Shame, Sex and Full Frontal Nudity: The NC-17 Debate

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle online over the fact that Shame has been given the rating of NC-17 in America. Shame being a drama about a man with sex addiction containing “strong sex” and full frontal sexy nudity of both the male (Michael Fassbender) and female (Carey Mulligan and many more) variety, it is not too surprising that an 18 certificate applies in the UK. So why is it that a similar rating in the US is seen as an exercise in draconian censorship and a death sentence at the box office, leading some people to ask whether “the MPAA be empowered to make parenting decisions“?

The first question to sort out is what exactly NC-17 means, because I can’t be sure. Hitfix quoted the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and defined NC-17 as meaning, “No one under the age of 17 is permitted in a theater to watch a film with this rating.” The would make the NC-17 rating one year less strict that the UK 18 rating, allowing 17-year-old Americans to get an eyeful of Mini-Fassbender while their British equivalents miss out. A trip to the MPAA’s website offers a different definition:

An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.

Interesting to see that the MPAA’s definition would exclude 17-year-old Americans from seeing Carey’s mulligan and bring it in line with the rating over on this side of the Atlantic. More interesting though is the MPAA’s claim that this is not a negative judgement in any way, possibly something that has been added to combat this kind of debate.

So if the MPAA judges Shame with exactly the same result as the BBFC, what’s the problem? One small aspect may be that the MPAA is not the most transparent organisation, just one member’s identity is known to the public and only brief explanations for a rating are given. In contrast the BBFC is tripping over itself to give you details of precisely what moment in a film gave it an 18 certificate and what criteria they use to classify films. They even invited little old me around to watch a DVD.

More than this, the rating of NC-17 is seen to be a box office disaster because of rumours that some cinemas won’t screen the film and newspapers will refuse to advertise it, just because of the “smutty” rating. This is why there was another kerfuffle online last year over the rating of Blue Valentine, the (admittedly undeserved and repealed) rating of NC-17 was said to doom the film to small art house cinemas and to limit its marketing opportunities. This went unproven when the film won its appeal and received the more relaxed R rating.

In reality it would seem that these fears are pretty unfounded. John Fithian, president of NATO (The National Association of Theatre Owners), has said back in 2004, and repeated himself this year, that in a survey of 100 members including big chains and independent cinemas only three said that they would refuse an NC-17 regardless of any artistic or entertainment merit. So it looks like it shouldn’t be hard to get an NC-17 film into cinemas, something Steve Gilula (Fox Searchlight) found when distributing The Dreamers. He also found advertising his film, complete with the key full frontal nudity, easy enough, with just one paper turning him down, and that was a Mormon-owned newspaper.

Maybe the legend of the NC-17 rating being a fatal diagnosis is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any film needing to rake in the big bucks will be so afraid of the rating that they will cut the film down until it gets the more family friendly rating of R and goes on to achieve the box office required. Only small art-house fare not expecting to break box office records feel they can risk the NC-17 noose, thereby bringing in the small tickets sales they would have also taken had the film been PG. Only if more films take the risk of being fully fledged “patently too adult for children 17 and under” can we really see if it has an effect on their profitability. When no one takes the risk we don’t have enough films to compare.

I think Fithian said it best when he said, “This is the kind of film that the NC-17 is designed for, and I think we need more bold filmmakers and distributors to make content appropriate for the rating and release it that way.” When a film contains a large amount of “strong” sexual content involving plenty of sights of people’s sexy area then I see no issue with restricting the film to only those 18 and over. It is a transatlantic norm and one that I can’t see being relaxed. The last thing we need is for film, an art form at the end of the day, being cut down and manipulated to be suitable for a wider audience who may not be the target anyway.

Considering the fact that America doesn’t have an equivalent to the UK 15 certificate, the second most severe rating after NC-17 is R, which simply means that those under 17 have to have an adult with them. If there’s one thing worse than a child watching inappropriate adult material, it’s them having to watch it with their parents in tow. I see no alternative for the MPAA, with the ratings system as it is, than to award Shame an NC-17 rating and that’s OK. This is a film for adults with adult themes.

Shame is in UK cinemas on 13th January 2012 in all its naked glory.