When Michael Fassbender parades around your latest with his chap out you know you're in for trouble. Alas, the artist (and now accomplished film director) Steve McQueen seems unfazed by such bother with his latest cinematic effort revelling in its realistic depiction of sex addiction, and as much as the American ratings board hates to see it, that inevitably includes some genitals. On screen genitals. Literal, on-screen, bodily genitals.
Now you may think that I'm overstating the presence of genitals here, but for the MPAA they are a not inconsiderable sign of depraved horrendousness. Whilst The Hangover, The Life of Brian, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have easily passed through the ratings system by showing us the comical side of man's silliest of endowments, when it comes to sexualising genitalia the MPAA often loses its sense of humour a little.
In the case of McQueen's Shame the sexually explicit film has been awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA (the American censors) due to its extensive and one must assume sexualised depiction of its lead actor's penis. In real terms this equates to the British '18' rating but whilst over here such a classification raises no controversy whatsoever, the American equivalent is box-office poison.
Like a lingering disease cured only by cuts to the most nefarious bits of your running time, the NC-17 has long been the leper of US distribution. Many American cinema chains both refuse to promote and flat out refuse to show NC-17 rated films due to the institutionalised stigma that comes with them. Choked from screenings and public goodwill they often fall by the wayside and it is extremely rare for a film to not appeal against what is often considered a label of shame. With Shame, however, Fox Searchlight seeks to change all that by embracing the NC-17 as "a badge of honour, not a scarlet letter." Their dogged promotion of the film and it's likely candidacy for awards consideration come New Year may just be what is needed to break the taboo of the most divisive of classifications once and for all.
Though it may sound fair enough to award Shame what is functionally an '18' rating, all the board requires of them to receive the generally acceptable R certificate is to cut out Fassbender's explicit bits. But when a film treats its subject matter as maturely as Shame seems to and with an uncompromising artistry that is hard not to respect, why should the directors unflinching portrayal of sex have to get in the way of societally acceptable distribution in America? Genitals given the right context aren't generally considered to be morally offensive or "liable to deprave or corrupt" so why is their sexualised depiction treated in the same leagues as sexual violence? Any matter of fact on-screen delivery of consentual sex is always going to be less disturbing than a rape scene or a graphic and realistically delivered murder, right? Anyway, anyone who is likely to be depraved or corrupted by the sight of a penis is probably as mad as a box of Von Trier's to begin with.
One may see the problem here as being with the inherent stigma attached to the NC-17 by cinema chains and the public at large but the MPAA has a lot to answer for. When disturbing and sexually explicit films like Requiem for a Dream (even with its required cuts), Blue Valentine (after extensive appeals) and Last House on the Left (delivered with no shortage of rape, torture and murder) receive 'R' ratings it's hard to see why a film like Shame should be unfairly maligned just because it's lead actor literally couldn't keep it in his pants. He's playing a sex addict, what did they expect?