In 2018, the BBFC undertook a public consultation exercise that will inform its 2019 Classification Guidelines. Thus far, journalists have over-reached in their reactions to the exercise. To illustrate, various press outlets erroneously declared that films featuring sexual violence will be automatically allocated an 18-certificate under the BBFC’s 2019 guidelines. Both the Daily Mail’s Emily Kent Smith and The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Hymas refer to (but fail to substantiate) the motivating factors for the as-yet unconfirmed shift in BBFC policy, pointing towards ‘widespread concern that current age ratings are sometimes misjudged’ and ‘public backlash over “liberal” classifications following the #MeToo movement’. Hymas’s reference to #MeToo conflates real-world sexual assault with fictional representations of sexual violence. #MeToo was certainly driven by discussions about sexual assault within the film industry. However, outrage over real-world incidents of sexual assault does not directly equate to concerns about representations of sexual violence in fiction film; the latter may be of concern to ‘the public’, but the #MeToo campaign does not evince any such concern. Moreover, any change in BBFC policy would only impact on how films are classified; it would not directly curb instances of sexual assault within the film industry, for instance. Conflating real-world sexual assault with fictional representations is unhelpful inasmuch as it distracts from the campaign to prevent real-world sexual violence by changing working conditions within the film industry (and beyond).
Coming hot on the heels of the growing #MeToo campaign and the Hollywood sexual harassment revelations, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh 2017) was the first star-studded Oscar vehicle featuring a rape-revenge narrative template to be judged according to the changed media standards. As Kevin Spacey was written out of a film expected to bring him an Oscar nomination, students were calling for Woody Allen to be removed from film studies curricula and Molly Ringwald was questioning the sexual politics of her own cult hits, Three Billboards seemed about to face unusual scrutiny of its storyline of rape and murder. While many critics pointed to the brilliant performances, especially by Frances McDormand as the victim’s mother, and the strength and determination of her character, little attention was paid to the images of the brutal crime: there were almost none. As a film that centres around the rape and murder of a young woman, Three Billboards is highly unusual in mainstream filmmaking in containing no imagery of the fatal episode itself. A glimpse of the corpse in the police file is the only visual reference to her death.
There are few films that have proven more troublesome for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) than Sam Peckinpah’s Cornish-set modern western Straw Dogs (1971) with its notorious double rape scene. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of American professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) arriving in a remote Cornish village with his young wife Amy (Susan George). Given a sabbatical to pursue research, David has come hoping to find peace and quiet in Amy’s former home -- a remote farmhouse -- but his appearance stirs resentment and hostility in the tight-knit, patriarchal community. At the same time, Amy’s return to her roots sparks the predatory interest of several men in the village, notably her former lover Charlie (Del Henney). The pent-up hostility boils over in a sexual assault: Amy is the victim first of Charlie and then of his friend Scutt (Ken Hutchison). Soon after, a siege of the farmhouse results in the death of a local magistrate who has attempted to intervene. Finally, all five of the villagers besieging the building, including Charlie and Scutt, are killed. Amy and David survive.