‘THE LIBERAL VIEW OF CENSORSHIP PROVIDES CONTEMPORARY PRODUCERS OF FILM AND TELEVISION THE LICENCE THEY NEED, TO INCORPORATE PORNOGRAPHIES. THESE INCLUDE THE GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF SEX ITSELF, BUT EXTENDS TO COVER SEXUAL ABUSE, PHYSICAL VIOLENCE AND TORTURE. THESE SEQUENCES ARE FREQUENTLY ENACTED TOWARDS THOSE WHO ARE OTHERWISE TRADITIONALLY MARGINALIZED’.
The Durango-95 purred away real horror show – a nice, warm vibraty feeling all through your guttiwuts. Soon, it was trees and dark, my brothers, with real country dark. We filled around for a while with other travellers of the night, playing hogs of the road. Then we headed west, what we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultra violence.
Alex (voice-over) – A Clockwork Orange, 1971
My being raped moved something in me so deeply that I could no longer look at it: I’d had a fear of men all of my life. [America woman]
Women Viewing Violence, p. 15
I watched A Clockwork Orange the first time five years ago. The story of that night is interesting. I was 16, and a classmate invited me to some party at a friend’s place. The house where the party was held, in the rich part of town, was ‘decorated’ with flags with swastikas and enlarged pictures of Mussolini and Hitler and candles. Middle class white shaved-head male teen-agers were hosting the party. Later on, someone got there with videotape. The shaved head boys got very excited, we all gathered in the living room to watch the tape. It was A Clockwork Orange.
My purpose is to problematise the argument of the link between media violence and society, focusing on the liberal view on censorship and the possible ‘psychological’ harms of pornography to society, reflected through representation and marginalisation.
I will do this by concentrating on the rape seen in the movie A Clockwork Orange, trying to support my arguments through the research that has been done on the subject. Can we see a link between violent behaviour and the way violence is portrayed in the film? Would it have made a difference in the male gaze at, for example, women, if some of its scenes had been cut?
Furthermore, I will draw on to some of the issues related to this subject, that came up in the interview I held with J. Barratt, an examiner as the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).
The definitions of pornography and violence are very controversial. I will therefore try to tackle the matter from different points of view, also highlighting the gender issues related to them, to the possible extent in a relatively short essay.
‘A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’: A CASE STUDY
The scene that I will concentrate on mostly is the rape scene, “the old in-out, in-out”, as Alex (the main character of the movie) calls rape. A young woman in an isolated house in the countryside is assaulted by the ‘droogs’, at the terrified eyes of her partner. The woman is stereotypically sexy, object of sexual desire…blonde hair, tall, slim, she wears a ‘provocative’ tight red dress. Once that their mouths have been taped silent, the rape begins. Alex hits them receptively, singing ‘singing in the rain’, which creates a very disturbing feeling of brutal violence associated with the beauty of a cheerful song. Alex pulls his pants down, jumps in front the helpless husband, and reminds him to look really carefully: “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well!” Alex is looking into the camera, and seems to be speaking to the audience, through the scared eyes of the man. The rape takes place, but we do not actually see it. What we have seen before, the preparation for it, is probably enough. The woman will die, a couple of months after, because of the shock – it is suggested – of submission, impotent, to the act of male dominance.
PORNOGRAPHY AND VIOLENCE: DIFFICULT DEFINITIONS
LIBERAL, RIGHT AND FEMINIST VIEW
Generally, pornography is any graphic depiction of sex. The BBFC has a very pragmatic definition of pornography, as J. Barratt says: “we regard as pornography any explicit sexual activity – gay, heterosexual, etc.; if it looks like pornography to us, if there is mechanical sex, close detail.” But following a feminist concern, pornography is not about sex, but about violence. Now, what about violence (and in particular, to our purpose, sexual violence) in the media?
Usually, violence is considered as physical, but it is by many argued that that is a limitative definition, in that a great deal of violence can be psychological, therefore not as evident as the physical one.
The liberal view, sustained through textual analysis and research, “offers a non-evaluative definition of pornography, as sexually explicit material designed for sexual arousal. It argues that there is no scientific evidence for pornography causing harm in society, and therefore no sound reasons for banning or taking other forms of action against it. While pornography may offend many women and men, it brings harmless pleasure to others. The Williams Report aimed to limit the public display of pornography in the interests of those who might find it offensive. This position, clearly, explicitly calls upon the support of existing empirical research.” Through his work, M. Barker tries to demonstrate what the links are between media violence and audiences, “theorising why, for example, comics and ideology are interlinked, or why the ‘video nastie’ debate has little to do with how children respond to television”, suggesting that “we need to change the terms of reference so that instead of using the phrase ‘violent movies’, one that is heavy with negative implications, a variety of phrases can be adopted which incorporate the multiplicity of responses to the viewing experience.”
In his hallucinogenic dream, Alex sees crucified Jesuses…What kind of reaction could have radical moralists like Mary Whitehouse and the had at the sight of this, or of the rape scene? The reaction of the Moral Right in Britain to films like A Clockwork Orange is of full-on disapproval and censorship. The Moral Right “assumes a different definition of the pornographic, as representation of sex removed from what is believed to be its legitimate function and context. […] Pornography is a threat to traditional family values because sex exists for procreation and should be confined to marriage.” This puritan position, it is argued, can dangerously strengthen taboos on sexuality, abortion, and issues like HIV, and would leave out some important groups of society from being represented at all, contributing to their further marginalization.
The feminist critique of pornography “addresses the sexism and exploitation of women represented in mainstream pornography – which is frequently also racist. […] And certainly all feminists criticise the mythologies mediated through mainstream pornography, at least in its heterosexual versions, which represent women as passive, perpetually desiring bodies – or bits of bodies – ubiquitously available for men’s insatiable sexual appetites.” The feminist argument can be very radical, to the point of stating (R. Morgan and S. Brownmiller) that ‘Pornography is the Theory, Rape is the Practice’ (Segal, 1987 and 1990).
From a radical feminist perspective, the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange is an example, as A. Dworkin would say, of pornography as “the institution of male dominance that sexualises hierarchy, objectification, submission and violence. As such, pornography creates inequality, not as an artefact but as a system of social reality, it creates the necessity for and the actual behaviours that constitute sex inequality”. This is the cause and expression at the same time of women’s marginalization, women who, often not even represented in a traditionally patriarchal society – symbolised, for example, by Alex killing the ‘yoga’ woman with a huge phallus he keeps at his waist-height-, like many other ‘minorities’ (interesting that women are definitely not a minority, though…), are now represented, but objectified in their representation, therefore, it can be argued, marginalized.
On the contrary, it is by some suggested that explicit sexual sequences are ‘good’, in that they give voice to those groups of people that would otherwise be marginalized. If we take, for example, the recent TV series Queer as Folk, it can be argued that it was a good thing that some scenes were quite explicit, in that it can help society in breaking down some taboos on, in this case, homosexuality. On the other hand, though, this could actually mean a further marginalization, in that those groups are yes represented, but in away that tends to put them in a category, in a box that still differentiates them from ‘normal’ people. A point that I would like to make is that many men might find quite disgusting the way also the male is portrayed, as a sexual animal, most of the time with a great body and a fairly big penis (with which, for example, accentuated in an ironic way, Alex kills the ‘yoga woman’), no brain but just ‘fuck’. Many men are not like that, and actually pornography, it may be argued, marginalizes them.
An interesting thing: the rape seems artistic, a ritual: Alex cuts two circles out of the red dress of the woman so that her breasts only are showing. He then cuts the whole dress in two. Jack the Ripper’s style. Had Alex been watching a documentary on him?… The furniture of the Korova Milkbar is indicative of a certain ‘sexual’ attitude: there are no real tables, but instead white sculptures of naked women, interlaced, either bending over, or kneeling down, in a submissive position, objectified to the point that the only coloured parts are their hair and pubic hair, some of them with milk (that is the ‘droogs’ drink) coming out of their erected nipples. We have here quite a strong portrayal of women as sexual objects, absolving to their maternal function of giving milk to their, in this movie, only male children. Referring to sex inequality and objectification of women we could think of the way that women are ‘represented’ on TV shows, as half-naked blond ‘bimbos’, whereas men are usually fully dressed; or how in some advertisements, all you see of a woman is her chest, or her legs… And what about the two women at the fun fair? Sexually pop-sucking and therefore stereotypically arousing? All these examples indicate how women are objectified in their representation.
THE MEDIA VIOLENCE DEBATE
Through the depiction of violence, Kubrick seems to raise a debate some important contemporary socio-political issues: as the homeless guy says, we live in a world where there is no ‘law and order’ anymore. In a way, therefore, the movie can be seen as an ‘analysis’ of a certain situation, the problem of violence in the 60s (towards the end of which the script for the movie was made) was a major one. Those times were characterised by an ‘opening up’ of cultures, by the demolition of certain taboos (let us think of the student riots in 1968) but at the same time an increase, in crime. In America, for example, The Violence Commission published the Task Force Report, where they pretended to show the link between constant representation of violence on TV (which they said contained violence in 80% of its programmes) and unlawful behaviour in the streets. If there is a link, therefore, should producers of film be allowed to incorporate pornography and violence in their movies?
THE PROCESS OF VIEWING VIOLENCE
A possible feminist perspective on A Clockwork Orange and its depiction of sexual violence could be that of desensitisation, instead of directly causing violence: “What does happen in real life is that pornography desensitises sexuality and promotes an image of women as sex objects, as subhuman, as second-class citizens, as willing (biologically determined) victims. I do not believe that sexually specific fiction (like some of my own, for instance), or photographs of naked people, or drawings of people fucking, or educational material are, by definition, pornographic.”
A.Wajda makes a clear distinction in his short essay on ‘Two Types of Censorship’: “Everyone knows that there are two types of censorship. There is internal censorship which the artist imposes on himself motivated by his fear of the unknown”- and the one that the viewers independently exercise. “Then there is external censorship which is exercised under constraint by various institutions called upon to maintain that which is known as order, morality, etc.” Also, A. Hill underlines the importance of another factor in viewing violence: the practice of thresholds. “The reactive mechanisms of thresholds and self-censorship prove to be central to the process of viewing violence. ‘Thresholds’ signify different types and contexts of violence which participants find personally disturbing.” A. Hill goes on: “for heterosexual male participants, rape is a complex issue, and manifests itself as a desire to protect fictional female characters who are attacked/sexually attacked, a desire which can be traced to social/cultural typecasts of the male as a protector and the female as protected. […] This social threshold illustrates and confirms social taboos.” But apparently, there are men who do not feel like protecting while watching sexual violence, some may say that they are even incited to rape.
What comes out of these observations is that the liberal view on media violence believes that audiences are active, can be self-censoring, and that things do not happen in a vacuum, but it all relates to the kind of social and cultural background one comes from.
After watching Schindler’s List it is reported that a woman committed suicide. In the James Bulger case, the two little murderers were said to have watched the violent movie Child’s Play III (even though there is no actual evidence that they did). Where the Right and radical feminists see a causal link between media-violence and violence in society, the liberal and liberal-feminist view is that there is no direct link, that things do not happen in a ‘vacuum’.
Alex lives with his mother and father (a working-class family, with financial problems, and poor education) in a depressing council house in a squalid area of town. These might be factors contributing to his violent behaviour. According to the liberal view, the same applies to audiences. Their viewing process does not take place in a vacuum. Therefore, as an example, “the pornography debate must move beyond the supposed transparency or univocity of the pornographic artefact to ask highly specific questions about the consumption of pornography by actual persons in radically different situations.” The process of de-coding is thus central to our argument: “in strong contrast to this rather formalistic approach” – here referring to the passive audience approach of Behaviourism – “it has been precisely the guiding interest of recent research in the cultural studies tradition to analyse how actual audiences produce meaningful interpretations of television’s output, and this in turn is premised upon the argument that viewers engage actively with what they see, whether as individuals or as members of various groups with distinctive characteristics. For some, this ‘active’ conception of the audience has been connected to a notion of ‘empowerment’. […] In line with this perspective, it has been argued that the televisual text is highly ‘polysemic’, that is, potentially open to a wide variety of interpretations and readings.”
More liberal feminists are aware of the impossibility of finding the experimental proof of pornography’s harm, and therefore “have preferred to call upon the testimony of women’s own experience of the harm they feel pornography has caused them.” L. Segal reports the testimony of a woman whose husband made her ‘do things’ he saw in porn magazines, and concludes: “Pornography is not the problem here, nor its elimination the solution.”
THE QUESTIONS OF GOVERNMENT CENSORSHIP
BRITAIN AND THE BBFC
We have discussed earlier on the different views on censorship. Let us now see specifically how censorship works in Britain.
Since “the cinema is an art that speaks to the masses. It interests all who seek to lead the masses”, governments feel a need to preserve and represent their country’s morality, through censorship, in most cases, and Britain amongst Western countries is the one with the strictest rules.
A Clockwork Orange was never banned by the BBFC, in spite of the many critics’ argument that it incited to juvenile crime. “In 1971 the film was passed rated X with no cuts. When it just came out again, we examined it, and again, passed it (rated 18) with no cuts. We commented that the violence it portrays (especially the scenes that are accompanied by cheerful music) was definitely very disturbing, but, and this is what matters, you are not invited to take the part of the perpetrator”, says J. Barratt. In fact, when Alex, at the look of violence, “beseeches the doctors to ‘Stop it, I beg you, it’s a sin’, such repentance, ‘which of course contains a moral message’ persuaded the censors that the film was a ‘valuable contribution to the whole debate about violence’.” Also, it was judged, the sexual violence in the movie, even though somehow ‘comic’ in most scenes, is never glamorised, thus does not ask the viewer to sympathise with Alex or the ‘droogs’. Moreover, it turns out that Alex suffers violence, through the Ludovico Treatment and in the end falls victim of his own past victims; the message seems to be: what goes around, comes around.
What moves the BBFC is the “fear that watching unsuitable films might have a demoralising impact upon the sexual morality of young people. Such concerns have been part of a well-established discourse upon social deviance, law and order and threats to conventional morality which repeatedly comes onto the political agenda at times of social crisis.”
From the interview with J. Barratt, it appeared that the BBFC tends nowadays to have quite a liberal view on the issue of censorship, based on the fact that there is no proof of evidence that media violence causes violence in society: “The BBFC should not define what violence or pornography are, but leave it up to the viewer.”
The BBFC latest research (‘Sense and Sensibilities: Public Opinion’, Sept. 2000) shows that the British are becoming more tolerant to sex in movies, and less to violence. On sex: “46% of the national sample agreed that ‘people over 18 have a right to see graphic portrayals of real sex in films and videos. 54% of the national sample thought that the Guidelines for sex were ‘about right’. […] The consensus of both juries was that some relaxation in sex Guidelines was possible, especially at ‘15’ and ‘18’”, whereas on violence 56% of the sample thought the Guidelines are not strict enough.
With this brief overview on the issues of pornography and censorship, I aimed to outline, through the study of A Clockwork Orange, the different views on the subject, with particular attention to the more liberal view on censorship especially in Britain. Also, I tried to propose different definitions of what pornography might be, as it relates to the various forms of violence in society, by focusing on the process of representation and marginalization.
As a final point, I would want to put forward a possible solution (if so can be called) to the matter, proposed by some liberal theorists (like L. Mulvey). Governments should first of all be mainly concerned with improving the education system, giving students the possibility to learn about issues of representation, objectification, and marginalization. All this would contribute to the key process of demystification of the female body, of sexuality, and of social taboos in general; case in which, perhaps, censorship would not be needed anymore.
Barker, M. & Petley, J. (1997) Ill Effects. London, Routledge;
Gibson, P. & R. (1993) Dirty Looks. London, British Film Institute;
Hill, A. (1997) Shocking Entertainment. University of Luton Press;
Itzin, C. (1992) Pornography – Women, Violence and Civil Liberties. Oxford University Press;
Petrie, R. (1997) Film and censorship. Cassel;
Mathews, T. (1994) Censored. London, Chatto & Windus;
Schlesinger et al. (1992) Women Viewing Violence. London, BFI;
BBFC September 2000 Report – Sense and Sensibilities: Public Opinion.
Interview with Jim Barratt, 1 December 2000, at BBFC, Soho Square, London.
Domellann, C. (1998) Censorship. Cambridge, Independence;
Mulvey, L. (1992) Fetishism & Curiosity. London, BFI;
Van Zoonen, L. (1994) Feminist Media Studies. London, Sage Publications;
Dines, G & Jensen, R. (1998) Pornography. London, Routledge.
Kubrick, S. (1971) A Clockwork Orange;
The Return of A Clockwork Orange London, Channel 4 2000- Documentary;
Lasko, C. (1999) The Last Days of the Board. Channel 4 Production;
Empire of Censors (1999) BBC Production.