The British censor’s curious decision to treat ‘implied’ swearing no differently than if the actual word had been used.
A little while back, the British Board of Film Classification revealed the results of yet another public consultation, this time on swearing in movies. As usual, this told the BBFC exactly what they wanted to hear – namely that their guidelines for bad language at various age categories were spot-on – even if participants had to be nudged in the right direction at points (for instance, the use of ‘motherfucker’ in 12-rated films, which people disagreed with until shown clips of it in use – and possibly having their wrongthink explained to them).
Swearing is, of course, one of those things that exposes both social hypocrisy – in that everyone does it but few seem to approve of others doing so – and a curious memory loss that parents in particular have. Children generally swear like troopers, and have done for generations – long before the use of such language became commonplace in films, TV shows and music. Swear words seem to be part of a collective memory that we all have, and kids have long picked them up for all over the place – older children, potty-mouthed parents or whatever. The idea that by restricting swearing to adult categories we are somehow protecting the innocence of kids is ludicrous – they clearly know all these words. It does, however, placate embarrassed parents who have forgotten what they were like as kids.
Until now, there was a considerable distinction between actual swearing and the various ways film and TV producers have used to hint at it without actually including it. Porridge‘s use of ‘naff’ as a replacement for ‘fuck’ allowed viewers to use their imagination, while ‘effing’ has long been an acceptable abbreviation for the actual word, even when used to describe someone else’s foul language. Bleeping, covering swearing with external noise and other diversions have also been seen as fair compromises that will not corrupt children or embarrass their parents.
No longer. The BBFC has declared that such implied or abbreviated language will now be treated in the same way as saying the actual word. WTF, we might cry at this – though if we did, we’d be restricted to the 12A or above categories. The entire point of disguising swearing is to avoid causing offence – but now, the BBFC are treating this in exactly the same way as if the actual words had been used, thus rendering the obfuscation pointless. And they are not hanging around.
Local Hero, a thoroughly wholesome Scottish comedy-drama from 1983, has been PG-rated since it was first released. No more. Alongside some milder words that can (so far) still pass at PG level (‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘bugger’, ‘bitch’, ‘asshole’ and – ahem – ‘hell’), someone says “motherfu-“ before being interrupted. Well, we all know where that is going. The film has been upgraded to a 12A for a cinema re-release due to ‘implied strong language’.
In the grand scheme of things, this might not seem at all important, and parents can (and presumably will) choose to ignore the rating. Indeed, as far as the dubious activities of the BBFC go, it’s a very minor thing to complain about. But we can never resist the opportunity to mock the censors, and this seems to set a dodgy precedent where films that everyone else might see as fine family entertainment are given restrictive ratings even though they have no actually offensive content. It also probably undermines the BBFC – all versions of this film available for home viewing are rated PG – including one rated as recently as 2009. The Board is constantly telling us how they and their ratings are trusted by the public, but if people start seeing different ratings for exactly the same film, then they might start to work out what some of us already know – that the BBFC work as much on whim as expertise. Giving a film an adult rating because of words that are not even heard does not seem a great way of gaining public trust in your decisions.
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