What’s wrong with female pleasure: Inside film ratings of lesbian, transgender film


With a smile, Hilary Swank rises in a boyish getup. She wipes the remainder of Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny) off her lips. As transgender teenager, Brandon Teena, Swank ends giving Sevigny’s character oral pleasure and possibly her first orgasm. In comparison to this scene from “Boys Don’t Cry” it remains unclear as to why “Ghostbusters” is rated PG when general audiences are exposed to Dan Aykroyd’s character Dr. Raymond Stantz, receiving paranormal fellatio from a deceased, female ghost.

“Boys Don’t Cry” was initially given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Director Kimberly Peirce had to fight a series of battles in order to release “Boy Don’t Cry” publicly through theater exhibitions of her controversial film in 1999.

There are two distinct avenues through which a film can be made. By the studio system, a producer supports a director financially through a major studio. The big six today are Columbia Pictures (Sony), Warner Bros. Pictures (Time Warner), Walt Disney Pictures (The Walt Disney Company), Universal Pictures (Comcast/General Electric), 20th Century Fox (News Corporation), and Paramount Pictures (Viacom).
Although creative control may be compromised, the filmmaker will not find financing to be a major problem while making a movie through a major studio.

In contrast, through the independent route filmmakers have complete creative control over their work, but must find financial backing on their own.

“Boys Don’t Cry” is an American independent film that is now rated R. Swank received her first Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role as a result of her poignant performance as the transgender teenage main character.

After numerous edits, when a film is completed filmmakers want to release their movie to the public. In order to do this, the filmmaker must be given an official film rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Most, if not all, theaters will not show films rated NC-17 or that has no rating at all, so when Peirce received news that her film would be given such a rating, she was devastated. After inquiring as to why the MPAA rated “Boys Don’t Cry” NC-17, the trade association simply said, “it was really offensive.”

Peirce discussed her journey openly in Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”

Peirce remained determined to share her film with audiences nationwide. The MPAA suggested three edits for Peirce in order to change the film’s rating from NC-17 to R. The first problem they had was with the scene showing Brandon giving Lana oral pleasure. 

She found it disturbing that shooting the protagonist through the head at the end of the film was permissible, while a sexual scene remained offensive according to the MPAA.

Even Garry Marshall’s “Pretty Woman,” released in 1990, received an R rating, and has Richard Gere’s character Edward Lewis receiving oral pleasure from Vivian Ward, played by Julia Roberts.

The MPAA also had a problem with the scene where Brandon is anally raped. In David Fincher’s 2011 “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” Lisbeth Salander, played by Mara Rooney, is sexually harassed by a man and then viciously raped, yet the film is rated R.

Perhaps the MPAA holds issues with any content related to homosexual conduct and sexual female empowerment as the MPAA also said they objected to the length of Lana’s orgasm. As demonstrated by these complaints, Peirce reached the conclusion that it was namely the notion of female pleasure and homoeroticism that MPAA members seemed to have problems with in regards to her film.

“What’s wrong with female pleasure?” the director of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” asked Peirce.

“In a construct where most movies are written by and directed by men … they are mostly the [heterosexual]male experience,” said Peirce, who goes on to say that sex scenes tend to be “from the male perspective.”  
Laura Mulvey, British feminist film theorist, made this same argument in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she investigates and criticizes the constant male perspective in mainstream films.

Throughout their dialogue Peirce pointed out that the MPAA thinks “female pleasure is unnatural” along with anything else that is homoerotic. She warns that “you are dealing with a very powerful cultural censorship group that doesn’t wanna be disempowered and if you made those names public, you might disempower them.”

The MPAA board members are anonymous. No one is allowed to know the identities of these men and women … not even the filmmakers who must deal with the rating process. It is also imperative to note how every board member is associated with the major 6 studios.
With these obstructions, how can LGBT films reach the public?

“Imagine a time when nobody had a VCR and video stores were just starting,” described Kathy Wolfe.Wolfe is an LGBT film distribution pioneer. In 1985 she founded the first LGBT film distribution company, Wolfe Video.

“I sold my shares in an advertising business and used the funds to start the company. We had to reinvent ourselves many times from VHS to DVD and now to streaming online,” she told 429Magazine.

“With the advent of the video camera all kinds of opportunities for LBGT visibility began so there was a need to distribute them. People don’t understand the difference between pornography and LBGT films. They believe they are one in the same,” stated Wolfe. She believes the MPAA does not stand out as the singular most difficult place that misunderstands the LGBT community.

“Every step of the way, from acquiring business insurance to bringing our films to the public” is a struggle said Wolfe.

Twenty-eight years later it appears there has been positive progress for filmmakers dealing with LGBT-related stories. Writer/director Travis Fine did not have any problems with the MPAA when he finalized his 2012 feature film “Any Day Now” starring Alan Cumming alongside Garret Dillahunt and Isaac Leyva.

“Ultimately ‘Any Day Now’ is a story about a family: two men and a child they want to save. Nothing should have been shocking or graphic. It’s what two people do when two humans are in love… to show more than that would have detracted from the story,” Fine told 429Magazine while summarizing his film.

Rated R, “Any Day Now” won the Heineken Audience Award at Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 as well as the Audience Awards at Woodstock Film Festival, Outfest, and Chicago International Film Festival.George Arthur Bloom shares writing credit as he “wrote the first draft of the script in the late 70s and 80s.”

Fine goes on to say that he started rewriting the script in December 2010. In February, Cummings agreed to come on board the project.

“’Rudy’ was the original title for the film … prior to the football flick.

That’s how old the script was and George was gracious enough to let me option the story,” said Fine. 

Bloom allowed Fine to alter, add, and subtract elements and characters to update the story to contemporary times.

Concerning graphic sexual scenes, Fine said, “Everything was implied.

There is a scene where the characters Rudy and Paul are in bed and Rudy playfully goes down on Paul. There is no nudity. His head kind of disappears underneath the covers but we stay on Paul’s face,” described Fine.

“Obviously two people of whatever gender can be physically attracted to each other, but ultimately a strong relationship is all about the emotional connection. That is what this story is about. Two human beings who are in love – not two men … not two gay men … not a drag queen and a lawyer. Two human beings. To have pushed it sexually would have been a disservice to the story and dishonest to what the story is about,” added Fine.

After Tribeca Film Festival premiered Fine’s film, Music Box Films picked up “Any Day Now” for distribution.

Fine is now in the process of casting his new menopausal, rock and roll dramedy entitled “The Chix.” He plans to start shooting this summer.


About The Author

b. dallas tx h.s friends select school, philadelphia pa b.f.a chapman university (dodge college), orange ca I write, make films & music videos, paint, draw, photograph, travel, and currently work from san francisco and los angeles california

Send this to friend