Last week it was announced that streaming giant Netflix will officially set the age ratings for its own movies in accordance with current BBCF guidelines. Algorithms will collate manually tagged instances of violence, sex, bad language etc, and apply the appropriate BBFC certificate for the film. To say that entrusting a major company to self-regulate in such a way is questionable would be an entirely valid criticism, as it could be argued that Netlix has a vested interest in getting its content seen by as many eyes as possible, regardless of age-appropriateness. However, if one focuses on that it negates the wider problem at hand, which is that the current criteria for classifying films has its own implicit issues.
Each film classified with an above PG rating restricts the ability of people of a certain age to watch it. Every piece of art you take away from an individual narrows not just their understanding of film, but their ability to comprehend other peoples’ experiences. Now in the example of extreme horror, such as Srdjan Spasojevic’s blood-spattered homage to Yugoslav black wave ‘A Serbian Film’ (2010), you may be one hundred percent justified in taking this film away from children, as the value they would receive from watching it is grossly outweighed by the film’s content. However, the vast majority of films do not conform to this extreme example.
Take 2015s fantastic ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ – a sensitive and stylised look at coming-of-age and blossoming sexuality of a titular teenage girl, fantastically played by Bel Powley. The film was not particularly graphic but openly discussed sex and sexuality from the perception of an adolescent girl, leading the BBFC to classify it with an 18 rating. This cut the film off from what was clearly it’s target audience, that being young women of a similar age to the movie’s protagonist. This, along with the American MPAAs decision to bestow the film with an R rating, led Powley to encourage teenage women to get a fake ID in order to go see the film, as it seems ridiculous that a film that did nothing more than depict the feelings that many of them would be experiencing, would be disallowed from them.
The case of Diary of a Teenage Girl is also indicative of another problem with our current ratings system, that being that the experiences of women, minorities, and people of working-class background, tend to be treated far harsher in classification then others. 1999s gross-out smash hit ‘American Pie’ is far more graphic and vulgar then anything in Diary of a Teenage Girl, yet was classified 15 as it tackled the sexual discovery of a teenage male rather than a female. Similarly, 2010s ‘Made in Dagenham’ was classified 15 due to, and only to, several uses of the word ‘fuck’. Yet later that year Oscar contender ‘The King’s Speech’ was classified 12A despite containing significantly more profanity that Dagenham did, I guess it’s far more acceptable for Prince Regents to curse than it is for working class women.
This whole discussion of the biases of the British rating system may, in this day-and-age, be completely academic as is. The internet has no ID checks and unless your Netflix has been indebted with parental controls manually by the account holder you are still indeed allowed to watch whatever you want. However, it is important we examine and reform the biases within the ratings system and entrust children, even young children, with the ability and maturity to consume media that openly and frankly discusses safe, sane and consensual sex between adults.
Many countries’ classification boards, particularly that of France and the Netherlands, are already ahead of us in this regards, allowing children as young as 6 to watch films that we restrict to older teenagers and adults, but this will not happen here until we have a major culture shift in our understandings of art, sexuality and our own personal biases toward minority groups and women, as only then will we as a society feel more OK with educating and exposing children to more adult themes at an earlier age.