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Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship
By Jeff Sparrow
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2012 Jeff Sparrow
All rights reserved.
IRRESISTIBLY ATTRACTED TO THE CRUTCH
'OKAY, SO WHAT have you got there?' Matt checked off on his fingers. 'Passionate embrace. Mouthing of the breast. Cunnilingus. Mutual orgasm.' He turned away from a screen upon which he'd paused two women, freezing them in sexual ecstasy. 'What do you think?'
I was in Sydney, learning how to censor. We were midway through a short course schooling us in the techniques by which the Australian Classification Board made its rulings. We'd studied partial nudity and full nudity, and simulated violence and real violence, including an actual execution by firing squad that culminated with an officer firing a pistol into the head of the still-twitching body. Now Matt, our instructor, wanted our opinion about a lesbian love scene.
What did I think? Clearly, the sex was simulated. Simulation was one point on my checklist. But the scene was also prolonged, and duration, I knew, made the impact greater. On the other hand, the stylised presentation (the music and the general artiness) was supposed to decrease the impact. But by how much?
'MA?' I ventured uncertainly. That was a legally restricted category: according to our guidelines, it was forbidden to all 'persons under 15 years of age'.
'MA,' agreed Matt.
Right again! I was, somewhat to my surprise, good at classification. It bothered me, actually, quite how much I enjoyed it. I'd never thought of myself as the censorious type, but so far this was actually fun!
THE MOST IMPORTANT institution — the flagship organisation, if you will — for content regulation in Australia today is the classification board. An independent statutory body, it allocates ratings to films and games and other media, using a code agreed upon by both the states and the Commonwealth. It is the board that issues bans — generally through refusing to allocate a classification, which prevents the product (in theory, at least) from being distributed or viewed across the country.
The board was based in Sydney. I'd booked myself on a cheap flight leaving Melbourne's Tullamarine unconscionably early one morning to speak to its members.
Even the most ardent advocates of content regulation tended not to discuss those who actually did the work, almost as if censors were to the public sphere what executioners were to penology: necessary, perhaps, but innately distasteful. Libertarians often presented the censor as the personification of the system over which he or she presided, the walking embodiment of its hypocrisies. '[Censors] are as irresistibly attracted to the crutch,' explained the historian Geoffrey Dutton in 1970, 'as if they were infested with crabs, and it is no wonder, with all the filthy books, plays, films and paintings that they are exposed to.'
That contention — that professional censors were not moral exemplars, but were instead worse than the ordinary people they allegedly protected since, by trade, they consorted with pornographers, pimps, and criminals, cultivating a well-honed nose for the obscene — stayed with me all the way from Central Station to Albion Street in Surry Hills. Even if you saw nothing wrong with depictions of sex or representations of nudity, today's classifiers dealt with child pornography, with images of sadism, and with the most extreme manifestations of the ultra-hardcore imagination. If prolonged exposure to such content inflicted psychic damage (a proposition that the whole edifice of censorship implied), what did that mean for those professionally obliged to watch it, over and over again? What, in other words, did classification do to the classifiers?
Turning from Albion into Mary, I discovered myself walking in lockstep behind an older man, tall and cadaverously thin, his goblin limbs wrapped in a cheap suit that was worn and shiny at the creases. We were evidently heading in the same direction. Was he a censor? Did that sunken gaze represent the toll of long days spent classifying, the damage wrought by too much violence or sexual perversity?
I surreptitiously studied him right up to the moment I turned into the foyer; he kept walking. In the mirrored metal of the elevator, my reflection leered back. I'd been awake since 4.30 a.m. and was unshaven, with circles of darkness around bloodflecked eyes, my clothes crumpled from dressing while a taxi honked outside. I resembled nothing so much as an illustration from an old-fashioned tract warning against self-abuse. I looked away hastily.
I'd half-expected to find the classification board housed in Dickens' Court of Chancery — a candlelit basement filled with the crabbed, the embittered, and the slightly insane — but instead it shared offices with the NSW Teachers Federation. A notice advertised the next meeting of a refugee-activist group; I caught a lift with a group of young trade unionists talking animatedly about Julia Gillard. I hadn't anticipated this.
Nor was I really prepared for Donald McDonald. When he'd first been appointed, commentators had noted his friendship with John Howard: a relationship some took as signifying an attempt to stack the committee with conservatives, especially since the review board (which heard appeals about classifications) also seemed increasingly crammed with Liberal Party allies. I'd assumed that McDonald would be some bloodless political toady — or, at the very least, a pursed-lipped moralist. But he proved entirely charming: a genial, engaging man who politely asked me about my travels and the kind of writing I did. He was, indeed, so grandfatherly and well mannered that it was affronting when, fairly early in the conversation, he explained, 'We don't use euphemisms here. We don't talk about the c-word or use any cute terms like that: it's "cunt" and "fuck".' Which, even in the context of the board's airy, antiseptic office, sent me back to Geoffrey Dutton and the crutch.
McDonald had previously worked at the ABC, where he presumably didn't see much in the way of child abuse or hardcore porn. Had he hesitated before accepting this appointment? He laughed. 'Look, I'd worked in theatre for years. The exposure to distressing content was mentioned to me and I said, "For goodness sake, don't worry about that!" Yes, I've seen things in this job that I could have lived my life without having seen, but they're still only on film, or on the page. I'm not in the cancer ward or anything.'
The board screened new appointments to ensure they could handle what they had to see, and counsellors were available for anyone who became distressed. But most people, he said, coped surprisingly well.
I asked him what it meant to work professionally as a censor. What was in a normal working day?
'I can show a schedule if you like.' He scrabbled around on his desk for a minute. 'This is a couple of days' worth.'
It was a stapled bundle, laid out like an Excel spreadsheet and headed 'Daily Programme'. Each page represented a different timeslot. 'You see, there are three tiers of work. They're like sessions. The first tier starts at 8.45 in the morning, the second tier tends to start at 10.45 — although it can be delayed if there's a feature film that's very long — and then there's the third tier, which starts at 2.00 p.m.'
I stared down at tier one. On the morning that the schedule represented, nine different productions had been classified. Most of them were DVDs, each allocated to a separate board member. Someone was viewing Huntik: secrets & seekers (which the internet later glossed for me as an Italian animated children's show about 'a search for ancient amulets that can invoke different types of monsters'), while another scrutinised The Empress Yang Kwei-Fei, a classic piece of Japanese cinema. There was animated television comedy The Dating Guy, season one of action series Steven Seagal: lawman, season two of sketch comedy Mind of Mencia, episodes from a lifestyle show about the 'world's greatest homes', and the Oscar-winning film Precious. Amid all that, one of the members had been busy with two publications: Hooters, issue 106; and Celebrity Sleuth, number 59. Pleasant enough, I supposed, accruing a salary while watching Hollywood movies like Precious; less so, sitting through a complete season of Steven Seagal. As for Hooters and Celebrity Sleuth, the numbers appended to the titles hinted at the almost existential realms of tedium such tasks might entail.
'Forgive me if this is an obvious question ...'
'None of it's obvious, Jeff,' he said, a little wearily.
'... but do you actually watch all of these things, or can you just, like, fast-forward through?'
'No, you watch it all, in real time. Unless, that is, the sheer volume makes that unfeasible. So with a television series in a box set, there's often an industry classification, and we don't need to watch the whole of it because the applicant will have done their report, detailing language, nudity, sex, and so on. In that case, what we do is more of an audit.'
We flipped over to the second tier. Steven Seagal: lawman was still playing, but most of the other classifiers had switched to computer games, a gamut that ran from Athletic Adventures to Zany Zoo. The board operated its own theatre, where a projectionist screened the feature films; there was another facility where board members played games. Of course, a major game might contain 150 or more hours of content, some of which could only be accessed by the particularly skilful. The distributors were thus required to report on the highest level of violence or sex that any program contained, and sometimes provide a demonstration to prove their case.
Athletic Adventures and Zany Zoo seemed, on the face of it, innocent enough, unless the subtext had escaped me. Indeed, I was struck by the extent of the prosaic content on the sheet. Hooters, one presumed, was a soft-porn magazine, but nothing listed seemed particularly violent or hardcore — certainly, nothing approached the vistas of perversity that I'd been imagining.
It was only when we turned to the next day's schedule that the more explicit content became apparent. On 8.45 that morning, while someone assessed Once a Gangster (a Hong Kong action comedy, apparently), another member was assigned a DVD entitled Britney Pierce: fuck me baby one more time. It made me wonder: was it really necessary to witness all the antics in Zany Zoo and scrutinise every punch-up in the action film, rather than marshalling resources for the more obviously pornographic Britney Pierce?
'The trouble is, Jeff, that what we might think is innocuous is precisely what some parent will be upset by us classifying as G rather than PG: if they don't feel they've been given adequate warning. We have much more difficulty around the borderlines between some of the lower ratings than the higher. The extreme ends — well, the explicit sex necessarily classifies it. It's actually around the lower classifications that the public seems to get more worked up.' In that respect, the classification board provided something like a consumer advice service, its rulings a resource to facilitate purchases, akin to the labels on groceries. You looked on the packaging; you made sure you got what you paid for.
'We don't censor,' said McDonald. 'We classify.'
Everyone I would speak to at the board repeated some variant of the phrase, which I initially dismissed as a conventional hypocrisy. It was true that the board was not an enforcement agency, but its decisions were legally binding: a film, publication, or computer game that received an RC rating — in other words, was refused classification — could not be distributed. So while the classification board might not ban material outright, an RC declaration was, under any reasonable definition, censorship.
Nonetheless, McDonald's distinction did point to something concrete. For most of the 20th century, the classificatory labels he used daily would have been unimaginable. The whole rationale of censorship was not to facilitate choice so much as to shield the innocent from material likely to — as the legal phrase went — 'deprave and corrupt'. Depravity was an absolute; no-one would categorise a film or book as 'mildly depraved'. The role of the traditional censor was as much to assess audiences as content, making a distinction between the multitude, who were susceptible to evil influence, and a smaller elite, who, by reasons of class, gender, and education, was discerning enough to remain unsullied. Even late into the 20th century, bound editions of nudes escaped officialdom while cheap paperbacks did not. It was a system much less reliant on formal codes: if you needed to ask whether you belonged among the elect, you almost certainly did not. But obscenity had been democratised. Or, more exactly, commercialised — content once flatly forbidden was now sold via various platforms within a worldwide industry, from racy television shows to violent games to sexually explicit films. The role of the board, it seemed to me, could only be understood in that context. It steered an uneasy course — much more than it had in the past — between facilitating an entertainment sector and policing it.
On McDonald's list, the feature films had three initials beside them, indicating the members allocated to classify the titles. I was curious as to how that actually worked. Did they sit there scribbling comments the whole time? Did they discuss everything as the film rolled, or was it more like the panel on The Voice — once the action reached a definitive point, a judge could spin around to reveal his or her verdict?
Yes, he said, they scribbled comments while watching, and those notes proved that the whole film had been viewed, becoming part of the documentation attached to the final report. Mostly, the members would discuss things at the end and reach their conclusion, referring to their notes only if there was a controversy. 'Like if somebody said they heard a "fuck" or "cunt", and someone else said they hadn't heard it. With the notes, they could say, "Here it is, at 73 minutes."'
'What happens if they don't agree?'
'Under the Act, I can accept majority decisions. If there is a really strong division, they will report to the senior classifier and it will be referred up to me. In those cases, we will generally decide to have another couple of people look at it: we'll turn a panel of three into a panel of five to try to get something closer to a community view. Sometimes we have to say, "Look, just make a decision," and many of our decisions have minority views.'
It was, I could see, all quite logical, quite practical, a method for transforming the innately subjective into an activity that could be performed daily with some reliability in its outcomes. Yet that very practicality made the enterprise deeply bizarre — a room full of diligent public servants scrupulously scratching out notes as children's cartoons blared or Britney Pierce copulated.
McDonald was keen that I also speak with another classifier, Jeremy Fenton. It was only later that I understood why.
Fenton was considerably younger than McDonald. We sat down in his office, and he explained he came from a very different background. 'I had a long-term involvement with community radio in northern New South Wales, in Lismore,' he said. 'I ended up managing the station there. After that, I was working in a training role with a registered training organisation in Lismore, a not-for-profit. I'd had a particularly hard day at work, and I found myself remembering a conversation years earlier when someone had told me about the classification board. After that bad day, I went straight to the website. They were advertising for board members and I applied.
'When I first got the job, my mother reminded me of a big argument we'd had about censorship when I was maybe 12 or 13. My view at that time was, well, what gives anyone the right to decide what I want to see? When she reminded me of that, I did actually have to really consider whether I wanted to take on a role on the board. But I'm a firm believer in being an advocate with a voice, rather than someone sitting outside throwing stones. I'm a freedom-of-speech advocate, and a fairly passionate one.'
Again, I was confused: a censor proclaiming his devotion to free speech?
But, in a strange way, that made sense. The modern classification system emerged out of the struggles for intellectual freedom in the postwar period, battles that had left their mark in the vocabulary and work of today's board. By the end of the 1960s, censorship had become an important political issue. The activists of the New Left were increasingly pro-sex: they proclaimed, much more confidently than an earlier generation, sexual pleasure to be a good thing in and of itself. More importantly, they linked sex to democracy, arguing that ordinary people were entitled to read and watch whatever they liked, even unadulterated porn. That New Left sentiment eventually made itself heard in parliament in 1971, during the first major legislative debate on censorship in 30 years. Minister for customs and excise Don Chipp explained that, in the future, classification decisions would not be made on the basis of obscenity, but by reference to 'contemporary community standards' — a phrase that has since remained central to Australian classifications, particularly in respect of the board's composition.
Excerpted from Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship by Jeff Sparrow. Copyright © 2012 Jeff Sparrow. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
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