Two LGBTQ films were slapped with R and NC-17 ratings. Critics say queer sex scenes are treated differently | CBC News

When adapting the 2019 LGBTQ romantic novel Red, White & Royal Blue for the screen, Matthew Lopez was careful to circumvent an R-rating. The film has a handful of sex scenes that stop short of full-frontal nudity — there’s some bare butts and, naturally, shirtless men.

But it wasn’t enough. Red, White & Royal Blue was rated R, meaning people under 17 would need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian to see it.

Another recent film with LGBTQ leads, the French romantic drama Passages, received an even harsher NC-17 rating, which would restrict people under 18 from seeing the film at all, and also keep it from playing in certain theatres.

The filmmakers expressed disappointed with the decision, alleging that the Motion Picture Association (MPA), a self-regulated film classification body run by six major U.S. studios, was discriminating against LGBTQ films by giving them higher ratings. Both films feature bisexual male protagonists.

Critics decry double standard for queer films

“The censorship of queer images exists from top to bottom,” said Ira Sachs, who directed Passages. “It’s not just the MPA. It’s also what films are financed, what films are supported by festivals, what films get bought, what films get shown.”

“I feel grateful that I was able to make a film outside of those limits,” Sachs said.

MUBI, the distributor of Passages, rejected the MPA’s NC-17 rating, instead opting to release it unrated.

Actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in the film Passages by Ira Sachs, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Adèle Exarchopoulos, left, and Franz Rogowski in a scene from Passages by director Ira Sachs. The film was rated NC-17 by the MPA, leading Sachs to reject the classification and release the film as unrated. (Sundance Institute/Guy Ferrandis/SBS PRODUCTIONS)

Meanwhile, Lopez said in an interview that he was surprised when the MPA made its choice regarding Red, White & Royal Blue, which is about the secret romance between the first son of the United States and a British prince.

“I did question whether or not, if it had been a straight couple, we would still have gotten an R-rating,” he said.

Critics say the MPA has long held a double standard against movies with LGBTQ characters, slapping them with higher ratings than movies featuring heterosexual characters.

They say this further stigmatizes people from queer communities by making it more difficult to access films that depict their lives.

LGBTQ films face ‘greater degree of scrutiny’

“We’re in an interesting moment right now where we’ve crossed past the line of ‘gay person in thing equals good progress,’ and now we’re starting to get a lot more varied types of queer and trans stories on screen,” said Mel Woods, a Vancouver-based senior editor at Xtra Magazine.

“That does include more sexually explicit storylines. But that’s also been the case for a long time.”

Passages has full-frontal nudity, though its sex scenes are better described as passionate or intimate than they are graphic. Red, White & Royal Blue is even less explicit than the steamy book it’s based on.

“There’s this narrative that’s like it’s important for young, queer trans people to see these things and be able to learn,” they said. “But it’s not just important for young people to experience, it’s important for, like, broader society to know that, yeah, gay people have sex,” said Woods.

WATCH | The trailer for Red, White & Royal Blue

Woods notes that the discussion around these two films is happening in the context of a political environment in the U.S. in which sex-ed curriculums in schools are being rolled back to limit or exclude discussion of LGBTQ sex, and the spread of a “grooming” conspiracy theory that targets the LGBTQ community.

Similar rhetoric has become increasingly common at the school board level across Canada.

“It’s this idea that queer and trans folks living our lives is somehow inherently sexual, and therefore when we are sexual and our storylines are sexual themselves, it’s often given an even greater degree of scrutiny,” said Woods.

LGBTQ movies marginalized by ratings

An academic article published in 2018 found that the MPA, whose members include Disney, Netflix, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Bros., abides by a classification policy that marginalizes LGBTQ stories, “making them less accessible not just to the audiences most likely to identify with them but also to the audiences less likely to understand them.”

According to Tim Covell, a writer and editor in Halifax who researches film classification and censorship issues, there’s a “long history” of some classification agencies being more severe when rating queer content.

“That’s been documented for decades with the [MPA],” he said.

WATCH | The trailer for Passages

Covell said the NC-17 rating for a film like Passages is typical of the group.

It can also provide filmmakers an opportunity for publicity.

In 2010, the Weinstein Company very publicly appealed the NC-17 rating for its romantic drama, Blue Valentine, in which Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on a character played by Michelle Williams.

Similar headlines were made when the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde got the rating last year.

Films that are released as NC-17 or released without a rating are restricted from playing in certain movie theatres. Red, White & Royal Blue falls on the streaming side, which isn’t impacted as much by the ratings system — but it was made by Amazon, and Covell noted that it received its R rating from the MPA, which counts Amazon’s streaming competitor Netflix among its members.

A still from Passages by Ira Sachs, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Ben Whishaw, left, and Franz Rogowski in a scene from Passages, which is an early contender for best queer film of 2023. (Sundance Institute)

Canadian classification system differs

The Canadian movie ratings system differs significantly from that of the U.S., as film classification is regulated provincially by groups like the Alberta Film Classification office.

Ontario doesn’t require a classification at all, but rather a description of the content that’s shown in the film.

The provincial system tends to be less harsh with ratings than the American studios, said Covell.

In the U.S., film classification is voluntary and filmmakers can decide whether to accept the rating or not. In Canada, films shown in a particular province’s movie theatres are given a rating by that province’s designated classification board, regardless of how they are rated in the U.S.

The dreaded NC-17 

Henry & June, a 1990 film that was the first movie to be given an NC-17 rating, centred on a queer love triangle between two men and a woman, just as Passages does. It featured a heterosexual couple who each became involved with the same man.

At the time, the NC-17 rating was created to replace the “X” rating, which the MPA stopped using because filmmakers resented the fact that their films were being conflated with pornographic movies.

LGBTQ movies like 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour and 1997’s Bent are among those that have since received the NC-17 rating.

The 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated details the MPA’s history with LGBTQ themes and characters, including the controversial 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, an Oscar-winning film about the murder of trans man Brandon Teena.

Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, said in an interview for This Film Is Not Yet Rated that the movie’s NC-17 rating was determined by three scenes: one in which Teena (played by Hilary Swank) wipes his lips after performing oral sex on his love interest Lana Tisdel (played by Chloe Sevigny); one for an extended shot of Lana’s face while she is having an orgasm; and one during a scene where Teena is sexually assaulted, as he was in real life.

According to Peirce, the board was more bothered by the character performing oral sex than it was by his brutal onscreen murder. The film was eventually reclassified and rated R after the filmmakers reedited it. 

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Sexual orientation isn’t taken into consideration during the ratings process, a spokesperson for the MPA told CBC News in a statement. Rather, they consider nudity and sex, as well as language like the “F-word,” which are the issues that most preoccupy parents, the spokesperson said.

“Film classification is about protecting children. But all too often, especially in North America, we take the perspective that we have to protect children from what parents would find offensive,” said Covell. 

“It’s much more effective if we look at classifying films in terms of what is harmful to children. And you can make an argument that it is harmful to children to protect them from queer content.”

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