On its arrival to UK shores, Marielle Heller’s fabulous debut feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was stamped with a scarlet 18 certificate by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) due to the film’s ‘strong sex’. That means that, by law, no cinema is to allow under-18s to enter an auditorium screening Heller’s film, accompanied by parents or otherwise. And, likewise, with the DVD now on shelves, no retailer is allowed to sell the film to anybody under the age of 18.
Many people have taken against this ruling, with the film’s producers claiming that the certificate had been awarded by a board consisting entirely of men. The BBFC responded by saying that the organisation’s head of communications, Catherine Anderson, took part in the certification process. Although, naming just a single woman suggests she was probably the only female involved, does it not?
I’m in two minds, I must admit. I agree with the producers that underage sex should not, in and of itself, result in a guaranteed 18 rating. And, while I believe that the BBFC would share a similar view, the BBFC’s director, David Cooke, did cite the fact that the film includes sex between a minor and an adult as a contributing factor, and I just don’t feel that reasoning has any weight. I also agree with the producers that the film is important and could provide a valuable viewing experience for teenage girls. As Vertigo Releasing, the company distributing the film in the UK, said: ‘The film explores female sexuality with boldness and honesty in an un-exploitative manner. In an age where young women are still continually being sexualized and objectified we feel The Diary of a Teenage Girl sends a very positive, reassuring message to young girls about female sexuality and body image.’
That being said – and, I must say, I wasn’t anticipating quite this reaction going in – the sexual content in The Diary of a Teenage Girl is difficult. Not only is it explicit (although animated penises are the closest we get to full frontal nudity), but it’s also awkward, uncomfortable and raw. And it’s this rawness that had me umming and ahhing the most. While there’s a lot of flesh on show, it is in no way objectified or glamourised, and it’s nothing your average teenager won’t have seen before. Instead, it’s the harsh truths about sex that come across as the most ‘adult/mature’ things in the movie.
Fortunately, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) settled upon the correct rating for the film in North America. The Diary of a Teenage Girl received an R rating in the States, meaning that no under-17s are allowed to view the film unless accompanied by an adult. Now, the whole ‘accompanied by an adult’ thing is a discussion for another day – for one, what sixteen year old is going to want to watch this with their parents? – but an R rating seems the most appropriate. A step down to a PG-13 rating (no under-13s, unless accompanied by an adult) would have been grossly inappropriate, and a step-up to a NC-17 (no under-17s full stop) would have been equally misjudged. While the NC-17 rating has more in common with the BBFC’s 18 than the R rating does, in theory, it has garnered some less than ideal connotations, with a handful of major cinema chains refusing to screen NC-17 rated films.
And, while I am a supporter of the BBFC and believe that their system is far more well balanced than the MPAA’s, the added range of possible certificates can leave more room for disagreement than the stricter American system. What is a concrete R in the States is now left stranded between a UK 15 and 18.
The BBFC had the choice to certify The Diary of a Teenage Girl as a top-end 15 or a soft 18. Initially, I came to the conclusion that they’d made the right call. However, upon reappraisal, I’ve found myself increasingly unsure . . .