Do films warp minds?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

In January 2014, the British Board for Film Classification (BBFC) published new guidelines, announcing a new focus on preventing the sexualisation of girls. The board has also conducted a string of focus groups into the ‘psychological impact’ of scenes of sexual violence in films. Together, these moves seem to indicate that while the censors’ concerns change over time, it is not a simple matter of ever-greater permissiveness. At its inception in 1912, the BBFC was meant to be a means to protect public morality, and even public order. Nowadays, and especially since the late 1990s, it is more benign and concerned with classification rather than censorship, maintaining that its position is to ‘reflect what the public feels, not tell it what to think’. Nevertheless, the assumption that film can have a malign effect on our behaviour and our morals permeates the board to this day. And, while fewer films are banned, the BBFC still orders edits on films deemed questionable.

There does seem to have been a shift away from a concern about the glamorisation or endorsement of sexual violence to one about the ‘psychological impact’ such scenes could have upon the viewing public. But is the result still censorship by any other name? There is also fresh concern about the effects of smoking on screen, with public-health bodies calling for films with any scene that shows smoking or tobacco use to receive an automatic ‘18’ certificate from the BBFC. Beyond official classification bodies with statutory powers, there is clamour for film ratings to go even further. In Sweden, a number of independent cinemas now tell audiences if the films they screen pass the Bechdel test, which requires at least two women to talk to each other about something other than a man in any work of fiction. While the test is yet to be implemented in any UK cinemas, it is nevertheless a talking point as an assessment of how women are represented in film.

So is censorship still being justified in the name of protecting the public, even if from different kinds of threats? Should filmmakers self-censor in order to promote better health and better values? Or do they have a responsibility to take on and subvert tired, or simply unhealthy, stereotypes? Long after media-effects theory has been put to bed, are we still relying on gatekeepers to shield us from poor health and poorer morals? In short, can films really affect our behaviour and what, if anything, should be done about it?

Listen to the debate:

Sonia Livingstone
professor, Department of Media and Communications, LSE; author, Media Regulation: Governance and the interests of citizens and consumers

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Dr Stevie Simkin
reader in film and drama, University of Winchester; co-editor (with Professor Julian Petley), Controversies book series; author, Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: from Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox

Dr Maren Thom
researcher in film, Queen Mary University of London; education advisor

Tom Slater
deputy editor, spiked; coordinator, Down With Campus Censorship!

Produced by
Ed Cottingham media analyst and researcher
Tom Slater deputy editor, spiked; coordinator, Down With Campus Censorship!
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