Context is crucial in the rating of movies
The Straits Times | Apr 10, 1995
By: Koh Buck Song

APART from gynaecologists, apprentice artists, pornographers, lechers and the like, film censors must spend the most time scrutinising the naked female body.

Once again, they were asked to take a second look last month, when the issue of censorship standards for PG (Parental Guidance) films was raised.

In an impassioned Budget debate speech, Mr Peh Chin Hua (MP for Jalan Besar GRC) objected to the PG rating for the film Nell.

He said it should have been rated Restricted (Artistic) because of nudity, as he found out to his horror. Well, there are indeed three nude scenes in the movie which viewers of all ages can watch.

Two scenes are of the character Nell, played by Jodie Foster who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, swimming at night in a lake in the woods, in an environment cut off totally from civilisation.

She does this because of her fear of daylight and of other people, especially men. These phobias were instilled in her by her mother, who bore her after being a victim of rape.

In the dim moonlight, Nell's naked silhouette is visible for two to three seconds, and if you look closely, you can just see her nipples. But the viewers who are so desperate for a glimpse of the human body must surely be few.

Five years ago, before the advent of film classification in Singapore, screen nudity in a context of lovemaking was an absolute taboo. But even then, depictions of bare-breasted African or Balinese women in, say, documentaries were allowed.

The nude scenes in Nell are admittedly different, but they are also not calculated to titillate. There is a third scene in a small-town bar, during which Nell is taunted by a cheeky youth to lift her dress. Oblivious to any ulterior motives, she does so, in a playful mood. And yes, both her breasts are clearly visible as she twirls around in innocent abandon.

Again, one so inclined could, I suppose, get a little excited watching the scene, but that is the viewer's prerogative. Any such unwholesome initiative would arise solely in the mind of the viewer, rather than out of any unsavoury intention on the part of the moviemaker.

It is true that this nude scene in Nell is just a shade longer and more obvious than previous instances in other PG movies such as Working Girl and Gorillas In The Mist.

But all three scenes in Nell are fleeting and, in the context and meaning of the film, necessary.

In assessing the need for any cut in a film, one basic censorship question that is asked is whether a scene advances a work's significance.

In Nell, the nude scenes portray the character's naivety. They are not a crude look at sex, but an intelligent examination of awakening latent sexuality.

To the two scientists who visit her, she is an intriguing case study of the development of the human personality away from the influence of modern society.

Objections like those raised by Mr Peh probably spring from a basic difference in attitudes to nudity.

In the West, topless sunbathing is widely accepted. In Britain, bare-breasted girls appear every day on page three of family newspapers.

Here, screen nudity that is not excessive or exploitative has become accepted by adult viewers.

For those below 21, however, fleeting shots in an innocent context, such as those in Nell, are not "flies to be swatted" as they fly through the media's window, as some might suggest. Instead, allowing nude scenes with good reason is one way to move, gradually and responsibly, away from any uptight sexual repression of the past.

Those who see the issue like Mr Peh can rest assured that instances like Nell, in which nudity is allowed in a PG film, will be few and far between. The problem lies not so much in nudity per se, but the thoughts associated with it.

Those who have a hang-up about sex may immediately associate any form of nudity with lewd thoughts. But if the concern is the impact of such scenes on a young viewer, then the issue really is what is the effect of depictions of lovemaking, and not of nudity in itself.

All the argument, then, boils down to a focus on two zones of a woman's body - the nipples and the pubic area.

Lovemaking scenes in which the two zones are covered up are dime a dozen, from James Bond films to American serials on television.

Images of scantily-clad women are even more prevalent, from coffeeshop posters to lingerie advertisements every day in this newspaper.

Viewers of all ages have ample opportunity to view at their leisure paintings of nude women in museums and media reproductions, most recently in a March 22 Business Times preview of a Christie's art auction, showing a painting of a topless Balinese woman.

In awakening young minds to the birds and the bees, such accepted images can be more effective than nudity in innocent settings.

The all-important factor, then, is context.

As Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo told Mr Peh in Parliament, there is no blanket ban on female nudity, even in PG films. "It depends on the context and whether it is exploitative," Brigadier-General (NS) Yeo said.

The advisory PG rating does not require the accompaniment of an adult, as some mistakenly believe. The control should happen in the home, not at the door of the cinema.

The PG rating represents a social norm. But if some parents differ from this, and wish to be more strict than the censors, then the onus is on them to exercise more control.

But instead of flinching at the very sight of any nudity, they could perhaps try pausing to consider a film's context and meaning, before hitting the alarm button.