20th Century Fox complied and the film was resultantly re-rated as 12a despite not being the slightest bit suitable for those aged 12 or under regardless of parental supervision. For more second-hand speculation, compare and contrast the 12a-rated Hunger Games series – which includes extensive crushing threat, lots of violence, child endangerment and violence, an oppressive atmosphere, multiple pivotal scenes of war crimes and abuse, and a sequence in which a child (and a whole bunch of soldiers) are carpeted-bombed, but no blood – and the 15-rated The 5th Wave – which is actually tamer in content and tone than Hunger Games but features one scene where some blood leaks through a bandage and… that’s it, really.
That’s how you get this utterly perplexing Summer blockbuster season where basically everything has been rated a 12a regardless of whether it fits the film or not. The Meg features multiple people being chomped to bits by its titular shark, leaving behind rotting arms and other such extremities, but there was no blood and nobody said “fuck” so it’s perfectly fine. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom turns into a full-on gothic horror movie in its last forty minutes and features a man being bisected by a dinosaur on-screen as a big money shot, but nobody said any naughty words or got their tits out so it’s all fine. Ready Player One had a ten minute sequence dedicated to redoing The Shining, complete with the elevator of blood, and there is a very emphasised “fuck” – as there is in 80% of 12a movies nowadays – but almost all the violence is virtual (and bloodless) and nobody got their tits out so IT’S ALL FINE.
There’s a massive hypocritical disconnect in the way that the BBFC treats violence from everything else. That basically any strength of violence is perfectly acceptable for family-friendly viewing so long as it’s bloodless, a cynical technique that downplays the consequences of violence and can impart messages that the kinds of mass violence taking place in films like (the 12a rated) Taken 3 as being consequence-free and meaningless. Desensitising. A study in 2013 found that PG-13 rated movies (the American equivalent of the 12a) contained on average as much or more violence than their R rated counterparts. But it’s all fine because there was no blood and nobody said the f-word more than once. Children saved! It’s fine. IT’S ALL FINE.
Plus, again, 12a films are allowed up to four uses of the word “fuck” before they are guaranteed a 15 rating. Most stick with just the one instance to be safe, since America maxes out at two (and even then dubiously), but you had better believe they draw all of the attention to that f-bomb when they do drop it. They’ll even let it hang after a beat to allow the audience to pick up their dropped monocles from hearing such filthy language snuck into supposedly family-friendly entertainment. “Harold! That man said ‘fuck!’” If the idea is to stop kids from saying or having repeated exposure to naughty words by bumping the rating up to 15, then it’s not going to do a lot of good when their ‘safer’ and ‘more suitable’ alternatives are repeatedly throwing said words out there anyway and with equal-to-greater emphasis on the word when it does appear.
Sometimes, I get the impression that the BBFC are making inroads on changing their system for the better. There’s the aforementioned King’s Speech debacle, of course, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences slapped with a 12a instead of a 15 in spite of the film featuring frequent usages of the word “nigger,” often used by Troy in a derogatory sense towards fellow black people. Searching was rated a 12 despite thrillers like it usually being given a 15, especially when one of its plot threads involves marijuana and the non-judgemental smoking and dealing thereof. Ocean’s 8 goes one better and has Nine-Ball smoke a joint on-screen yet is still rated 12a, and that character is played by Rihanna! But then the BBFC will pull something stupid like this and we’re back to square one. Compare how short the Detail sheet for A Northern Soul is to the one for The Meg again; it’s ridiculous.
But this is all nothing compared to sex. You want a set of prime examples of the skewed priorities and hypocritical contradictions of the BBFC, just paying attention to how it treats sex in films. All three Fifty Shades films were rated 18 by the BBFC pretty much entirely on the basis of their sexual content. On the surface, that is a fair assessment. These are movies designed for the sole purpose of titillation and eroticism with copious amounts of nudity and simulated intercourse featured. They take the relationship and the sex at its centre seriously, so only those recognised as adult-aged should be able to buy a ticket to see the movie. Excellent, no qualms there. …except that you may have noticed many 15-rated comedies also have extended graphic sequences of sex with accompanying nudity, yet aren’t subject to the same ratings treatment. For just one example, The Festival features two graphic sex scenes which are longer than most individual scenes in Fifty Shades (they’re often montaged through in that movie) and has multiple shots of penises on-screen, which not one Fifty Shades movie provided (and I SEARCHED LIKE A HAWK in those for some). Yet, The Festival gets away with a 15 whilst Fifty Shades is an 18 and Fifty Shades never featured extended sequences of a man fucking a goat or any visuals of semen whatsoever!
Meanwhile, back in 2015, you may remember the fuss that was kicked up by Marielle Heller when her coming-of-age dramedy, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rated a hard 18 by the BBFC despite Heller’s desire to create a film about sexual awakening for young teenage women. In that case, the nuances make things a bit trickier because the central relationship of the film involves a teenage girl having sex with a much older man, although it is worth noting that the film explicitly and frequently grapples with issues of consent in a way that I have little doubt would have been of use to, say, 15-year-old girls who legally could not watch the movie. (Rather like how Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was rated R in the US because of strong language and a discussion about sex despite being made for eighth graders, or how Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen was rated R in the US because it dared to portray teenage girls as, gasp, actual teenage girls who swear and drink and want to have sex and stuff.)
Besides, the pearl-clutching excuses shot Diary of a Teenage Girl’s way demonstrably mean jack-shit when placed side-by-side with the most baffling ratings decision I have seen in a long-ass time: Red Sparrow was rated 15. Yes, Red Sparrow, the film that features multiple on-screen rapes – but, like, tastefully shot so you can’t see any penetration, so IT’S FINE – several more attempted rapes, even more accompanying full-frontal nudity both male and female, several ‘consensual’ sex scenes that are nonetheless queasy because the sex is a part of the spy work, frequent usage of the word “cunt,” and lots of prolonged and very bloody violence. Oh, but the film did receive a few cuts to make it down to a 15… specifically, “reductions in one scene of strong sadistic violence (a garrotting).” The raping was fine, but the garrotting would have been too much(!) By the BBFC’s own standards, consensual sexual exploration by a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and passionate consensual sex by two people in love are both worse than extended sex scenes played for laughs and actual on-screen rape that doesn’t show penetration.
(Before anybody starts: yes, I am aware of the irony in using Fifty Shades as my example for films showcasing “passionate consensual sex.” I’m working with what I can get, here.)
Do you see how fucked this is? How fucked and arbitrary this system is? By the BBFC’s own ratings system, Red Sparrow and A Northern Soul are equally suitable viewing for 15-year-olds and equally unsuitable viewing for everybody beneath that age-gate. “Shit” is practically a punctuation mark in 12a rated films nowadays, and those films are starting to rack up bodycounts that would make John Wick blush, yet heaven forfend the kids get to watch a documentary whose worst crime is… not covering up a naughty word that I guarantee you 95% of working class people say every single day multiple times regardless of age. Witnessing beheadings in X-Men movies, that’s perfectly acceptable, but a poor man saying “fuck?” Can’t be having that! Or 15-year-olds witnessing consensual sex between two loving adults in a passionate non-judgemental nature; they might start getting ideas about what sex should be like! Rape is fine, though. Never too early to teach the teens about rape – or, through metaphors as subtle as forty-five oil tankers crashing into each other, PG audiences in Disney movies!
To get into the why and how this came about would involve lots of butchered observations about human history and psychology that would take forever and move us wildly off-subject. (Although, SPOILERS: it’s partly the result of a society that has fetishized, lionised and equated tales of war, violence, and conquering as valiant acts of heroism for centuries; and partly many parents’ #1 fear being the inevitability of their children having consensual sex, leading to a society built on repression and a failure to talk openly about sex and consent.) So, let’s stay within our lane and state a simple inarguable truth: the BBFC, as it stands right now in 2018, is fucked. Its standards are fucked, its attitudes are fucked, and it is grossly behind the times in damn near every single respect. I am not saying that it needs to be done away with, I am not saying that everything should be made viewable for everybody without restriction, and I am definitely not saying that there shouldn’t be certain hardline rules and aspects that immediately locks a film into a higher age bracket.
What I am saying is that those hardline rules in 2018 have a severe case of skewed priorities, placing undue weight upon often harmless facets of everyday life (such as sex and stronger-than-usual language) whilst giving freer passes to much more exceptional and questionable content (like violence and somehow rape) so long as they are presented in some nebulously less “objectionable” manner. And those laxer restrictions on violence and swearwords that are not the dreaded “fuck” means that you get 12a movies which are taking the absolute piss out of the ratings system by sneaking movies that any sane person would know is not family-friendly past the gate because they have the “right” kind of objectionable content presented in the “right” way. So, in reality, the rules are inconsistent and end up punishing the wrong films whilst only barely working as intended some of the time – Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad were rated 12a and 15 respectively but seemingly the only reason BvS passed under the 15 pole was that the theatrical version didn’t have anyone say “fuck” whilst Suicide Squad did.
This needs to change. I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I have all the answers and new guidelines ready to go, because I do not. But I do know that there is no way in hell a documentary about working class Northerners living on the poverty line who occasionally cuss can be less suitable for children than Batman v. Superman.
Hey. Fittingly, I’ve used the word “fuck” in this article the exact same number of times as A Northern Soul does! Hope nobody under the age of 15 was reading this!
Callie Petch says if you don’t like it then, hey, fuck you.