Should Film and Other Creative Mediums Be Censored?

Writer: Riley Glenn

VidAngel Screenshot.png

Picture via ChurchMag

Recently, I heard about an app called VidAngel, a program that you can download and stream movies from iTunes, Netflix or Amazon Prime. However, there is a catch. Anything deemed offensive in the film is edited out entirely. They sell their movies for only $1; but, VidAngel does not pay for, or own, the rights to the movies or shows they edit and make available to stream. Not only is that illegal, but that goes against everything that I believe in as an aspiring filmmaker, an artist, and an overall decent human being.

The picture above is a ridiculous ad for VidAngel where a seemingly normal family is shot with a paintball for every “f-word” in The Wolf of Wall Street. They are trying to show that everything that is said hurts the family dynamic. This, however, is a ridiculous claim.

First of all, let’s talk about ratings. In the U.S., the M.P.A.A. (Motion Picture Association of America) watches movies and rates them based on how offensive they are. These ratings are what people are familiar with:

G: General Audiences: This means anyone can get in and watch the movie. Violence must be cartoony.

PG: Parental Guidance: This means there is some offensive behavior, minor curse words and very little sexual content.

PG-13: Parents Guide Strongly Recommended For People Under 13: Action, sexual content, and offensive language are more prevalent. However, the “f-word” can only be said once, and not in a sexual context. Minor to no nudity can be shown. Some drug content can be shown.

R: Restricted: This means that nobody under the age of 17 can get in or buy it unless they are with a parent or guardian; language and sexual content becomes “more offensive,” violence and drug content is much more rough. Nudity can be shown.

NC-17 (X): No Children Under the Age of 17: This means that no person under the age of 17 is allowed, even with a parent or guardian. Very “explicit sexual content” is shown. Certain sexual behavior not able to be shown in other rated movies is shown.

First of all, not only are these ratings very subjective: but, they also limit the profitability of the movie, as well as the director and writers original idea for the film.

First let’s discuss a film’s profitability and how it relates to the rating that it has. When a movie is deemed “offensive” by the MPAA, it seriously affects how it is advertised which; in turn, controls how much money it makes. While most people can accept that R-rated movies are around, they are much more harsh on NC-17 movies. If a movie gets slapped with an NC-17 rating, it is not advertised on TV, not sold in chain stores like Walmart and Target, and most movie rental chains like Blockbuster and RedBox. Not only that, some theaters choose not to show those movies. All of these things hurt how much money a movie can get in return. First of all, chains such as Walmart, who will not sell NC-17 movies, account for 40% of money that a movie makes. Also, if a movie is not advertised on TV and in theaters, most people do not know about the movie or know how to see it, therefore, that also hurts how much money a movie gets back.

To avoid getting slapped with an offensive rating, effectively limiting the return that can be gained, writers and directors have to limit what is shown in their movie. Sometimes the MPAA will give reasons why the movie got a certain offensive rating.This means the makers can cut or change those certain things and send it back for a better rating. However, these instances are few and far between, meaning that the creators have to essentially guess why their movie got the certain rating that it did. Just typing those sentences and knowing that it is something that happens infuriates me. As an aspiring director and someone who just loves movies, as well as all art, I can not imagine having to change something I created just because it “offended” some people. When a filmmaker sets out to make a movie, they have a certain vision in mind for their creation, as does a musician, artist, and sculptor. Essentially, what the MPAA does is when the director and writer finishing their masterpiece, sometimes having spent years on planning, shooting, and post-production, tells them that it is not good enough for their standards and almost forces them to compromise their vision. Let’s be honest, after a movie is planned, shot, and edited, they will not go back for reshoots as that will cost more time, money, and manpower. This means that, in order to be bumped down to a more acceptable rating, they have to cut certain shots and sometimes entire scenes, out of the movie. This compromises not only the artistic vision that the creators had, but sometimes the story as a whole. In the case of VidAngel, if they edited mainstream movies of their content deemed “inappropriate,” most R rated movies wouldn’t have much left, and if they did, it would be an incohesive mess. Imagine the Wolf of Wall Street without the swearing, drugs, or sexual content (even sexual language is edited). Let’s consider one of my favorite movies, Superbad, which is about three graduating seniors trying to score booze so they can have sex at parties before the end of the year. While that is a very broad description of the movie, you can already tell that it would not fit in the “appropriate” box. First of all, they are trying to get alcohol, so we can’t show that, especially because they are underage. They are also getting alcohol in hopes of having sex. So, we then have to get rid of all the talk of sex, and what very little nudity is shown. We also need to get rid of the drugs in the movie, including cocaine and marijuana. Finally, we need to get rid of all 190 “f-words” and other curse words in the movie. Now that we have edited all those things out, there is little to none of the movie left. Yet, it is still considered to be one of the most iconic movies of its time.

As I’ve mentioned, the ratings limit the money a film can get and compromise the artistic vision the creators originally had. This might make you wonder who makes these ratings and for whom, as things deemed “offensive” are very subjective. What I find offensive, and what my mom finds offensive, are two very different things. Parents of children are more easily offended and cautious when it comes to movies than the young or single. This is how the MPAA operates. They claim to be rating things for the parents who are worried about what they watch with their kids and what their kids are watching on their own (which, let’s be honest, most kids ranging from 10+ have seen things that would be rated NC-17 on the internet). But this creates a biased sense of rating. Parents do not want their kids to hear the language of the characters in Superbad (and I agree with them and respect them), but as someone who was in high school, doesn’t have kids, and really doesn’t care about things being offense (especially when it is in movies where things represent true things), I really don’t care about the language or sexual content. While it does make it more awkward to watch with my parents (which is unfortunately the way I saw it the first time) and people older than me, Superbad was not meant to be watched with your parents, especially if your parents are strict and care about language and sexual content. The MPAA rates things because they think that’s how they should when kids are in the mix. I have also heard the argument “It’s Hollywood’s job to make things appropriate” or “Hollywood is shoving these offenses down our throat” used frequently. They then go on to use children and the “sanctity of the family,” and phrases like “We don’t want our children to grow up exhibiting these offensive behaviors because of the things they have seen in movies,” as a means of making people feel bad. But when I hear these arguments, I honestly can’t help but to laugh. First of all, there is no offensive agenda that Hollywood is trying to push onto people, and the idea that there is is ridiculous. Filmmakers are not trying to make you feel a certain way about a certain topic, they are trying to give you an experience as well as express themselves. Take Brokeback Mountain for example. This is a movie about homosexual cowboys (this is also a very broad description). However, the filmmakers made the movie neither to promote homosexuality nor to condemn homosexuality, if you feel like a movie made you think a certain way, that’s on you. Brokeback was made to tell a story, to take a look into that culture, and to give the audience an emotional experience.

Speaking of Brokeback Mountain, there are certain things that are almost universally deemed more offensive than other things. These include things like, in Brokeback Mountain, homosexuality. For the most part, the MPAA has little to no homosexual members rating films. This creates a massive imbalance when it comes to movies about homosexuality or depicting anything other than heterosexual relationships. Other things that are not heterosexual also receive harsher ratings. Transsexuality, solo acts, and relationships involving more than 2 people are more likely to receive harsher criticism than the “normal” one man and one woman, and even that is not safe. First of all, let’s talk biology. In R rated movies, female genitalia can be shown, however, male genitalia cannot, and when it is, it is either brief or not shown in its entirety. While that is the case, women get a lot more rules when it comes to sex in movies. Scenes depicting women’s pleasure is deemed more harsh than their male counterparts. Also, sexual language is worse for females. For example, in Jersey Girl, Liv Tyler’s character is shown talking about solo acts of pleasure. This was met with outrage by audiences as well as the MPAA. I, personally, am outraged that people were upset by that, a scene of pure dialogue, but many people enjoyed the comedic scene in American Pie in which Jason Biggs literally, pleasures himself on the countertop with a pie. This problem is actually a lot deeper than people think. Because mostly men write and direct movies, they are told through the male perspective. So, whenever a female is shown to enjoy or talk about sex, it makes them and audiences uncomfortable. This is also because society tells us that that should not be the case for women, but that is another debate for another day. Also, the reason these “taboo” lifestyles are rated harshly is because it compromises the original view of what is “normal.” Because these lifestyles are rated harshly and not represented in Hollywood, it does nothing but keep making it taboo and teach people who do participate in those lifestyles that they are wrong for what they are doing.

Like I said in the above paragraph, if a certain thing or lifestyle is underrepresented or banned from being shown in movies, it only preserves the power that it has. The more people censor the “f-word,” the more biting power it has. If people become okay with those words, it loses its power because it is only a word. It is not the grouping of letters that make a word “offensive,” it is what the word means. The “a-word” and “butt” mean the exact same thing. The only reason the former is offensive is because society, and the individuals making up the society, deem it offensive. They give curse words special treatment, censoring them and making them taboo, in attempts to protect children from their “evil wrath.” This, however, does not work, and actually does the opposite of protect children. If a child hears a dirty word, whether it be sexual or a curse word (especially one they are not familiar with) in a movie, they are more likely to look it up on their own time to figure out what it means. This then causes them more harm, as they see what the internet has to say about it, which can be more offensive than a movie. In my opinion, and remember I am not a parent, parents need to educate their kids on the meanings of words and “offensive” things they hear in movies. Censoring words and content in songs and movies does not help because people still know what the word is, what it means, and get the same image in their mind. Censoring keeps words offensive rather than taking their power away.

Another argument I hear a lot from proponents of heavy censoring is that they don’t want their kids to watch something that has “offensive” things in it, whether it be full on watching or by scrolling through channels or radio stations. This is a decent argument when it comes to cable television or the radio. And I agree, if a child is scrolling through the television or the radio or anything that is public, they shouldn’t be subject to things deemed “offensive.” However, when talking about streaming websites like Netflix or Amazon, movie rental stores like RedBox or Family Video, or movie theaters, there is no excuse in my opinion. As a parent, you should not put your child in front of a TV, expecting it to do your parenting for you, then get upset when “offensive” things happen on the screen. When there is a movie available to watch that is not on cable, parents should be able to do the research on the movie to deem whether or not they want their kid watching it. There are plenty of websites out there that describe the language, sexual content, drug content, and violence of a movie, that are free to look at, IMDb for example. A parent can very easily look at the movie through these websites and have the final say on if their kid can watch it, rather than calling for Hollywood to massively change the way they operate.

Think back to the early 1950’s. Lucille Ball was restricted from saying the word “pregnant” in I Love Lucy and they could not be shown sharing a bed. Think back to 1939 when people freaked out over the iconic line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a d**n” in Gone With the Wind (notice how I censored it). While most people think these are backwards, antiquated reasons to get upset, these were serious problems in their day, much like people see the “f-word” as a serious problem now. With time comes changes of “offensive” things and language. For example movies like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, and Basic Instinct were changed after some time and some very tiny cuts. Once time has passed, the same things that used to offend us don’t anymore. That is why we look at the line from Gone With the Wind or the rules for I Love Lucy as ridiculous and tame. I can only hope that, unless there is a massive shift in how people judge and rate movies, these things that “offend” people will change over time.

Now, you may be saying; “Riley, why do you care so much? It’s just a movie,” and I get that. However, as someone who watches a lot of movies, surrounds myself with movies, and wants to go into filmmaking, it really grinds my gears. When certain people, not even the general audiences, get offended by something, and ultimately either make the creators change it or hurt their ability to make money, of course I am going to be passionate about it. This is not only a person’s job and livelihood, but it’s their way of expressing themselves artistically. Not only that, but authors and musicians are also being called to change their work. I honestly cannot even fathom that. You work so hard at pouring your soul into creating something you are passionate about just to be told to change it. It’s ridiculous. To me, a parent should be proactive enough to research the movie and decide for themselves if they want themselves or their kids watching it.