“Black Swan” and its R rating shows progress for the MPAA when it comes to lesbian sexuality


In the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, lesbian director Jamie Babbit spoke openly about how the MPAA ratings board saw lesbian content in movies as offensive or racy content. To get an R rating on her film, But I’m a Cheerleader, she said she had to cut down the sex scene between Clea Duvall and Natasha Lyonne. For those who have seen the movie, you know there is no nudity and it’s mostly some breathing sounds with brief glimpses of hands moving over skin under the blanket in the dark.

Yet you’ve likely seen much more explicit sex scenes between men and women on film, such as Monster’s Ball or 9 1/2 Weeks.

The latest film to be part of a ratings uproar is Blue Valentine, which features Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams having “believable” sex. (Acting sex; not engaging in real sex acts, which does happen on film. See: The Brown Bunny.) Before the ratings board caved and switched it from an NC-17 rating to R yesterday, PopEater wrote a piece about Blue Valentine and Black Swan‘s sex scenes, and how it might be progress for lesbian sex on film that the Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman scene didn’t receive a harsher rating.

A lot of films with explicit lesbian sex scenes are edited for the screen and later release full un-rated cuts on DVD. This has been the case for Basic Instinct and Wild Things. But most of the time, lesbian sex scenes have had to be radically cut down just to make the MPAA happy. Bound, for instance, was criticized for its use of “hand sex” and made to remove a huge chunk of the pivotal sex scene between Corky and Violet (played by Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly).

The 1990 film Henry & June was the first to ever receive an NC-17 rating, largely in part because it featured sex between two women (Maria de Medeiro and Uma Thurman). In 1995, Showgirls infamously received the rating as well, featuring lesbian sexuality between Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley.

One of the first sex scenes between women on film is from Desert Hearts, which director Donna Deitch refused to edit down in anyway. It was racier than But I’m a Cheerleader, especially considering it was released years before, but the rest of the film wouldn’t have earned an R rating if the scene had been less so.

There wasn’t a lot of violence or swear words or drug use that would otherwise require such a rating, as factors into the R ratings for films such as High Art and Gia. (Perhaps not so surprisingly, Better Than Chocloate received an R rating, despite its only “questionable” content being a lesbian sex scene and some dildos.)

Sometimes, it’s not even the actual sex scene that offends censors. Films Itty Bitty Titty Committe and Lesbian Vampire Killers have altered titles for mass consumption on DVD. You can find them at Blockbuster under the names Itty Bitty Committe and Vampire Killers. While the use of the word “titty” could be understandably racy for a “family” environment, “lesbian” isn’t an offensive word — at least it shouldn’t be. Yet Blockbuster generally has a small selection of LGBT films, some with the word “gay” in the title (not removed).

So what’s the big deal about these ratings? Some foreign films, films made for lesbian audiences, or films dictated by sexual performances are unrated and the directors are unapologetic about it (Room in Rome, for example), but if you have an NC-17 rating, it can be more difficult to get distribution, advertising and people in seats. And the unfortunate part about the ratings system is that sexuality continues to be the biggest reason a film is deemed NC-17 worthy. Violence and psychologically disturbing films are often given an easier time in front of the board.

Jamie Babbit says in This Film is Not Yet Rated:

For a rater to say “we’re going to rate these films like an average American parent,” who is an average American parent? I’m an American parent. I’m a lesbian, I live in Los Angeles, I’m a filmmaker, I have a daughter. I’m a parent, I pay taxes. Is there anyone on the ratings board that is like me? I highly doubt it.

So is it progress that Black Swan was able to get by with an R rating? There isn’t any “hand sex,” but it’s certainly still more than moving around under a blanket in the dark. And considering the film also contains some violence and psychologically disturbing elements and drugs, I would agree that this means the MPAA could finally be loosening up when it comes to female sexuality when it involves another woman.