One of the finest indictments of the banality of artistic censorship of the last 20-30 years wasn’t written by a novelist or a playwright or an academic. It wasn’t presented in a lecture theatre and it wasn’t published by a broadsheet newspaper or an upmarket literary periodical. Strange as this may seem, it first appeared in the United States on the Fox Channel in 1994 and has since been shown in the UK by both Sky One and, more recently, Channel 4, where it can still be viewed by the whole family when it appears on the channel’s early evening schedule.
If you haven’t already guessed, what I’m referring to here is an episode from the second series of The Simpsons called Itchy & Scratchy & Marge, which begins with Marge launching an [ultimately] successful campaign – Springfieldians for Nonviolence, Understanding, and Helping (SNUH) – to censor the Itchy & Scratchy Show, after Maggie mimics the violent action in the cartoon by hitting Homer in the head with a mallet and, later, stabbing him with a pencil. The episode’s plot turns on an announcement that a touring exhibition of Michaelangelo’s statue of David will be visiting Springfield; to which the other members of SNUH respond by demanding that she join them in protesting against the exhibition because the statue is offensive and unsuitable for public viewing. Marge, who rightly sees the statue for what it is, a masterpiece of Renaissance art, suddenly finds herself on the other side of the censorship argument and learns first-hand of the inherent dangers of initiating a moral panic and the irrationality of ‘mob rule’, ruefully observing, during an appearance on Smartline, that its wrong to censor one form of art but not another and that although one person can make a difference, at the end of the day they probably shouldn’t.
All of which brings us back to yesterday’s Dorries debacle in which, as you may recall, Nadine Dorries embarrassed herself, yet again, by railing against an upcoming film version of Romeo and Juliet after a 14-year old actress was cast in the role of Juliet, because a leaked script for the film by Julian Fellowes, which was written and leaked before any casting decisions on the role of Juliet has been taken, includes an allegedly ‘graphic nude love scene’. To compound her own embarrassment, Dorries concluded her ‘complaint’ by attempting to taunt Fellowes with suggestion that he’d included this scene merely to try and one-up Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of the same Shakespeare play without, perhaps, realising that Zeffirelli’s Juliet, Olivia Hussey – who appears topless in the film in a post-coital bedroom scene with a naked Romeo (Leonard Whiting) – was only 15 years old at the time that the scene was filmed.
Within a couple of hour’s of pointing out this somewhat awkward fact, Dorries – who’s certainly no Marge Simpson – updated her original post to include a rather superficial attempt to offset her own embarrassment by deploying the ‘Cupid Stunt Defence’:
Update… The ‘haters’ as they are now known in my office, are attempting to state that the actress in the Zefirelli film was fifteen and therefore what is the difference between Fellowes and Zeffirelli? My response is this… read the script notes as appeared in the Sunday Times. In the Zeffirelli film, there is no fourteen year old being undressed until naked and no simulating sexual intercourse. There is a huge difference between the sensitive way Zefirelli portrayed a delicate scene and the graphic way Fellowes has chosen.
From a film-making standpoint there are number of practical considerations which illustrate the ridiculous nature of Dorries’ argument.
First, and most obviously, the script was written before casting and could easily be amended to tone down the scene brfore filming in light of the decision to cast a 14 year old actress in the role of Juliet.
Second, the script notes are ultimately only a guide to what the film’s director will see when filming the scene, which I’ve no doubt will take place on a closed set. What the viewer ultimately sees on screen, when the film is released, will depend entirely on how the scene is filmed, lit, framed and edited before release. Its entirely possible that the scene that ultimately appears in the film will tastefully convey the fact that the lead actress was indeed naked while filming the scene while, at the same time, being less revealing than the bedroom scene filmed by Zeffirelli, in which Hussey’s naked breasts are clearly displayed for several seconds. In fact, at this stage, we cannot even be sure that the 14-year old actress who has been cast as Juliet with even appear naked in the film, as any ‘explicit’ elements of the scene could easily be shot using an older body-double, with the lead actress appearing only in any non-explicit head shots.
One cannot make aethestic judgments about a film, let alone judgments of taste and decency, based solely on a few script notes. It’s only when one see’s the actual scene as it appears in the film that one can decide whether Fellowes’ treatment of the scene matches that of Zeffirelli for its delicacy and sensitivity.
What Dorries is, therefore, objecting to is, first and foremost, her own imagination.
With regards to the law as it stands in respect of indecent images of children and adolescents, the Protection of Children Act 1978, as amended by several Acts of Parliament, makes no explicit provision for artistic exemptions to the general rule that it unlawful to possess or distribute indecent images of a child. Indeed, the definition of a child was altered by s.45. of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to that of any person under the age of 18 where it previously specified 16 years of age as the cut-off point for childhood.
On a strict reading of the law, one could theoretically be arrested and prosecuted for downloading a still image of any part of the bedroom scene from Zeffireli’s film in which Hussey’s naked breasts are visible – and such images can readily be found through Google’s image search – or even for owning a copy of the film on DVD, as the legal definition of an indecent photograph includes both still and moving images. According the CPS guidance for this offence, the question of whether an image is, or is not, indecent for the purposes of the Act is a matter for a jury to decide based on what they perceive to be the current recognised standards of propriety. In practice, prosecutions under the 1978 Act are subject to the prior approval of the Crown Prosecution Service and its unlikely, in the extreme, that the CPS would pursue such a prosecution but it nevertheless remains the case that neither Zeffirelli’s 1968 film or this new version of Romeo and Juliet are afforded any express exemptions from the law regarding indecent images of children on artistic/aethestic grounds.
That said, if we return to the wording of Dorries’ original ‘complaint’ what we find is that the ‘charge’ levelled against Julian Fellowes is not one of indecency or obscenity at all Rather, what Dorries is suggesting is that, by incorporating a ‘graphic nude love scene’ into the film and casting a 14 year old in the role of Juliet, the film will irresponsibly ‘romanticise’ under-age sex:
The scene and the age of the actress will become the focus of the film. The talk will be all be of the underage actress and the message will be one that will romanticise to all young girls what is, in fact, under age sex. In a world of AIDS, Chlamydia and single parenthood, where we already have the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe and the highest numbers of abortions, that is not a responsible message to put out.
In the original play, Juliet is in fact 13 (not 14 as I wrongly suggested yesterday), a fact disclosed by her father (Capulet) in conversation with Paris at the beginning of Act 1, scene 2:
CAPULET But saying o’er what I have said before: My child is yet a stranger in the world; She hath not seen the change of fourteen years, Let two more summers wither in their pride, Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
PARIS Younger than she are happy mothers made.
By modern standards, the inclusion of a ‘love scene’ in the play is a depiction of under-age sex irrespective of whether what is visible on the screen is, presumably, tender and tastefully directed depiction of the act itself – which may or may not what ensues from Fellowes script – or a sensitive depiction of two young lovers in a state of post-coital repose, the approach taken by Zeffirelli. Unless one explicitly alters the text of the play in order raise the age of Juliet above the current legal age of consent or makes the incongruous decision to cast an actress in the role who not only, in actuality, older that 16 but is also clearly depicted as being 16 or above then what the film will inevitably present is a romantic image of the flowering of nascent, under-age, adolescent sexuality.
The context of the play therefore makes Dorries’s suggestion that the love scene would be more appropriately filmed using an older actress a matter of complete absurdity.
That said, it does provide us with some interesting insights into Dorries’ own attitudes towards adolescent sexuality.
The scene, as scripted by Fellowes, is problematic in Dorries’ eye not just for the fact that it depicts a young teenage girl having but but for the fact that, if it is filmed as tastefully and sensitively as I expect it will be, then it will show a teenage girl experiencing sexual intimacy and pleasure, qualities that she believes to be the exclusive preserve of adults. However romanticised the scene may eventually appear on screen, what it will likely depict is sex as most people think it should be; relaxed, intimate, pleasurable and, of course, consensual. That, as Dorries’ sees it, is the very antithesis of how young women should perceive sex; as something cold, oppresiive, frightening and ultimately unsatisfying.
Adolescent sexuality just isn’t about love, intimacy and romance on Planet Dorries, it’s about under-age sluts and raging hormones. Its about two minutes of desperate humping behind the school bike sheds and a spiraling descent into the pit of moral degeneracy. Sex, and especially sexual intimacy, is something to be feared by young women. Something to be shunned and despised because its dirty and unclean and, after all, they’re only teenagers and they have no idea whatsoever, what love and intimacy actually mean.
Only adults possess and understand that qualities. Teenage girls? They’re just too young to understand what love is.
This is, of course, as untrue as it is hypocritical.
Adolescent sexuality – if not weighed down by the bizarre and irrational hang-ups of adults – is all about a developing sense of intimacy and love – and, yes, pleasure as well. Understanding and valuing these qualities are a key part of of the healthy social and moral development of teenage girls – and boys, naturally. There are the very qualities we want to promote when talking to teenagers about sex and relationship when we, as adults – suggest that they should wait until they feel ‘ready’ before they begin a sexual relationship, when we advise that they do, indeed, have the right to say ‘no’ – and ‘yes’ – to sex and when we talk to them about the paramount importance of consent and about resisting peer pressure and not rushing into things too soon.
Although her biological age, as written by Shakespeare, may be at odds with out modern sensibilities, Juliet Capulet is, in almost all respects other than her eventual suicide – a positive role model for today’s young women as they come to terms with their developing sense of their own sexuality and – as I suspect Julian Fellowes knows perfectly well – this provides more than ample justification both for the decision to cast an age-appropriate actress in the role and for not drawing a veil over the most intimate aspects of Juliet’s relationship with Romeo. Zeffirelli would also, I’m sure, have taken much the same position in justifying to himself – and the authorities – his decision to cast Olivia Hussey in the role and 10 have her play out a post-coital nude scene.
If these films can be said to differ at all, it is only in terms of the difference that time and changing social attitudes make to a film-makers ability to tailor the positive qualities and lessons of Shakespeare’s great play to needs of their projected audience.
Marge Simpson would understand, but not Nadine Dorries.