The MPAA will watch rape all day long but for God’s sake don’t show them your penis

Art & Lit Screen

When Michael Fassbender parades around your latest with his chap out you know you’re in for trouble. Alas, the artist (and now accomplished film director) Steve McQueen seems unfazed by such bother with his latest cinematic effort , Shame, revelling in it’s realistic depiction of sex addiction and as much as the American ratings board hates to see it, that inevitably includes some genitals. On screen genitals. Literal, on-screen, bodily genitals.

Now you may think that I’m overstating the presence of genitals here, but for the MPAA they are a not inconsiderable sign of depraved horrendousness. Whilst The Hangover, The Life of Brian, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have easily passed through the ratings system by showing us the comical side of man’s silliest of endowments, when it comes to sexualising genitalia the MPAA often loses its sense of humour a little.

The American ratings board has a long and confusing history in this most natural of areas. Stick a prosthetic impostor down there (think Mark Wahlberg’s stocking stuffer from Boogie Nights) and hey presto, you’re got yourself an R-rating. Whop out the organic alternative then you better be playing it for comic effect or it’s an NC-17 and you’ll be kicked out of cinemas faster than you can say “it’s faintly ridiculous that a perfectly natural appendage is given the same classificatory status as sexualised violence”. Or something to that effect. Watching directors play peek-a-boo with a carefully placed lampshade here or a cheekily placed sausage there isn’t really conducive in many cases to the depiction of matter-of-fact everyday life, or sex, that films often wish to portray.

Relegated to gay-panic scenes in Judd Apatow productions and racial stereotyping in films like Hall Pass the sexualised or serious depiction of the penis is one of the last taboos in mainstream American cinema. An uninterested, lazy, flaccid phallus may be a natural preset, but there is so much more to the poor fella than meets the American cinematic eye. Refused a full performance and left underappreciated and impotent it’s about time audiences (but mainly the censors) began to realise that penises are used for so much more than casual laughs and that when films seek to depict said uses it may not be all that bad if one sneaks it’s way into view.

Now I’m not saying that I want to see unsimulated sex in every film that I go into but nor do I want a perfectly natural evocation of sexuality restrained by the whims of the close-minded censors and cinema-chains. Adult films are meant to be for adults. Adults who have sex or don’t have sex or have the option to have sex. Don’t want to see a penis? Then don’t have sex (at least with the lights on). Don’t want to see a penis in the cinema? Then don’t watch the film. Fair enough. But for those who do one should let them make an adult decision and let them see adult films. I’m not talking porn here but I’m not talking some soft-core nonsense either. When the BBFC classified Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs as an 18 unsimulated depictions of penetrative sex (which had been seen before in Intimacy although not in as graphic fashion), oral sex and male ejaculation were given an airing on our conventional cinema screens for the first time. The film may have been mindnumbingly boring but it proved that adults can see such ‘outrageous debauchery’ and come out unscathed and sane. Whilst also bored out of their minds of course. Whilst British audiences are treated as sentient, progressive beings capable of exercising judgement and taste in their visits to the big-screen, America treats its audience with a censorious, nannying contempt that sees them as being irrational prudes with brains the size of testicles.

In the case of McQueen’s Shame the sexually explicit film has been awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA (the American censors) due to its extensive and sexualised depiction of its lead actor’s penis (well that and seeing him urinate out of it as well). In real terms this equates to the British ‘18’ rating, but whilst over here such a classification raises no controversy whatsoever, the American equivalent is box-office poison.

Like a lingering disease cured only by cuts to the most nefarious bits of your running time, the NC-17 has long been the leper of US distribution. Whilst the American censors are nice enough to not ban you entirely from seeing a film containing ostensibly adult content, many cinema chains indirectly will. Many both refuse to promote and flat out refuse to show NC-17 rated films due to the institutionalised stigma that comes with them. Choked from screenings and public goodwill they often fall by the wayside and it is extremely rare for a film to not appeal against what is often considered a label of disrepute. With Shame however Fox Searchlight seeks to change all that by embracing the NC-17 as “a badge of honour, not a scarlet letter.” Their dogged promotion of the film and it’s likely candidacy for awards consideration come New Year may just be what is needed to break the taboo of this most divisive of classifications once and for all.

Though it may sound fair enough to award Shame what is functionally an ‘18’ rating, all the board requires of them to receive the generally acceptable R certificate is to cut out Fassbender’s explicit bits. But when a film treats its subject matter as maturely as Shame does and with an uncompromising artistry that is hard not to respect, why should the director’s unflinching portrayal of sex have to get in the way of a seemingly arbitrary American aversion to male genitalia? Genitals given the right context aren’t generally considered to be morally offensive or “liable to deprave or corrupt” so why is their sexualised depiction treated in the same leagues as violent, abusive sex? Any on-screen delivery of everyday consentual sex is always going to be less disturbing than a rape scene or a graphic and realistically delivered murder, right? Anyway, anyone who is likely to be depraved or corrupted by the sight of a penis is probably as mad as a box of Von Trier’s to begin with.

One may see the problem here as being with the inherent stigma attached to the NC-17 by cinema chains and the public at large but the MPAA has a lot to answer for. When disturbing and sexually explicit films like Requiem for a Dream (after with its required cuts but still featuring coercive sexual acts), Blue Valentine (after extensive appeals) and Last House on the Left (delivered with no shortage of visceral rape, torture and murder) receive ‘R’ ratings it’s hard to see why a film like Shame should be unfairly maligned just because it’s lead actor literally couldn’t keep it in his pants. He’s playing a sex addict, what did they expect?

– Ross Jones-Morris