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Life as a censor: Reflections of a new Classification Officer

Posted on 14 December 2016 by Lily

Right now I’m sitting in my nook of our open plan office. My cubicle is covered in postcards – David Bowie, La Luna, Barbara Krueger – and Polaroids from my sister-in-law’s recent wedding. My neighbour is off watching the live stream of a three hour opera about which, for some reason, she is excited. I actually never expected to end up in a place like this. An office, I mean. But I ended up in one anyway, and the Office of Film and Literature Classification has been the best possible place for me to land.

How did I get here?

Six months ago my fiancée and I moved down to Wellington. She’d been offered a job and I agreed we needed a change of scene. I had been working at the University for five years, and studying for ten. So, a fresh start and all that. I was nervous about where I would end up with a resume like mine: my day job as an undergraduate student had been in a sex shop and I loved it. That love pushed me into a Master’s degree called Flipping the Switch: A History of Sex Shops, Swingers, and Sadomasochism. While I was writing it I taught on a couple of courses on the History of Western sexuality. I kept going, and spent three years working towards a doctorate that documented the history of sadomasochism in America.

Enter the Office of Film and Literature Classification. When I saw their ad I knew instinctively that I had the critical thinking skills and life experience to contribute to classification decisions in a meaningful way. Three face-to-face interviews over quite a long period of time, interspersed with several long phone conversations with the recruitment officer, and I was in. Apparently my pedigree did count for something, somewhere. I can’t pretend I’m not completely stoked that that place turned out to be here.

What do I do here?

Heaps. But if you want the specific tasks associated with my job, they go something like this:

First and foremost, I watch things. All kinds of things. Horror movies, anime, serious crime dramas, short films, you name it. If it’s rated over an M, it passed through this office’s hands at some point. Once I’ve viewed the publication and made my notes, I write up something called a Consideration Sheet, where I note the content of what I’ve watched against the legal criteria that guides classification decisions. While I’m watching something, I often have a fairly clear idea of what I’m going to suggest as a rating, but the Consideration Sheet really helps me build a robust argument in favour of my decision. From there on I generate formal documents and present my work to one of my supervisors, who then either suggest changes or confirm my decision and send it out into the world.

I also do work with our amazing Information Unit, and have been observing workshops the Classification Office is facilitating as part of a major study we have underway about the influence of sexual violence in the media on teenagers. When the study comes out it will be the first of its kind in New Zealand and I am really excited to see the final results (read about the initial report of findings here). I’ve also been put in charge of revitalising our library, which I am sure will flourish the moment I learn something about the Dewey Decimal system (please send help).

Finally, some of the work in this office comes to us from law enforcement agencies (Police, Customs or Internal Affairs). The images submitted in these cases are often either sexualised images of children and young people, or straight up child abuse. I’m not going to talk about this much, except to say that no matter how you think you’ll feel about seeing it, when you do, you’ll probably feel completely different. I thought I’d be angry but actually, I just felt super sad. I don’t believe that just anyone could do my job, but this aspect of it is especially challenging. I take immense pride in the fact that I am working with enforcement agencies to try and put a stop to the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

Why do I think classification is so important?

When I first thought about censorship, I thought of oppressive regimes cutting segments from the news, about burning books, interfering with freedom of speech, all that jazz. The reality is really different though, and that’s why I like the term ‘classification’ so much more. It’s not common at all for feature films to be banned by our office, but it has happened once since I got here. Please believe me when I tell you that you did not miss out on anything at all. The fact that I had to watch it three times was enough for me to want to stab my eyes out. Most of the things we find objectionable are received from enforcement agencies and you would definitely find them objectionable too.

Instead we use a system of warnings and age restrictions in order to help publications find the audience they were intended for. Media has a huge impact on people – we consume so much of it all the time. It helps shape the culture that we live in, but it also reflects it back at us. One of the things I hope that my work here does is make media available for young people that is not condescending or prudish. Instead, I think teenagers should have access to representations of positive sexual relationships, diverse and complex media created by LGBT/female/creators of colour. My belief is that they will seek out sexual representation no matter what the law says, that we should accept this as fact, and that we should make it as easy as possible for them to find stuff that isn’t toxic. I mean, hopefully it’s obvious that I don’t classify material based on its sexual content exclusively. This is just one example of how classification can work and why it is should be considered important.

What next?

The people are amazing, the work is intellectually engaging and I think what we do here matters a lot. People often tell me that I have their ‘dream job’ and that they’d love to do what I do. I love to do what I do. But then I remind them about some of the things I have to look at and they tell me, “Oh, I could never do that.” Fair enough. I guess this is a situation where 99% of the time I have the job that everybody wants, and then 1% of the time I have the job that nobody wants at all. 100% of my job makes a necessary contribution to the world I live in though, and I have to say, that makes me feel pretty aces.

Lily works in the Classification and Information Units at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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