Censorship and the 2014 Academy Awards
23 March 2013
Typically, all the reactions posted on this blog focus on a piece(s) of a select film, exploring how a cinematic or narrative detail(s) communicates or connects to something larger at work in the film. This week will be an exception to the standard practice.
Three weeks ago the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave out their Oscars in one of their highest-rated and (arguably) most entertaining ceremonies. Yet, some curious censorship decisions made a subtle and unsettling statement in this year’s ceremony. During the first category, Best Performance by and Actor in a Supporting Role, a clip from 12 Years a Slave was played, one featuring nominee Michael Fassbender. In this clip, Fassbender’s character, a white slave owner, referred to black people as niggers. This term was censored, and therefore silenced, during the broadcast.
To the ear, a bleep or mute is a noticeable type of censorship; the omission of sound interrupts the rhythm of speech, calling attention to the censorship. When the 12 Years a Slave clip was censored early in the Academy Awards’ ceremony, it was a noticeable but understandable decision. The term nigger is controversial because of it is demeaning and scornful etymology. In the clip’s context, nigger is a hate-fill word used by a white slave owner in reference to black people who he considers inferior; from this point of view, the term degrades black people to such an inferior status that they are dehumanized. Although 12 Years a Slave’s use of this word is historically accurate—and it would have to be because the screenplay was adapted from a memoir, or nonfictional text— the Oscars air on network television. According to the Federal Communications Committee (FCC), the censors, the term nigger is not appropriate to say on network television no matter what the context is.
So, considering the precedent this censorship made in silencing the term nigger in the ceremony’s opening category, one might assume all degrading and scornful terms, which, like nigger, target a select group of people, would be censored during the ceremony, right? Wrong.
Meryl Streep was nominated this year for her work in August: Osage County. When her clip played, during the Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role category, Streep’s character yells out “son of a bitch,” and that phrase, specifically the word bitch, was not censored.
To contextualize, in the August: Osage County clip, Streep’s character is calling her dead husband a “son of a bitch.” Interestingly, although she intends this as a verbal insult on a man, it is really an attack on women. The insult “son of bitch,” which is often aimed at men, actually lands on their mothers. Thus, even when directed at a man, as in this clip, the term bitch is always degrading to women.
Looking closely at this one incident during this year’s Academy Awards, it seems confusing that censors did not allow nigger, but did allow bitch. Nigger targets blacks; bitch targets women. Nigger has a controversial history of humiliating, lowering the status of, and dehumanizing black people, used to make black people feel inferior to white people; bitch has the same controversial history of humiliating, lowering the status of, and dehumanizing women (by likening them to a female dog in heat), used to make women feel inferior to men.
So, why was the word nigger censored but the word bitch was not?
It is plausible the Academy Award producers, who select the clips that air during the Academy Awards, did not realize these two terms would be treated differently by FCC censors, and may have thought neither term would be silenced. This is reasonable because producers could have easily selected clips from both 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County that did not contain profanity. Also, considering producers when well out of their way to select three clips/montages from The Wolf of Wall Street that do not feature the word fuck—which is used over 500 times in the film—it stands to reason the producers may not have realized the language used in the clips from 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County would present a concern. Therefore, the aforementioned question really falls on the network television censors.
According to the FCC, “profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.” Technically, the 12 Years a Slave clip was played before 10 p.m. and the August: Osage County clip was played after 10 p.m. Applying their policy to this situation, the FCC has the right to stop censoring at 10 p.m. and, apparently, did stop censoring this year’s Oscars. Yet, according to the FCC, programs that use profane language after 10 p.m. are subject to fines. However, there was no fine for the Academy Awards’ use of bitch after 10 p.m. in the August: Osage County clip. So, evidently, even though bitch slipped into the Oscar broadcast after 10 p.m., the FCC does not feel it is inappropriate for television and/or radio to use the term bitch.
In the end, the issue is not that nigger was censored. And, the issue is not that bitch was not censored. The issue is by censoring one and not the other, and not holding the Academy’s producers responsible for airing a clip with profanity after 10 p.m., a precedent is set: bitch, unlike nigger, is an acceptable term to use on television. Taking that further, according to this censorship call, one can presume it has now become acceptable to openly demean a woman, right?