The Diary of a Teenage Girl: a film rated by an organisation "completely oblivious to its context"Sony Pictures Classics

This week, dear reader, I’m going to tear the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) apart. They are idiots and their very existence fills me with a righteous contempt so fiery I’m struggling to articulate it. I know what you’re thinking. Directing ire about the arbitrary and pernicious nature of age ratings towards the BBFC is like scolding a hotel receptionist about the TV in your room showing violent programmes. Misguided, naive, and not likely to achieve anything (certainly not a complete refund for your entire stay, I’m sorry to say, Mrs Robinson). But unlike our hapless receptionist, the BBFC are not blameless. They are slavishly devoted to vague and contradictory guidelines. They fail to give appropriate weight to the context in which films are released and seen, despite this being a fundamental part of their job description. They are, in short, intolerable. Look no further than their recent decision to give The Diary of a Teenage Girl an ‘18’ rating.

First, a few words about the film classification system in Britain. The most important thing you need to know is that ‘classification’ is a misnomer. The BBFC was established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors, and its function remains censorship despite the cute rebranding exercise. This is because, unlike the ratings of the MPAA in the US, the BBFC’s ratings are underpinned by law. It is illegal to show a film not rated by the BBFC, and it is illegal to supply a film rated 15 or 18 to a person under that age. But what does this mean in practice? A comparison with the age of consent for sex is useful. Broadly speaking, in Britain a person over the age of 18 commits a criminal offence if they engage in sexual activity with a person under the age of 16. Like any other arbitrary age limit, this creates the somewhat absurd situation whereby having sex with someone on the night before their 16th birthday is a criminal act but doing exactly the same thing once the clock strikes midnight is perfectly legal. When it comes to sex, the law has a very simple pragmatic solution to this: the Crown Prosecution Service can look at the facts and circumstances, including any potential absurdity, and decide not to prosecute. There is no such relief mechanism with film classification. If the BBFC hands down an 18 rating, that film becomes completely inaccessible to anyone below that age. Cinemas do not operate policies of exceptions because they risk having their licences revoked; what the BBFC really do when they rate a film is decide who will and will not get to see it.

So it seems they ought to make decisions with a serious appreciation of this context, right? After all, their own guidelines state that “context is central”. But they don’t. They slapped an 18 rating on The Diary of A Teenage Girl, seemingly completely oblivious to its context. Like the ubiquity of internet porn. The continuing taboo around positively expressed female sexuality. The paucity of films written and directed for and by women. The BBFC refused to even acknowledge any of this. Instead, when challenged, they retreated pathetically behind the guidelines, offering incomplete and inconsistent rationalisations of their decision. First, the problem was that the “sex scenes and references [were] too numerous” for a 15 rating. Then, when pushed further, the problem suddenly was the film’s “glamorisation” of drug use. Their half-baked excuses speak for themselves.

The net result of all of this is that 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to have sex — and access vast quantities of explicit depictions of it on the internet — but not to watch a film sensitively exploring its implications. Worse still, discussion was diverted away from the film itself. Had it passed with a 15 rating this very column would be dramatically different. Look, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a funny, thoughtful, and starkly beautiful film which was badly hobbled by its classification. So I implore you, dear reader, to go see it for yourself, and while you’re at it tell the BBFC to take that moronic rating and stick it up its arse.

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