In this age of streaming, what role do film certificates play?

Harriet Metcalfe takes a look at Netflix and the role of film certificates. How do we protect kids in the future from explicit content?

Harriet Metcalfe
21st May 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Back in the good old days, when we could all go to the cinema, I was very much not a rule-breaker. The one time we tried to sneak into a film that I wasn't old enough for by two months, I accidentally told them my age. I can't lie to save my life. But now that young people can't have their small moment of rebellion going to the cinema, is Netflix facilitating it instead?

In the UK, Netflix categorises their content into three labels; Kids (ratings U, All, and PG), Teen (12, Guidance, Teen) and Adult (15, 18, Mature, Adult). It looks pretty easy to change parental control settings as well - so I wanted to know how much Netflix was abiding by its ratings, doing some research of my own. Just call me Sherlock...

Surely there needs to be more explicit guidance on the age categories Netflix is referring to?

Young people and children, for obvious reasons, can't watch R-rated content in a cinema. According to the BBFC, the British equivalent of the American R-rating is a 15 - which Netflix rightly categorises for "adult" audiences, because is it just me or have they got a lot more explicit in the past few years? Anyway. I cringed at myself typing "teen films" into the Netflix search bar, wondering if anything would come up that 12/13 year-old me would watch. And errr, Netflix? We need to have a word, because here's some of the results that came up;

The Package is rated 15 - so an adults film according to Netflix. It looks bloody awful. Not to be a Karen, but I don't appreciate this euphemism of a title.
Oh Ramona! is rated 15 and the exclamation mark is telling.
The To-Do List is rated 15 - I'll let you figure out what that one's about.
The Last Summer is rated 15. Looks like more of the same but with a "romance".
Easy A is the best of the lot, but again - it's a 15.

They're all films that Netflix says are for adults, so the lines are pretty blurred here given they come up when I look for teen films. Surely there needs to be more explicit guidance on the age categories Netflix is referring to? Does this make "teen" suitable for 12-15 years? When does Netflix suggest you can start watching kids films and teen films? I know we all watched at least one film when we were probably way too young (Jaws for me) and learnt our lesson - but Netflix is just giving kids the opportunity to watch an 18-rated horror film... and I kinda can't see that ending too well. Personally, I think the BBFC (British Board of Classification) rules are there for a reason, if you can't see it in the cinema, you probably shouldn't be allowed to watch it on Netflix.

The BBFC has a pretty good guideline that means possible trigger warnings are picked up and emphasised...Netflix is kind of a threat to that system

There's also the whole thing with the 15 rating here that we should mention. In the US, where Netflix is based, you technically don't have to get your film rated - although many people do. It's not law, as it is in the UK. However, if your film is rated NC-17 in America, according to the BBFC website, there's a pretty big chance for it to be a financial flop, as many major US retailers refuse to stock NC-17 rated films because there aren't enough customers for them. And if your film does end up with such a rating? Well you literally can refuse the rating, have it advertised as an 'unrated' film, meaning pretty much anyone can watch it, despite the content.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The R18 classification symbol used by the British Board of Film Classification from 2019

Is it just me or is that absolutely insane? I've got a feeling this American system has managed to work its way into the British one, and I'm not entirely sure it's a great idea. Loads of films are rated a 15 nowadays, to the point where I'm often kinda surprised that it wasn't given an 18. But 15 rated films get out to a bigger audience than 18 rated films do, and it's pretty similar to the American system for a studio just to omit controversial/violent/explicit content to be able to show a wider audience.

Ratings are ultimately a pretty subjective thing. If you're not the recommended audience age but think you can handle something - well, that's up to you. But on a serious note - the BBFC has a pretty good guideline that means possible trigger warnings are picked up and emphasised, whilst ensuring that the right people are allowed to see the right films. Netflix is kind of a threat to that system. Who knows whether they'll wake up to the problem, but as I know absolutely bugger-all about programming a streaming platform, I'll leave you with the wise and immortal words of Roy from The IT Crowd;

"Have you tried turning it on and off again?"

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AUTHOR: Harriet Metcalfe
English Literature BA student. Loves film, TV, books and coffee. Thinks "Thor: The Dark World" gets too much hate. Twitter: @hattiemetcalfe

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