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Classifying clothing: how does the medium affect the classification? (Part 1)

Posted on 2 February 2015 by Henry

Note that we've asterisked some instances of offensive language in this post.

Is the impact of watching, say, violent content in a cinema greater than watching it on DVD? Does it have a lower impact if you read it in a book? Or a higher impact in a videogame? What if you were immersed in a virtual reality world?

These are questions that our Classification Officers have to grapple with when classifying something, and we can classify a wide variety of things - anything which comes under the definition of a 'publication' in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act, 1993. This includes movies on a variety of formats, games, books, magazines, computer files, anything with an image, sign, representation or word on it, and anything with information stored on it.

The greater part of our work has always been classifying films for cinema and home viewing formats, but in the past 20 years we've classified jigsaw puzzles, T-shirts, paintings, billboards, playing cards, comics, business signs, bumper stickers, calendars, emails, letters, chat logs and even a drink can. In this series of posts on the impact of different mediums we'll be taking a look at movies, games and books, but we'll start with something a bit more unusual for us - clothing.

We've classified a small number of T-shirts over the years. Two examples are Dodgee Mother F*cker (2005) and Vestal Masturbation (2008). The titles alone give you some idea of why they upset people. Dodgee Mother F*cker was submitted to us after a child brought the garment to the attention of their horrified parent. Across the front of the T-shirt (a size 10) were the words "Dodgee", in a large and cursive script, and "Mother F*cker" in smaller print. A submission from the clothing company explained that the design is a play on the Dodgers baseball team logo (also pointing out proudly that "In 8 years of sales, we have never received a complaint, only commendations of the originality of the design!").

As the T-shirt contained no sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence, we only had the option of age-restricting it for highly offensive language (read our post on offensive language to learn why). But how do you effectively age-restrict clothing? If it were made R13 you would have to be 13 to buy it, but you could still see it walking down the street towards you.

In our decision, we noted that teenagers were likely to recognise the T-shirt's use of vernacular from movies and music, and with this context they would recognise the intended humour behind use of the language. Children and younger teens, however, were "more likely to be disturbed or shocked by the literal meaning of the words 'Mother f*cker'".

We also expressed concern that the T-shirt's display might encourage younger viewers to use this language and be harmed by the associated stigma of using it. Still, "The dominant effect of the T-shirt is little different from numerous others bearing logos or text. Many of these are printed with images or slogans that contain provocative humour or socially transgressive text, including offensive language".

The decision concluded that:

The offensiveness of the term to many people is likely to be greater if a child or young teenager were to wear the T-shirt. However, the purchase of garments for children and young teenagers is generally a matter for parental guidance. The Classification Office believes that it is unlikely that parents will buy this T-shirt for their children.

The language on the T-shirt also raises the wider concern of public offence if the garment is worn by older teenagers and young adults. Public display is inherent in the wearing of a T-shirt. Anyone wearing this particular garment risks public disapproval. In this case, social control is a more effective means of regulation than the enforcement of a Classification Office decision.

The Classification Office decided that "the availability of the T-shirt, while likely to cause offence to some people, is unlikely to injure the public good" and that "Free and democratic societies such as New Zealand generally tolerate considerable freedom to express one's self through clothing, including clothing that offends". The T-shirt was therefore classified as Unrestricted. Note that our classification system allows something to be restricted or banned if its unrestricted availability is likely to be injurious or harmful to the public - it's not enough for it simply to be offensive (learn more about the classification criteria on our website).

The T-shirt called Vestal Masturbation (2008) was a different story. The front of the T-shirt depicts a nun, kneeling, who is nude apart from a traditional Catholic nun's wimple and veil. The placement of her hands indicates that she is masturbating, while her expression implies sexual pleasure. Under the image are the words "Vestal Masturbation", and above the image are the words "Cradle of Filth", the name of a heavy metal band. On the back are the words "Jesus is a C*nt", in broad, bold lettering, which is "eye-catching and unavoidable because of the size and stark nature of its type".

The impact of the medium was an important consideration - in our written decision we pointed out that:

Public display is inherent in the use of a T-shirt. When worn in public, a T-shirt in effect acts as a public statement, a mobile advertising poster, placard or billboard. It is easily portable and travels into every variety of public and social context. The fact that images and slogans are printed on this garment means that the very act of wearing it may cause offence to some people.

We noted that the ability of the T-shirt to be worn in public allowed its "messages of misogyny and religious vilification [to] be widely disseminated", and that the intended use of the T-shirt, for some, would be to "deliberately shock random members of the public."

The Classification Office decided to ban the T-shirt, stating that:

The publication is considered to degrade, dehumanise and demean the woman depicted, and women more generally, to such an extent and degree that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good. The publication also represents Christians as inherently inferior by reason of their religious beliefs to such an extent and degree that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good.

A ban was possible because the content on the T-shirt dealt with matters of sex, one of the 'gateway criteria', unlike Dodgee Mother F*cker, which only contained offensive language.

We hope this gives you some idea of the issues involved in classifying clothes, we'll take a look at other types of 'publications' in future posts in this series.

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

T-shirt with Censored logo

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