Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Battle of the Sex Scenes

This blog is rated 12A for moderate sex references.

Despite the BBFC constantly palming me off with less-than-satisfactory templated e-mails of little substance whenever I pose them a query, I always seem to come back for more.

Perhaps this is because my brain is so film classification-geared, that I’m hungry to have movie discourse of any kind, and the BBFC did act on my Call Me by Your Name e-mail earlier this year, showing that they are receptive to suggestions, once in a blue moon.

My most recent e-mail to them was about Battle of the Sexes, rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. The oh-so-informative extended insight reads:

In one scene, two women have sex; however, there is no strong detail.

However, just like when the BBFC got Will Poulter mixed up with Ben O’Toole, this description isn’t 100% accurate. The ‘sex scene’ in question just consisted of Andrea Riseborough kissing Emma Stone’s neck whilst Stone breathes heavily.

If I didn’t have such an Emma Stone aversion, I would totally be praising her performance in BoS. She transformed into Billie Jean King, whereas Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, for me, was never more than ‘Margot Robbie in a bad wig’.

Tangent for an unusual bit of movie trivia, by the way: Emma Stone played a ‘Mia Dolan’ in La La Land. Andrea Riseborough played someone called ‘Mia Nolan’ in Black Mirror: Crocodile. And now both ‘Mia olan’s play lovers!

The scene was not at all dissimilar to the kissing-in-bed scene between Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in LionLion was rated PG and the BBFC didn’t even flag this sensual moment in their extended insight!

So why does Lion get a PG and Battle of the Sexes a 12A, then? I wonder…

I thus e-mailed the BBFC about it: -

I am e-mailing to enquire about BATTLE OF THE SEXES, which was rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex.
The sex scene in the film didn’t seem to go beyond a woman’s neck being kissed in bed, which I feel was mild rather than moderate.

The level of sexual activity in the film seemed fine to me at PG. I was wondering why the film was rated 12A rather than PG. Was it due to the fact that the relationship being consummated was an affair, or were there other factors that led to the 12A-rating?
Thanks for your time,

Their response: -

Dear Emma
Thank you for your email.
The Guidelines at PG state that 'sexual activity may be implied, but should be discreet'. The final part of the scene you highlight features the couple lying next to each other on a bed, after they have been seen to undress (with some close focus on their bodies and underwear), as one of the women reacts in a manner that suggests more than mere kissing might be going on offscreen. As such, the scene was considered to lack the necessary discretion for a PG.
Yours sincerely,

Notice how in our e-mail exchange, neither of us mention the elephant in the room which we all know was probably the real reason why the film was a 12A rather than a PG.

The BBFC mention the ‘focus on bodies’ in the scene, but due to the chronology of how the scene plays it, the nudity really doesn’t make much of an impact:

1) Andrea Riseborough and American Ozil kiss in the living room, Riseborough removes Billie Jean’s glasses and there is one fleeting glimpse of someone’s stomach (presumably Stone’s) to intimate clothes being removed

2) Elsewhere, Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carrell, is flicking through channels on TV, unable to sleep

3) The two women are shown in bed, with the aforementioned neck-kissing and heavy breathing. This scene lasts about 8 seconds.

4) This scene of sensuality is then rudely punctuated by a goading phone call from Bobby Riggs, challenging King to a tennis match

5) During the phone call, you see in the background Riseborough get out of bed, and her naked back is shown on camera (thus the audience can infer, especially from 1), that they had been naked under the sheet)

But, just because they had been naked under the sheet doesn’t automatically mean they were having sex – that sort of reasoning definitely wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. After all, think of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and the extensive lengths she went to to prove Barney from How I Met Your Mother ‘raped’ her.

Kissing, heavy breathing + back nudity are purely circumstantial, and not automatically conducive to a sex scene. *takes lawyer hat off*

The whataboutery that the BBFC is indulging in in their e-mail with the what 'might be going on offscreen' remark is that Riseborough’s character was manually stimulating Stone’s, and hence the 12A rating.

That’s the only possible explanation, given the other option – oral sex – is discounted due to Riseborough’s head being in the scene. So if we go with the manual stimulation theory, there would have been either subtle arm movements, or Billie Jean King would have been doing a LOT more than breathing heavily – she would have been moaning.

As far as fingering scenes go, it’s hardly Kingsman 2 – The Golden Circle or Handmaiden, now. And that’s because I certainly didn’t sense there was any fingering in the scene.

Plus, if we were going to be really nitpicky, with regards to holding the BBFC to account Grease and Cinema Paradiso are still PGs, and the level of sexual dialogue and sexual activity in those films are nowhere near ‘discreet’.

I won’t quibble this too much because those two ratings are historical relics (implemented before the BBFC had the 12 rating, so it would have been rating them PG or 15), and I know the BBFC aren’t in the business of going through every film that has a dodgy rating and re-rating them for fun, but it’s just a bit rich to put so much gravitas on the PG rating and the necessary 'discretion' needed when that’s not the case with every PG-rated film.

For a more recent example of their own hypocritical inconsistency, check the extended insight for the Taron Egerton vehicle Eddie the Eagle:

There are mild sex references as a ski coach tells his pupil to treat ski jumping as if he were having sex with a film star. The scene includes comic references to 'foreplay' and 'rhythm' as the coach pulls comic faces and imitates comic sex noises to demonstrate.

Emma Stone’s heavy breathing was too much for them, but these kind of sex jokes are considered OK at PG?! ‘Mild’ sex references in Eddie the Eagle, have a laugh. (Eddie the Eagle is sensibly a PG-13 and 12A in America and Ireland).

If the BBFC had taken the excuse I proffered right there for them – that the Stone/Riseborough relationship in the film was an affair, then I might have been more amenable to the 12A rating.

Because that at least takes the context of the film into account, as well as taking on board how difficult it must have been to be Billie Jean King in 1973, feeling the need to hide her sexuality, due to public perception, as well as not wanting to hurt her doting husband (Austin Stowell plays him in the film, and the man is a saint).

But the flimsy reasons they’ve highlighted instead just make me more adamant that it should have been a PG.

What’s more, harking back to that scene in Lion, when Rooney Mara and Dev Patel were kissing in bed, the camera moves behind her, and you see her naked back too. So, using the BBFC’s own words, there was a ‘focus on their bodies’ in that scene. And that was a PG! (Plus, the fact that in Battle of the Sexes, items 1, 3, and 5 were inter-cut with scenes of Steve Carrell, take the focus away from the erotic charge from Riseborough/Stone considerably).

So I think the BBFC stubbornly referring to this as a ‘sex scene’ is disingenuous. They just chose to read a lot into the way ‘one of the women reacted’ so that they could falsely label it a sex scene, then conveniently give it a 12A rating. Bull to that.

We’re not in 1973 any more!

(Sidebar, but the BBFC aren’t even consistent about being over-strict, or over-lenient. They read too much into the Battle of the Sexes scene, yet under-sold the strength of the sex in Sausage Party and Deadpool, with nothing but ‘strong sex references’ in the short insight, when both those films had strong sex scenes as well. So they’re weirdly puritanical on some films, and then lax on others depending on what agenda they've got. It’s infuriating).

As Exhibit A that there was nothing unseemly in the scene under discussion, I present you with what the Ontario Film Authority, who rated Battle of the Sexes PG, said about the film:

Notice how their reasons for giving it PG were the mature themes and tobacco use. They didn’t even consider the ‘love scene’ a category-defining issue. Probably because there was no love scene! Billie Jean was just reacting in that way because she liked having her neck kissed!

And historically, the Ontario Film Authority are stricter than us on rating depictions of same-sex passion; God’s Own Country is an 18A in Ontario and Gone Girl a 14A. (In the UK, those rating equivalents are the other way around for the two films). But at least in God's Own Country, there were actual sex scenes for the OFA to be strict on, rather than this phantom sex scene in Battle of the Sexes that the BBFC have imagined!

I’m just gonna say it: the real reason Battle of the Sexes is a 12A and not a PG is, despite Britain loving to pride themselves on being woke, and British papers loving to judge countries like Russia for being backwards, a lot of the British population are still mired in conservative values.

Had two women kissing in bed been passed at PG, there would have been hella complaints.

The BBFC have been ahead of the curve when it comes to ostensibly rating films blind to the sexuality depicted – Brokeback Mountain was a 15 here on its release, as it should have been, whereas it got an 18 in Ireland. But I feel, whilst it’s all very well to pass gay films at 15 rather than 18 if that’s what they deserve to be, you should be just as forthright about rating films at the lower end of the BBFC spectrum.

Visually, there was nothing that would have troubled parents about Battle of the Sexes at PG had the kissing-in-bed been between a man and a woman (hence why Lion was a PG). But had Battle of the Sexes been a PG, there probably would have been some complaints from knuckle-draggers, and I feel the BBFC chickened out on giving it its rightful rating, because they knew they would face opprobrium.

And, rather than hold the homophobes that would have complained to account by telling them we don’t live in the 1950s any more, they chose the easy way out.

To show the rampant homophobia still rife the UK, I present you Exhibit B: a series of tweets from parents, complaining that their kids had been exposed to a trailer of Love, Simon.

'Straight people have feelings too you know....' HAHAHAHA.

Just so we're clear, despite the film being a 12A, the trailer to Love, Simon was PG-rated, because Simon says, ‘I have a huge-ass secret’, so it was PG for the language. You're allowed to show trailers for 12A-rated films before Us and PGs, as long as the trailer is the same rating (or lower) than the film you're showing.

But as the tweets show, some parents were uncomfortable with even their kids knowing about the existence of homosexuality.

The MPAA and IFCO also rated Battle of the Sexes PG-13 and 12A, respectively, but they’ve always been pricklier about rating homosexual content, and everyone knows it (La mala educación got an NC-17 in America and an 18 in Ireland, but just a 15 over here).

I expected better from the BBFC, who pride themselves on being enlightened, and frequently pat themselves on the back for it.

And at least Ireland recognise they have been too old-fashioned in the past and are now making major leaps and bounds – Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name were rated 15A, which they never would have done ten years ago; and God’s Own Country and 160 BPM were 16 on cinematic release, then 15 on DVD.

There’s some strong stuff in those two films, and it’s good to see the Irish put their money where their mouth is about stamping out homophobia by passing gay movies at the level they should be, so as many viewers as possible can consume them.

But for Britain, for a country which values themselves on being one of the most progressive in the world, and who thinks they’re witty for making sly digs at Russia in the form of campaigns like this:

We could do with addressing the homophobia that’s a little closer to home.

And when presented with two women kissing, to not mislabel it as a ‘sex scene’ so you have an excuse for passing it a rating higher than it should be, would be a start.


I will never stop holding the BBFC to account and trying them to be the best version of themselves. Read about all my correspondence with them, and all my thinkpieces on the BBFC, here.


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