film & video
censorship of film and video
This page considers censorship of film and video.
It covers -
Regimes for the regulation of films appeared soon after
the invention of the silent moving image. Initial arrangements
were based on licensing of exhibition venues, reflecting
the long tradition of licensing theatres and other places
of public performance. Examples were the NSW Theatres
& Public Halls Act and the South Australian Places
of Public Entertainment Act.
Demands for wider regulation were based on perceptions
that the cinema was uniquely potent, compared to print,
and that it was particularly attractive to the lower orders
and/or women and children - presumed to be less rational
and with lower self-control.
By the outbreak of war in 1914 most nations had established
film censorship regimes that embraced film production,
distribution and exhibition. Feature film production and
promotion by that time had moved from a cottage industry
to a more corporate basis, involving substantial investment
and increasingly involving an integration of studios,
distribution networks and exhibition chains - offering
regulators a number of choke-points and encouraging caution
by industry executives.
As we have noted in the profile on Australian censorship
history, the absence of a substantial domestic production
sector meant that most of the films exhibited in Australia
and New Zealand were imported and thus susceptible to
interdiction under Customs legislation such as the New
Zealand Cinematograph-film Censorship Act 1916
and Australian Customs (Cinematograph) Regulations
1919 that systematised previously ad hoc arrangements.
The 1920s saw the establishment of vetting systems, with
formal ratings being applied by government agencies or
by industry-community bodies such as the notorious Hays
Committee in the US. Ratings were a feature of regulation
for most of last century: initially a flat imprimatur-style
acceptance and later a more nuanced regime that identified
film as suitable for different age groups, depending on
violence, sexual or other content.
Typically films without a rating or that had been refused
a rating could not be exhibited and were of little interest
to commercial distributors; self-censorship predated production
as few financiers were interested in works that would
not transfer from can to screen (or from cargo-hold to
international exhibition circuit).
Regimes (and their interpretation) varied between jurisdictions;
in Australia for example particular films could be exhibited
in one state but were not permitted in another state after
failing to meet the requirements of local censorship agencies.
Any censorship regime is dynamic and a key theme in accounts
of Hollywood (and its counterparts elsewhere in the wold)
is the contortions - or merely cowardice - of industry
figures seeking to comply with the dictates of government
agencies and other bodies such as the Catholic League
of Decency. Some subjects (eg homosexuality, veneral disease,
'miscegeny') did not appear on screen - or only in a coded
form. It was long after Kinsey that most cinema goers
saw their first film male-male kiss; Gone With The
Wind was supposedly the first US feature in twenty
years to include the profanity 'damn'.
Although authors, performers and audiences sometimes subverted
the 'code', conventions about unmarried mothers and the
sanctity of marriage were pervasive: one student for example
has expressed surprise that in pre-1950 films those shots
that feature bedrooms never seem to include anyone out
of decorous pyjamas (or white tie and tails).
Compliance frequently involved use of the censor's shears
- excising offending frames - or, more tellingly, inking
out particular images. Day to day practice in totalitarian
economies varied but in essence, political correctness
was a prerequisite for acceptance of a script, production
was monitored (accounts of Mao, Stalin or Goebbels editing
scene by scene have a bizarre fascination) and films could
be abruptly pulled from exhibition if political exigencies
The breakdown of the Studio System in the US during the
1950s - highlighted in the corporate profiles on the Ketupa.net
site - as much as changing community standards or the
exhaustion of those defending western civilisation from
reefer madness and unwed mothers arguably accounts for
a greater willingness by industry to challenge preconceptions
and dictates about censorship, leading to an accelerating
liberalisation of policy and practice during the past
forty years in the US, Australia and other parts of the
Regulatory challenges were exacerbated by consumer acceptance
of the VCR and more recently of the DVD. Consumption of
films at home, rather than under the supervision of a
cinema operator, removed the filter provided by the cinema
ticket office. Legislation and industry codes could prevent
sale/rental of 'unsuitable' recordings direct to minors
but - as with broadcast content - restrictions on viewing
were dependent on compliance by parents/guardians (and
their recognition of rating systems) and their recourse
to bowderisation services such as CleanFlicks.
Some of those conundrums are explored in 'Pornography,
Technology, and Progress' by Jonathan Coopersmith in 4
ICON (1998), 94-125.
film censorship in the US
Film censorship in the US reflects that nation's First
Amendment regime, with regulation centred on a ratings
code developed by the Motion Picture Association of America
(MPAA) and state/local legislation concerned with restricting
access by children.
Since the days of Thomas Edison US states and municipal
governments have sought to control film exhibition through
censorship agencies and through zoning or other public
health legislation. In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that
films were not part of the "press" in Ohio and
thus not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry
(predecessor of the MPAA) subsequently articulated a code
of standards identifying what was unacceptable in motion
pictures. Self-regulation was contentious and in 1930
the narrow 1918 code was replaced by a more prescriptive
scheme, the Hays
Code, which survived till the collapse of the Studio
System and Supreme Court judgements in 1952 (the 'Burstyn'
case, regarding Rossellini's The Miracle) and
1953 that adult viewing of film was protected under the
free speech and press guarantees of the First Amendment.
Hitchcock, in an act of commercial daring, was accordingly
able to feature a flushing toilet in his 1960 Psycho.
Hays had featured pre-production vetting of scripts by
a Production Code Office that aimed to minimise depictions
of nudity, "illegal traffic in drugs," white
slavery, miscegenation, "sex hygiene and venereal
diseases," childbirth, profanity, blasphemy
and "ridicule of the clergy." The PCA, working
closely with advocacy groups such as the Roman Catholic
Legion of Decency, monitored production and was able to
secure post-production changes (or outright withdrawal)
of films from the major studios.
The modern MPAA code was established in 1968 (with revision
in 1984 and 1990), following a Supreme Court decision
that governments were able to prevent the exposure of
minors to books and films that could not be denied to
The current version encompasses -
for General Audiences, with "nothing in theme,
language, nudity and sex, violence, etc. which would,
in the view of the Rating Board, be offensive to parents
whose younger children view the film"
PG Parental Guidance Suggested - "Some
Material May Not Be Suitable For Children"
PG-13 for General Audiences, but with
a higher level of intensity than in a film rated PG
(eg "leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating
in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or
other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted
R for Restricted - no viewing by those
under 17 without an accompanying parent or guardian
("hard language, or tough violence, or nudity within
sensual scenes, or drug abuse or other elements")
NC-17 (originally X) for no-one under
age 18 ("a film that most parents will consider
patently too adult for their youngsters under 17. No
children will be admitted. NC-17 does not necessarily
mean "obscene or pornographic" in the oft-accepted
or legal meaning of those words. The Board does not
and cannot mark films with those words. These are legal
terms and for courts to decide.")
Frank Walsh's Sin & Censorship (New Haven:
Yale Uni Press 1996) is an approachable introduction to
currents in US film censorship, enlivened by contemporary
criticism such as this account of The Kiss (the
sensational four minute 1896 film):
spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's
lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but
magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three
times over it is absolutely disgusting.
that it was on to Pulp Fiction, via the cinema
in Main Street and the works discussed in Dirty Movies:
An Illustrated History of the Stag Film (New York:
Chelsea House 1976) by Al Di Lauro & Gerald Rabkin. Gregory
Black's The Catholic Crusade Against The Movies 1940-75
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1997) includes the 1961
demand from the Legion of Decency that depictions of sticking
a tongue in a lover's ear be deleted, since
technique cannot be used without arousing erotically
the susceptible members of any audience, anywhere, any
2006 Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai (a former Miss World)
and Hrithik Roshan faced criminal action in Madhya Pradesh
over the their on-screen kiss in action film Dhoom
2. They were accused of lowering the dignity of Indian
women and encouraging obscenity among the nation's youth.
Gerald Garner's The Censorship Papers (New York:
Dodd Mead 1987) offers an insider's view of industry self-censorship
1934-68, complemented by Stephen Vaughn's Freedom
& Entertainment: Rating the Movies in an Age of New
Media (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2006). Movie
Censorship & American Culture (Washington: Smithsonian
1996), edited by Francis Couvares, provides an overview
of the US regimes to background the essays in Controlling
Hollywood: Censorship & Regulation in the Studio Era
(New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 2000) edited by
Leonard Leff & Jerold Simmons' Dame in the Kimono:
Hollywood, Censorship, & the Production Code from
the 1920's to the 1960's (New York: Doubleday 1991)
is lighter; we recommend instead Thomas Doherty's Vice
Rewarded: The Wages of Cinematic Sin - Pre-Code Hollywood:
Sex, Immorality & Insurrection in American Cinema,
1930-1934 (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1999) and
Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production
Code Administration (New York: Columbia Uni Press
Thomas Waugh's Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism
in Photography & Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall
(New York: Columbia Uni Press 1996), John Burger's One-Handed
Histories: The Eroto-Politics of Gay Male Video Pornography
(New York: Haworth 1995) and Vito Russo's The Celluloid
Closet (New York: Harper & Row 1982) offer other
Jon Lewis' Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle
Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry
(New York: New York Uni Press 2000) is incisive. For early
tensions see in particular Nancy Rosenbloom's 'Progressive
Reform, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Industry, 1909-1917'
in Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern
America (Albany: State Uni of New York Press 1991)
edited by Ronald Edsforth & Larry Bennett and Richard
Maltby's 'The Production Code and the Hays Office' in
Grand Designs: Hollywood Cinema of the 1930s
(New York: Scribner's 1998) edited by Tino Balio.
Richard Maltby's Harmless Entertainment: Hollywood
& the Ideology of Consensus (Metuchen: Scarecrow
1983) might be usefully read in conjunction with more
splenetic works such as Michael Medved's Hollywood
vs America (New York: HarperCollins 1992)
Context is provided by Lawrence Friedman's lucid American
Law in the 20th Century (New Haven: Yale Uni Press
film censorship in the UK and Eire
Film censorship in the UK is based on the Obscene
Publications Act 1964 and associated legislation
such as the Video Recordings Act 1984, with significant
responsibility being given to the British Board of Film
an industry body.
The primary Act prohibits material that "tends to
deprave or corrupt persons who are likely to read, see
or hear it" (with defence on 'public good' grounds,
eg "in the interests of science, literature, art
or learning or of other objects of general concern").
The BBFC, formerly the British Board of Film Censorship,
traces its origins to 1912 and as with many self-regulatory
bodies in the UK has tended to act as an agency of government.
It was formally recognised by the Video Recordings
Act 1984 - a delayed response to the 1979 report
of the Williams Committee on Obscenity & Film
Censorship in the UK - as the body responsible for
video classification in the UK. However, its activity
as as film censor remains on a non-statutory basis.
In principle local government has the power under the
Cinematograph Act 1909 and Cinematograph
Act 1952 to allow any cinema to exhibit any film
or prohibit exhibition (eg in 1973 the Greater London
Council granted a licence for Thorsen's Quiet Days
in Clichy, in 1998 Camden Council granted a licence
regarding Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre and
1996 Westminster Council prohibited exhibition of Cronenberg's
Crash despite exhibition elsewhere in the UK).
In practice the national and local governments have accepted
ratings by the BBFC.
The 1952 enactment, consolidated with other film legislation
in 1985, establishes that no film is to be exhibited if
the licensing authority gives written notice prohibiting
exhibition, children are prohibited from "unsuitable"
films (with the cinema box office to act as an age bar),
films cannot be exhibited without certification and that
certification must be evident in advertising, at the cinema
entrance and on screen immediately before the film is
The 1994 Video Recordings Act highlights the
need for the BBFC to consider harm to potential viewers
( including potential underage viewers) and "harm
to society through viewer's behaviour" in relation
to works that deal with criminal behaviour, illegal drugs,
violent behaviour and incidents, "horrific behaviour
or incidents" and of course human sexual activities.
That Act, as subsequently amended, establishes age bands
for viewing/retailing videos -
Universal: suitable for all viewers
Uc Universal: particularly suitable
PG Parental guidance: parents are advised
that some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
12 passed for audiences aged 12 and
15 suitable only for those age 15 and
18 suitable only for those age 18 and
R18 may be sold only in licensed sex
shops to those of age 18 and over
emphasis under that legislation on self-regulation by
content producers and distributors was reflected in establishment
in 1989 of the Video Standards Council (VSC),
a non-profit making body set up to develop and oversee
a Code of Practice to "promote high standards within
the video industry". That Code - along with ratings
- was subsequently expanded to the computer and video
The BBFC site identifies 'cuts' to films (often at the
request of exhibitors), which peaked at 33.9% in 1974
and are currently running at around 3%. Films refused
classification appear to be running at around 100 per
Dewe Mathews' Censored: The Story of Film
Censorship in Britain (London: Chatto & Windus
1994) is a general history. James Robertson's The
British Board of Film Censors: Film Censorship in Britain
1896-1950 (London: Croom Helm 1985), The Hidden
Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action 1913-1972
(London: Routledge 1989) and Censored Screams: The
British Ban on Hollywood Horror in the Thirties (Jefferson:
McFarland 1997) by Tom Johnson are heavier going but definitive.
Film Censorship (London: Gollancz 1975) by Guy
Phelps and Enid Wistrich's I Don't Mind the Sex, It's
the Violence: Film Censorship Explored (London: Marion
Boyars 1978) are more polemical than Bernard Williams'
Obscenity and Film Censorship (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1981). John Trevelyan's What the Censor Saw
(London: Michael Joseph 1973) is a popular account.
Annette Kuhn's Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909-1925
(London: Routledge 1988) and Anthony Aldgate's Censorship
& the Permissive Society: British Cinema & Theatre
1955-1965 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1995) catch the
UK censors in action at critical times.
For Eire see in particular Kevin Rockett's Irish Film
Censorship: A cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet
Pornography (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2004).
For the USSR see in particular The Red Pencil: Artists,
Scholars, and Censors in the USSR (Boston: Unwin
Hyman 1989) edited by Marianna Choldin & Maurice Friedberg,
Enemies of the People: The Destruction of Society
Literary, Theatre & Film Arts in the 1930's (Evanston:
Northwestern Uni Press 2002) edited by Katherine Eaton.
For Nazi Germany see David Welch's Propaganda and
the German Cinema, 1933-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press
The Australian regime for films and videos centres on
classification by the Office of Film & Literature
Films, videos and and computer games legally available
in Australia (ie imported and locally produced) must receive
an OFLC rating under the National Classification Scheme
(NCS), a cooperative arrangement under the Classification
(Publications, Films & Computer Games)
Act 1995 (CPFCGA)
discussed earlier in this guide.
The NCS embraces local classifications under state/territory
classification and enforcement legislation. It is predicated
on principles that "adults should be able to read,
hear and see what they want", with protection of
minors from material "likely to harm or disturb them"
and recognition of "community concerns" about
exposure to unsolicited offensive material and "depictions
that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence,
and the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner".
The rating code for film and video covers three purely
advisory ratings and three ratings with age restrictions
films/videos are considered suitable for all
PG rated content may contain material
"confusing or upsetting to children" and thus
requiring parental guidance for children under 15 years
content is suitable for those 15 years and over
The MA15+, R18+ and X18+ categories are "legally
(or hiring) of MA15+ content must take
place in the company of a parent or adult guardian.
R18+ content is restricted to adults (ie age
18 years or over).
X18+ rated works contain sexually explicit
material , are restricted to those 18 years and over,
and can only be legally sold/hired in the ACT and Northern
Territory. (That's resulted in extensive sales by entrepreneurs
in those territories to consumers in the states.)
that are refused classification - ie identified as (RC)
- cannot be legally imported without express permission
from the Director of the OFLC and cannot be sold, hired,
advertised or exhibited in Australia. Grounds for refusal
of classification include depiction of bestiality or torture
and sexual exploitation of minors.
What of film that is not acquired for public exhibition
or sale? It is clear that some individuals are importing
unrated or banned DVDs and other film formats on a non-commercial
basis. Some of those imports are intercepted by the Australian
Customs Service (generally in conjunction with Australia
Post) under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations
1956; overall figures are uncertain.
In contrast to the UK, the OFLC (and comparable state
agencies) is a Commonwealth government agency rather than
an industry body.
For an introduction to Australian moving image censorship,
bedevilled by often conflicting federal and state film
censorship regimes over the past century, consult Ina
Bertrand's indispensable Film Censorship in Australia
(St Lucia: Uni of Qld Press 1978). Sonia Walker's brief
Film Censorship In Western Australia: Public, Government
And Industry Responses 1898-1928 suggests that some
concerns are perennial.
Pointers to other studies are given in the more detailed
profile on the
shape of censorship in Australia.
film censorship in New Zealand
New Zealand's current film censorship regime is based
on the Films Videos and Publications Classification
Act 1993 (here).
The background to that legislation is discussed in the
more detailed profile
on the shape of censorship in New Zealand.
The legislation is similar to the Australian federal scheme,
with a prohibition on exhibition/distribution of unrated
film and video. The Act defines what is considered harmful
to the public good and establishes criteria for rating
and labelling films and other publications.
Harm embraces a work that
depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with matters
such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in
such a manner that the availability of the publication
is likely to be injurious to the public good
rating films consideration is given to the extent and
manner in which the work deals with -
of criminal acts
and sexual violence
conduct with or by children
of children's nudity
dehumanising or demeaning conduct
of a particular class of person as inherently inferior
by reason of a prohibited ground of discrimination
is an outright ban on works that promote -
sexual exploitation of children
violence or coercion
or extreme violence
necrophilia, urophilia and coprophilia
and in Canada
Film and video classification in Canada is a provincial
responsibility, with variation between provinces that
is similar to the former Australian state/territory regime.
Suggestions for a unitary national scheme, notably in
the report of the 1985 report of the federal Special Committee
on Pornography & Prostitution (Fraser Committee),
have not progressed.
Provincial film classification boards, most of which from
the first years of last century, have the authority under
theatre legislation to censor publicly-exhibited films.
The emphasis over the past decade has been on industry
self-censorship. There is an "expectation" that
producers and distributors will avoid a Motion Picture
Association of America (MPAA) N-17 rating, the industry
advisory that recommends against viewing by those under
17 unless accompanied by an adult.
The Canadian regime, like that of the UK, features a separate
rating for videos, with all provinces except Quebec requiring
inclusion of Canadian Home Video ratings identifiers on
rental videos. Rating under the national Canadian Rating
System for Home Videos is based on averaging film classifications
assigned by the seven provincial boards. Interestingly,
although retailers are not supposed to sell/hire adult
videos to minors, there is no federal legislation prohibiting
For an historical overview see Malcolm Dean's Censored!
Only in Canada: The History of Film Censorship - The Scandal
of the Screen (Toronto: Virgo Press 1981), Gerald
Horne's lucid 1997 Pornography in Cinema and Provincial
Film & Video Classification in Canada (PDF)
and Gary Evans' In the National Interest: A Chronicle
of the NFB of Canada from 1949-1989 (Toronto: Uni
of Toronto Press 1991).
and in the air
Inflight editing standards vary by airline and by region.
They are generally but more conservative than broadcast
television editing standards and typically centre on
airline crash scenes or references to airline disasters
regarding terrorism (or references to terrorism), violence,
guns, drug abuse, physical abuse
images of/references to other airlines
"racist comments or denigrating references to culture,
religion, or nationality".
World Airline Entertainment Association comments that
the "most ideal inflight film genres" are "comedy,
romantic-comedy, light adventure".
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