Censorship used to be quite a predictable research subject. It was often associated with ideas about State oppression, intolerant governments or other powerful institutions controlling the minds of powerless citizens and society’s dominated classes. Censorship was related to dictators and their brutal strategies to limit freedom of speech, or to undermine artistic expression. It was seen as part of a carefully orchestrated strategy of controlling or even silencing public debate in society.
As far as film studies are concerned, researchers used to attack these silencing practices, indicating how particular institutions (e.g., film censorship boards) were legally founded, how they operated, how they banned or mutilated movies (e.g. cutting images or complete scenes), how they prevented controversial or revolutionary movies from being seen by mature citizens. Researchers restricted themselves to investigating censorship in major film production countries (e.g. in the US, the UK or France, see Hunnings, 1967; Randall, 1970) or in totalitarian regimes such as in Nazi-Germany (e.g. Wetzel & Hagemann, 1978), fascist Italy or the Soviet Union (e.g. Taylor, 1998).
This more traditional research on the history, structure and legal basis of film censorship is still a lively part of the field (e.g. Bertin-Maghit, 2008; Müller & Wieder, 2008; Wittern-Keller, 2008), but in recent years, the nature of censorship research has changed dramatically. New approaches argued, for instance, that the State does not wield absolute power, and also that censorship institutions are run by flesh-and-blood people with their own sensitivities, norms and values. Censorship institutions do not operate in a completely autonomous or authoritarian manner, nor are they disconnected from society. This includes the existence of negotiations between the censors, the industry and film makers. When Hitchcock wanted to include the shower scene in his landmark Psycho, he had to take care of, and negotiate with the internal Hollywood production codes, turn to some forms of self-censorship, and find creative solutions in order not to upset the norms and values set by various disciplining forces in society, such as the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency. But at the same time this process of transformation and negotiation also offered him new possibilities to bypass these disciplining forces, to look for more indirect or latent forms of criticism, and to deal with sensitive social issues in a more metaphorical sense, etc. Detailed work on concrete censorship practices revealed, from this perspective, that the day-to-day practice of censorship was much more complex than traditional research often acknowledged. In short, the relationship between the censor and the censored was more contingent than often assumed.
Inspired by Foucault’s analysis of power in society, research on censorship became more sophisticated, leaving behind the traditional strand of thinking that focused on an institutionalized, interventionist censorship (Caïra, 2005; Müller, 2004; Post, 1998). The academic view on film censorship also shifted significantly, from a conception of a mainly repressive apparatus and ‘censorship as a problem’ – what Annette Kuhn (1988) has called the ‘prohibition/institutions’ model – to a more culturalist notion of film censorship as something that has productive aspects as well (see also Staiger, 1992; 1995). These productive aspects became apparent in Kuhn’s ‘eventualization/diagnosis’ model, which assumes that film censorship does not only consist of a top-down dimension. Although censorship often takes place within the practices of concrete institutions, such institutions should not be seen in isolation. These institutions should be regarded as both active and acted upon, being embedded within a wider set of practices and relations. Seen from this eventualization/diagnosis approach, practices of film classification/censorship boards can be considered highly revealing manifestations of hegemonic views on social, ethical or political matters. This shift indicates that film censorship is a form of social disciplining which can be regarded as a ‘significant social response to representations’ (Staiger, 1995: 15-6), rather than as an imposed decision of an alienated institution.
A closer look at concrete censorship acts then become a highly revealing act of research, not only in terms of creative choices, limits of artistic expressions, but also in terms of the negotiations about social, ethical and political issues. The praxis of banning or cutting a movie is often not self-evident; concrete cuts are essentially meant to hide significantly troubling images for a society which is often engaged in a process of change. Research on cuts and banned images indicate that they often reveal more than what is allowed or not allowed to be shown. Censorship thus becomes a keen and sharp indicator of what a particular hegemonic group in society can tolerate at a particular moment. Censorship becomes a much more complex, fascinating and meaningful activity of negotiation around particular movies and images. And as such, it becomes a fascinating issue for studying a society in flux. This might be a change in political or ideological terms (e.g., can we show Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin?), in religious terms (e.g., what about the controversial poster of Costa-Gavras’ Amen, where a cross takes the shape of a swastika?), in terms of representing sexuality and morals (what about the developments in relation to pornographic images?). From an international perspective, it is interesting to see how particular movies have caused trouble anywhere, whereas other pictures only caused a stir in particular national contexts.
In recent years, more sensitive approaches to the history of film censorship came along. Within these new approaches, researchers do not limit their account to an institutional approach, nor do they tend to (merely) denounce the banning, cutting and all what happens in the process of censoring movies. Paul Lesch (2005), for instance, who has worked on censorship in the Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg, emphasized that the national censors were often responsible people, open for negotiation and sensitive to wider (national) interests.
This type of censorship research also indicates how the film industry often complied with the control of, and consensus on public values, because they had a lot to gain from safe, non-provocative films (e.g. Vasey, 1997). Especially during the early years of film classification, family films that did not damage the reputation of the medium, turned out to be more profitable in the long run than the short-lived commercial successes of controversial films. Furthermore, film censorship constituted a challenge for writers, directors, actors and other creative people within the film industry, who intended to explore the limits of acceptable representations.
This more sophisticated research on censoring, disciplining (e.g. Caïra, 2005) or policing (Grieveson, 2004) also includes a more sophisticated approach in terms of methodologies, where censorship is considered to be a discursive act, to be found in treatments, scripts, creative decisions and finally in the movies themselves. (New) censorship research therefore insists on using textual analysis, in particular for examining those delicate points of negotiation.
Apart from studying these specific textual features, the new film censorship research also looks for ‘the wider social and cultural ideologies determining those group’s activities’ (Staiger, 1995: 14). It asks for an examination of the specific process of negotiation between industry, filmmakers, censors and their respective discourses, trying to achieve some form of consensus on the acceptability of certain images, scenes or films. This negotiation process, which can be revealed through historical reception analysis (Staiger, 1995), makes it rather unlikely that film classification boards would take decisions going completely against societal sensitivities. In this regard, research into ‘images that are troubling’ is extremely fruitful to reveal the boundaries of acceptable representations, within specific ideological constellations.
 See also my own work, Biltereyst (2005)
Bertin-Maghit, J.-P. (Ed.) (2008) Une histoire mondiale des cinémas de propaganda. Paris: Nouveau Monde éditions.
Biltereyst, D. (2005) Youth, moral panics and the end of cinema. On the reception of ‘Rebel without a Cause’ in Europe, in: J. D. Slocum (Ed.) Rebel without a Cause: Approaches to a Maverick Masterwork. New York: SUNY, pp. 171-189.
Caïra, O. (2005) Hollywood face à la Censure. Paris: CNRS.
Grieveson, L. (2004) Policing Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hunnings, N. M. (1967) Film censors and the Law. London: Allen & Unwin.
Kuhn, A. (1988) Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925. London: Routledge.
Lesch, P. (2005) In the name of public order and morality: cinema control and film censorship in Luxembourg 1895-2005. Luxemburg: CNA.
Müller, B. (Ed.) (2004) Censorship & Cultural Regulation in the Modern Age. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Müller, R., Wieder, T. (Ed.) (2008) Cinéma et regimes autoritaires au XXe siècle. Paris: PUF.
Phelps, G. (1975) Film Censorship. Letchwork.
Post, R. C. (Ed.) (1998) Censorship and Silencing. Los Angeles: Getty.
Randall, R. S. (1970) Censorship of the Movies: the social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: Wisconsin UP.
Staiger, J. (1992) Interpreting Films. Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. Princeton: PUP.
Staiger, J. (1995) Bad Women. Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.
Vasey, R. (1997) The World according to Hollywood. Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Wetzel, K., Hagemann, P. A. (1978) Zensur. Verbotene Deutsche Filme 1933-1945. Berlin: Volke Spiess.
Wittern-Keller, L. (2008) Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Daniel Biltereyst is Professor in film, television and cultural studies at the Department of Communication Studies, Ghent University, Belgium, where he leads the research centre Film and Television Studies (www.wgfilmtv.ugent.be). His work deals with film and screen culture as sites of censorship and controversy. He has published in international journals (including Media Culture & Society, European Journal of Communication, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Historical Journal of Film, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Radio and Television, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Communications) and in readers such as Understanding Reality TV (Routledge), Rebel without a Cause (SUNY), Communication Theory and Research (Sage), Youth Culture in Global Cinema (University of Texas Press), Going to the Movies (Exeter UP), and International Encyclopedia of Communication (Blackwell). He is editing The New Cinema History (Blackwell, with R. Maltby and P. Meers) and preparing a book on film censorship in Europe.