A few months ago, my boyfriend and I decided we would find out what all the hype was about and watch the Wolf of Wall Street. I had heard fantastic reviews, and we agreed the movie was great – asides from the very abrupt and random scene changes. After discovering nobody else had experienced the same problem, it dawned on us that the version we acquired (definitely by legal measures…) had been edited to exclude every single scene containing nudity or sex. That’s a solid 20% or more of the entire movie, so my confusion was definitely warranted. I find it so interesting, however, that other scenes including hardcore drug use, criminal activity, money laundering or violence was a-okay – but God forbid the existence of sex be acknowledged.
I imagine this particular copy of the movie had been edited perhaps in Thailand, Japan or China where media censorship is often much stronger than in Australia. This sense or moral panic, however, is not a new phenomenon and is spread across the globe. There is a long history of attempts to censor media, especially in regard to nudity or sex in film and media.
Disclaimer: this video may be offensive for sensitive eyes
So, what is moral panic? The term can be attributed to Stanley Cohen, who in the 1970s explained that a moral panic is a ‘… condition, episode, person or group of persons [that] emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ (Thompson, 1998, p. 9), and is presented as a legitimate danger to the accepted social order. Consider the media frenzy that followed the James Bulger case, which attributed a toddler’s brutal murder to violent film.
Thompson (1998, p.10) breaks down the process of moral panic into 5 key stages:
- something/someone defined as the threat
- the threat depicted stereotypically and fantastically by the media
- rapid build-up of public concern
- response from authorities and opinion makers
- panic recedes or results in change
It is important to note, though, that moral panics do not randomly arise – they are ground in social and historical ideology (Petley 2008, p. 56). This means moral panics often feed off each other, with their fears invested in one another which only heightens the hysteria they often invite. As Petley (2012, p. 57) explains, “each successive panic simply deepens the reservoir of fears upon which subsequent panics draw.”
But why the moral panic surrounding nudity and sex scenes in cinema? Specifically, why is nudity more offensive than violence? As we learned in the above video, killing without blood can result in a PG rating – one nipple will warrant you an MA15+. As Kenneth Justice (2013) lamented, has anyone ever thought about the message you are sending to our children? Nakedness is evil, violence is cool.’ The underlying idea here is that at risk audiences, almost always children/elderly/uneducated, will be easily corrupted by scenes of nudity or sex and thus need to be protected.
Yet almost all evidence supporting these claims has been conducted in a bobo doll fashion, and as such is inconclusive or has been debunked. The fear, however, still permeates. Take for example the two movies Fury and Trainwreck – both of these are rated MA15+ by Australia’s standards. In Fury, a WWII inspired work, (SPOILER ALERT) you see a person cleaning the gory remains of a fellow soldier out of an army tank – there is literally a detached face stuck to a seat in blood. In Trainwreck, there are apparently ‘strong sex scenes and coarse language’ – how can these honestly be on par? Perhaps this message is more worthy of causing moral panic than nipples in cinema, as explained by Samhita (2011):
Allowing images of violence while disallowing images of consensual sex … adds to the mystique of sex as something that men must fight women to have possession of. It normalizes violence while making sex something that is impure, illicit and difficult to obtain…trying to stop it is pointless, but using this moment to propagate violent imagery does not allow for a healthy cultural attitude around sex.
Our message to those ‘at risk’ audiences is that violence and drugs are brill! Shoot a man, blow his face off, inject that heroine – no problem! Just keep your pants on, your nipples hidden and everything is hunky dory. Torre (2014) captures this idea beautifully, when she states that “…the thrust of a man into a woman is still more offensive than a knife into a body. Even then, just reading that sentence – did your jaw drop? Did you squirm slightly in your seat?” – chances are you did. And that, ladies and gentlemen, just does not sit right with me.
Justice, K 2013, ‘Nudity is bad, violence is okay. REALLY??’, Coffee & Conversation, weblog post, viewed September 28 2015, <http://culturemonk.com/2013/03/19/nudity-is-bad-violence-is-okay-really/>
Petley, J 2012, ‘“Are We Insane ?”. The “Video Nasty” Moral Panic’, Recherches sociologiques et anthropologique, vol. 43, no.1, pp. 35-57
Samhita, 2011, Sex is inappropriate for minors, but violence is a-okay, Feministing, viewed 28 September 2015, <http://feministing.com/2011/06/30/sex-is-inappropriate-for-minors-but-violence-is-a-ok/#preComment>
Thompson, K 1998, Moral Panics, Routledge, New York
Torre, A 2014, Why Do We Find Sex More Shocking Than Violence?, Huffington Post, viewed September 28 2015, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ar-torre/sex-violence-book_b_5571674.html?ir=Australia>