Prudery seems to reign more securely in America than on this side of the pond

Opinion: ‘Wardrobe malfunction’ had a nation transfixed by one stray areola

Another week passes and we get another chance to ponder how far we’ve come. Only a few short decades ago, this nation could boast a censorship regime to compare with the most deranged theocracies in human history.

Yet we now find ourselves in the happy position of being able to look down our collective noses at the US movie certification authorities for being more prohibitive than our own. No, we're not talking about upcoming lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour. The controversy surrounds Stephen Frears's hugely popular, apparently harmless Philomena. In both the UK and the Republic that fine film – starring Judi Dench as an Irish woman seeking a long-lost son – was awarded a 12A cert: that's to say anybody under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

If anything, that seems a lit- tle harsh. But, as the Irish Film Classification Office reminds us, there is “infrequent use of strong language and moderate sex references”. I suppose we’re stuck with it then.

In the US, however, the film initially received a baffling R cert: requiring all those under 18 to attend with a person of voting age. Only a tiny portion of mainstream films – Blue is the Warmest Colour is one – are saddled with the more prohibitive NC-17 in the US. The R cert is handed out to extreme horror, soft-core pornography and the most violent of revenge shockers.


What on Earth is going on? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which classifies movies, made the decision because there are, in Philomena, two occurrences of the "f-word" (excuse our own cautiousness here).

The formidable Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing the film in the US, came out swinging on the news. Dame Judi recorded a video during which, in the guise of a reanimated M, she urges the MPAA to come to its senses. Asked whether teenagers would really seek out Philo- mena, Weinstein explained that, in many conservative states, an R cert would discourage adults from attending.

Which brings us to the main question. Why are Americans that bit queasier about bad language than we are? Actually, it is more nuanced than that. There is a sliding scale here.

The Irish are less concerned about swearing than the English, who are a lot less concerned than the Americans. Recall the furore that resulted when a judge on Strictly Come Dancing referred to one of his colleagues as "a silly little sod". Apparently, the BBC received 600 complaints.

It seems unlikely you'd get 60 if something similar happened on RTÉ. Still, British chatshows permit any number of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic epithets that would, if uttered on US primetime, cause the network to collapse in upon its- elf like an ashamed black hole.

The difference in attitudes extends to nudity. It matters not a whit whether Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson planned their wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl in 2004. The fact remains that an entire nation became transfixed by one stray areola.

It is worth remembering that much of the US coverage – particularly on coastal talkshows – was of the “we are all idiots” school.

Nothing delights the American satirist more than confirmation of lingering puritanism. Such wiseacres also enjoy their own nation’s occasional unease with what we used to call blue language.

The good people of Boston and Chicago are just as comfortable with profane invective as are the swearing masses of Belfast or Coventry. There is no buckle-hat consensus against boobs and f-words in the New World.

The controversies merely confirm the variety of attitudes in the US. The MPAA minds its language because a substantial minority of Americans wince at lavatorial dialogue. The people who yearn for more linguistic obscenity are less vocal than those who fear for the defilement of their children’s cochleas.

Still, the libertines may be slowly winning the argument. The MPAA has relented and Philomena will journey forth under a tolerable PG-13 certificate. Weinstein credited the James Bond team for allowing Dench to make her appearance. It's a small victory for good sense. But it's worth mentioning.