BBC Culture

Rated R: Are two f-words the same as 500?

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

America’s film classification board thinks so. Nicholas Barber examines changing attitudes toward expletives in the cinema.

One is a quietly inspirational comedy-drama about a mild-mannered Irish pensioner tracking down her long-lost son. Its dialogue includes two uses of the f-word. The other is a raucous cavalcade of drug-fuelled orgies, as enjoyed by a notoriously hedonistic fraudster. It includes 506 uses of the f-word. As you may have guessed, the films are Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street − and while they’re both Oscar nominees, and were both based on true stories, it doesn’t seem too difficult to tell one film from the other.

America’s film classification board, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), might disagree. It initially decreed that Philomena, like The Wolf of Wall Street, should be given an R rating, meaning that children under 17 would be unable to see it without an accompanying adult. As odd as that decision might seem to Philomena fans, the organisation was simply following the ‘two strikes and you’re out’ rule it applies to swearing. According to the MPAA’s website: “A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating.”

The site does acknowledge that exceptions can be made, however, which is why the makers of Philomena appealed for leniency last November. Weinstein, the company behind the film, even persuaded its star, Judi Dench, to shoot a video in character as M from the James Bond franchise, asking the MPAA to reconsider. How could they refuse? Sure enough, Dame Judi and co prevailed, and Philomena was assigned the lower PG-13 rating, thus allowing unaccompanied children to buy their tickets.

The question remains, though: why did it come to that? Why was it so hard for the MPAA to recognise that two taboo words are a world away from 506? After all, The Wolf of Wall Street now holds the record for containing more f-words than any other feature film in Hollywood history. It even beats Martin Scorsese’s other contenders: Casino (which has 422 f-words), Goodfellas (300), and The Departed (237). It should also be noted that, whatever similarities there may be between Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street, only one of the two shows a man snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s naked body. Wasn’t it absurd of the MPAA to count up the rude words, and slap on a rating accordingly? “The MPAA’s stance on language often proves itself to be too black and white, not taking into account a film’s overall subject matter,” said Weinstein’s lawyer, Bert Fields.

In context

Across the Atlantic, the system would appear to be more to Bert Fields’ taste. The UK’s ratings organisation, The British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC), makes a point of analysing the way expletives are used in a film, and not just how often. And it is due to move further in this direction. In February, the BBFC implemented a new set of guidelines in response to a survey of 10,000 members of the public. From now on, it will permit even less swearing in films with its lower ratings, U and PG. But it will be more tolerant of expletives in 15-certificate films (that is, films for viewers aged 15 or over), and it will pay even more attention to the context and the tone of the swearing.

David Cooke, the Director of the BBFC, weighs up such issues every week. “When you’re rating films based on their language, you do have to count the numbers of the c-word and the f-word,” says Cooke, “because if you don’t count at all you don’t have any bearings. But our survey said that people want us to give greater weight to mitigating factors and aggravating factors. A mitigating factor could be humour or a throwaway quality in the usage of the language. An aggravating factor would be if the swearing was directed at someone, or it was particularly aggressive, or it involved some kind of power imbalance. People don’t just want us to be bean-counters. They want us to make a carefully nuanced contextual judgement.”

Perhaps that’s why, in Britain, The Wolf of Wall Street was given an 18 rating, while Philomena was a mere 12A.

War of words

Still, not everyone goes along with the idea that the BBFC should be more flexible in its response to colourful language. In January, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper reacted to the new guidelines with a wail of despair: “Surrender on film swearing” went the headline. “Children can see films full of obscenities as censors relax rules.”At the other end of the political spectrum, some film-makers feel that a straightforward expletive-counting procedure would be fairer than leaving the BBFC to make individual value judgements. One such film-maker is Stephen Woolley, the producer of the 2010 film Made in Dagenham.

“Made in Dagenham and The King’s Speech came along in close proximity [in 2010],” says Cooke. “They both had about 15 uses of the f-word, but we made Made in Dagenham a 15 and The King’s Speech a 12A. Understandably, Stephen Woolley wasn’t happy, but we thought there was a distinction. In Made in Dagenham, the swearing was spread throughout the film, whereas in The King’s Speech, the f-words only occurred in two short bouts of speech therapy. In that context, we thought it would have been perverse to make it a 15. I don’t blame Stephen Woolley for being annoyed, but the big message we got from our survey is that that’s the sort of context-based distinction people expect of us.”

So, should Cooke’s MPAA counterparts follow suit? “I wouldn’t want to say anything that appeared to rubbish the American system,” says Cooke, diplomatically, “because they operate in a different society with a different set of circumstances. I’d be reluctant to make the comparison.”

There’s one other topic on which Cooke won’t comment, either. “I can’t confirm whether The Wolf of Wall Street has more swearing than any other film,” he says. “There comes a point where there’s no point in us carrying on counting. Once you’ve got to 20 f-words, you know that it’s going to be a 15, rather than a 12A, but further uses of the f-word aren’t going to take it up to an 18. But if we start to hear the c-word, that’s when our ears prick up again!”

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