Culture Matters:

New BBFC Language Guidelines Questioned

by Teresa Phillips | Jul 2, 2021

Over the past few months, this blog has examined changes in ratings criteria in India, Australia and reactions to specific titles, such as “Family Guy” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” The purpose has been to look at regulation from a cultural perspective and the practical impacts on content creators. In this post, we’re going to take a different perspective: that of the viewing public and their reaction to regulatory changes. In particular we will look at the recently published language guide by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and public reaction to changes impacting U-rated titles.

In June 2021, the BBFC updated their Parent’s Guide to Language, which informs parents how the BBFC interprets language in film and explains how that interpretation impacts age rating decisions. The change that has garnered the most public attention is a determination by the BBFC that the words ‘damn,’ ‘hell,’ ‘God,’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ are acceptable in “U” or Universal rated titles. Some religious groups, however, consider these terms blasphemous regardless of the context and argue their use is not appropriate for any content, “suitable for all.”

The U.K.’s Christian Institute (CI) believes the BBFC is failing in its role as an arbiter of standards by allowing the use of blasphemous words, despite the guidelines restricting the “U” rating to the “infrequent use only of very mild bad language.” The Institute’s Ciarán Kelly remarked, “It is a slap in the face for Christians. The BBFC recognizes that using the terms ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ in an irreverent way is deeply offensive to many people but will allow it anyway…By allowing films containing blasphemy to be shown to even the youngest children, they are desensitizing impressionable minds.”

While plainly acknowledging in the Parent’s Guide that some people find these words particularly offensive, the BBFC is making clear its decision is based on the reality that many British families use these words regularly at home and have research that shows they are comfortable with their children hearing them in U-rated titles. Other religious leaders reluctantly acknowledge this fact.

Reverend Liz Clutterbuck commented in the Premier Christian News:  “The BBFC is a really great institution and is very good at informing people about why it makes the decisions it does. I was a little bit surprised to see this but to be honest, having given it some thought, I think the way that British society is, for a lot of people, they aren’t offensive terms and I think that’s probably something that Christians and the church needs to accept, even if we do find them offensive.”

Reverend Clutterbuck added, “If you’re hearing something in a film that you find offensive, [it’s about] explaining it to a child as to why that character might be saying, ‘Oh my God’, but we don’t say that at home and we don’t say it in public and this is the reason why – which is exactly what you would do if your child came home from school, and said words that you didn’t like and you considered offensive.”

Created in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors, the BBFC is a storied and well-regarded content regulator. Lacking legal authority from the beginning, the BBFC relied on its relationship of trust with consumers to wield influence over the movie industry. While legislation, public sentiment, and classification standards have evolved over the years, the BBFC has remained steadfast in its mission. As in this case with new language guidelines, the BBFC continues to focus on providing parents with sufficient information to help them make informed content decisions for themselves and their families.