Since its inception as a means of bridging the gap between PG and 12, for films such as The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man, which – although sporting mature elements – were hardly unsuitable for younger children, the 12A rating has boomed in recent years, permitting the Star Wars saga and Harry Potter franchise to pursue darker territory without fear of a box office crippling 15 rating. While there is often no issue with the BBFC’s decisions, every so often there are films which find their way on-screen to controversial reception.
Now, I am not a parent by any stretch of the imagination, but I will be old one day and need to know that my wrinkled shell will be in good hands. What is important to note is that potentially anyone of any age can watch a 12A movie, providing that they are accompanied by an adult. Although the BBFC proclaims not to recommend that children under the age of 12 choose to view the movie, their jurisdiction is limited by general ignorance. Most people have never even heard of the British Board of Film Classification, its IMDb equivalent an embarrassingly prude outlet for religious extremism which will never be taken seriously in this day and age. As such, the 12A rating is treated just like PG, parents being lead to the cinema by their savvier children – often having done little to research the film of choice and its content.
Many were shocked when The Hole (in 3D) turned out to be scary, though how anyone could have expected less from Joe Dante is beyond me. Rather than suggesting you should wrap your children in cotton wool and Disney merchandise – I think children have a right to be scared senseless every once and a while – I nevertheless think that is a decision that should not be made lightly. A 12 rating wouldn’t prevent clueless parents from allowing their children to watch a film upon its eventual release on DVD or Blu-ray, but whether or not it is permissable to have your six year old throw up in a crowded auditorium is a different matter entirely.
If my psychology degree has taught me anything (and, believe me, I do not have any delusions of authority), it is that films do not brain-wash children. Indeed, the very fact that the bad guy normally loses is probably enough to ensure that your reinforcement-susceptible child is not going to try to take over the world. However, my concern doesn’t lie with violence, or the ridiculous dread that your child might be subjected to some kissing or a wayward wardrobe malfunction; my concern is language.
At 12 I imagine everyone has been subjected to the full spectrum of swear words – not a comment on society so much as a generalisation from my own childhood experiences. While I didn’t shout them at old people, spray-paint them onto puppies or even know precisely what each one meant, I was certainly well aware of them. At 6, however, I was not, and shouldn’t have been. Now, I realise that everyone is different, and that other societal parameters might prevent children from effing and blinding, but the BBFC must accept the importance of swearing or it wouldn’t have outraged Nigel Cole by slapping his Made in Dagenham with a 15 certificate.
The controversy peaked when The King’s Speech, which contained a similar degree or swearing – namely through its use of the word “fuck” – escaped with a comparatively lenient 12A rating. With censor David Cooke having insisted that no film with in excess of half-a-dozen “fucks” uttered could ever receive a 12 certificate, it is difficult to understand why The King’s Speech got off so lightly. One argument posed suggested that when swearing is used comically, it is more acceptable than when it is used aggressively. I find it difficult to understand how such a distinction warrants any sensible consideration – nor how the number of utterences has any sway when it comes to actual classification process. Either it is OK for children of all ages to be subjected to profanity by government endorsed bodies or it is not, whether a character swears once or once every other word.
It is not just The King’s Speech either: Drillbit Tailor is full of shit, as is 27 Dresses, while Ghost Town is one big f***ing joke. With a spokesperson for the BBFC telling the Telegraph that “the use of the f-word up to four times in a 12A film is considered acceptable”, having consulted extensively with the public, the official stance seems strangely at odds with a separate poll carried out by The Sunday Telegraph which suggested that the majority of people (56%) believed the “f” word should never be broadcast at all. Just to clarify, I like swearing, however when the guidelines are clearly as subjective as they are, the question is whether the 12A certificate is still valid as an age rating.
I know this might seem petty, and a completely moot point when parents can subject their children to whatever they wish in the privacy of their own homes, but the bog-standard 12 certificate has survived valiantly on home entertainment. While it might be good for box-office, the growing tendency for more adult material to grace 12As are quite shocking. Whether characters are freely outing Santa Claus as a lie, boring children with grown-up talk or spouting everybody’s favourite “f” word, recent movies have shown little sensitivity in their choice of material.
What three-year-old cares about one dead man’s speech impediment? What child is going to sit through all sixteen hours of the last Pirates of the Caribbean instalment? What infant is ready for the trauma of having to watch Fred: The Movie? Worse than having to watch Avatar with someone’s confused offspring chattering in the background, and worse than the dilution of 15 movies in pursuit of a more lucrative rating (Sucker Punch, anyone?), the 12A rating has become a contradiction of requirements and increasingly insensitive to the material it inflicts on such a broad audience. As an arguably arbitrary extension of the PG rating, and boasting at least one example of double standards, perhaps we should return to simpler times and bring the 12 rating back to cinemas before the line is blurred further and the harder ratings get any ideas of their own.