There are certain words that simply sound different coming out of a British person's mouth than they do coming out of ours. Cunt, for example, is almost charming when declaimed with a lilting accent from the British isles. When I say it, with my hints of the New York City gutter hanging about the glottis, it sounds threatening and mean. And so the British use cunt much more often than we do, and nobody really gets offended.
Still, it's a dirty word, and the use of dirty words in movies is regulated by the censors at the British Board of Flim Classification. Edgar Wright has been known to use the word cunt in his films, and when he and Simon Pegg were writing their latest, The World's End, he knew they wanted to use it again. But they also wanted to secure the more lenient 15 certificate, which would allow teens to see the movie, as opposed to the more restrictive 18. So Edgar did what American filmmakers cannot do with the MPAA: he emailed the censor. And they had this delightful exchange:
From: Edgar Wright
To: Hammad Khan
Date: 19/10/2011 13:51
Subject: Hey there
Thanks for listening.
So basically, an easy question for you.
We are writing a script at the moment where the word ‘cunt’ appears several times with a comedic tone. All very much in a naturalistic, social context rather than an aggressive, threatening one.
I know that this word appeared once only in both ‘Shaun’ & ‘Hot Fuzz’, but is it the case that using the word more than once would push the film from a 15 to an 18?
Love to find out what the guidelines are. Thanks for any help on this one.
On 20 Oct 2011, at 15:07, Craig Lapper wrote:
Dear Mr Wright,
Thank you for your email, which Hammad Khan has passed on to me.
The BBFC’s Guidelines at ’15′ state ‘The strongest terms (for example, ‘cunt’) may be acceptable if justified by the context. Aggressive or repeated use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable’.
As a general rule, it is highly unusual for the BBFC to permit more than three or four uses of very strong language at ’15′ in a feature length work. In terms of context, it is more likely that we would pass throwaway, matter-of-fact, or comic uses than uses that are aggressive, personally directed, or accompanied by complicating factors such as violence, threat, racism, or a power imbalance (for example, male to female uses are more of a problem than the other way around). In an extreme case, even a single aggressive use can push a film to ’18′ (for example, if a man were hitting a woman and calling her a cunt, or a man of one race hitting a person of a different race and using very strong language in combination with racist terms). Similarly, putting several uses together in a very short space of time may breach the ‘repeated’ section of our Guidelines and cause problems at ’15′. It is generally better if uses are spread out somewhat.
As you say, we passed a single use in SHAUN OF THE DEAD because the use in question was throwaway, unthreatening, and essentially a term of endearment amongst friends (“Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”). In the case of HOT FUZZ we actually permitted two uses, one spoken and one written. First of all, we see the word ‘cunt’ on the list of prohibited terms on the swearbox in the police station and then we hear “What a cunt” when a man tells his friend about a man who sold drugs to kids. In the first case, the use was written (which reduces its impact) and of course lacked any aggression. In the second case, the use was not aggressive and was not personally directed but instead uttered about a person who is not present at the time.
So, the answer to your question is that it is possible to receive a ’15′ with three or four uses, provided they are not aggressive or threatening or complicated by any kind of power imbalance. However, it’s best not to concentrate them together into a short outburst and we’d certainly caution against more than three or four uses.
I hope that’s helpful to you.
On 1 Nov 2011, at 15:07, Edgar Wright wrote:
Sorry for the belated response, but thank you for an incredibly thorough response.
This is very helpful and I think what we’ve already written fits into your guidelines for a 15.
Thanks for taking the time to respond so fully.
Well that's all helpful and positive, isn't it? Imagine if the American MPAA worked so transparently? This exchange was published with the permission of the BBFC, by the way.