Every five years, the British Board of Film Classification (the BBFC – or the guys who decide what number appears in the bottom corner of your DVD boxes) carry out a survey of some 10,000 Brits. This week, the quinquennial survey found an overwhelming number of complaints levelled at 15-rated films’ depiction of sexual violence. Rather, they thought that such content would be far more appropriately restricted to an 18 certificate.
On the surface, these types of complaints aren’t at all novel to the censorship practice – just ask an Ofcom employee. Even the specific issue of sexual violence isn’t a particularly new one for the BBFC to deal with, with most of their previous surveys reaching similar conclusions as to what is appropriate for British audiences.
Yet, in spite of these existing precedents, the findings this year feel somewhat more indicative than ever – or at least a prompt for significant change. I feel like every politically-charged film article I write these days somehow ends up about #MeToo. Rather than outing myself as a broken record, I’d like to think this caveat is instead telling of just how far-reaching and profound this movement has been over the last 9 months. Evidently, public opinion surrounding sexual violence has changed in the last 5 years, as it has every 5 years preceding it. In this current climate, however, it would seem remiss to downplay this year’s findings on filmic sexual violence – given the pandemic’s real-world emergence into the vox populi.
While the very presence of #MeToo can itself stand for a tacit rejection of the way films are often made, certain figures have been explicit in their criticism nonetheless. In her interview with Variety, Keira Knightley drew attention to the amount of sexual violence against women in films today, stating rather candidly “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped.”
Wind River (2017), one of the films used as an example in the BBFC’s survey, seems to prove Knightley’s point. Rated 15, audiences thought that the film’s graphic rape scene warranted an 18 certificate instead. The fact that it was one of The Weinstein Company’s final productions is an eyebrow-raising, if somewhat tangential, circumstance to keep in mind. The BBFC’s official guidelines state that they will remove scenes that are “harmful to the individual, or to society, through eroticising or endorsing sexual violence”. The condemnation of such content would have most of us in agreement, however it’s the grey area that emerges from this that #MeToo and others have sought to colour.
Rape scenes are often dismissed as narrative components necessary to the story, while the characters subject to these acts are overwhelmingly female. Now, pretending women don’t make up the inordinate majority of sexual violence victims would be grossly negligent indeed (nor would it correspond with #MeToo’s goal). Instead, it’s the manner in which these scenes are often choreographed that needs to be reassessed in terms of intention and authority. Intention is the (relatively) straightforward one – what is the actual purpose of this scene? If it’s used for the sole purpose of being ‘gritty’ and raising the stakes (i.e. the vast majority), you need to realise there are other ways of achieving this than a rape scene. Authority is indefinitely more challenging, but it largely concerns filmmakers (male filmmakers) asking themselves how appropriate it is for themto be shaping a male-on-female sexual violence scene. That’s not to say male filmmakers shouldn’t deal with these issues, but that they observe their own position before doing so.
It’s for reasons like these that the BBFC’s findings present a clear opportunity for filmic reassessment. Naturally, 18s have a smaller potential audience than 15s – so if you’re making a 15-rated film to make a lot of money (i.e. most of Hollywood), you’ll think twice before carelessly inserting a gratuitous rape scene in your film. Whether or not these scenes “invite viewer complicity in sexual violence” is a discussion for another time (what about the very nature of cinema, then?) – but for now, it’s just yet another reminder for the industry about their improper use of such volatile material.