New York – November 9, 2022: Beginning today a billboard deemed unsuitable for public viewing by the Motion Picture Association will start its run in Times Square. The advertisement is promoting the short film Governing Body from artist and filmmaker Julia Weist and Archive Films. At issue is the billboard’s use of a black and white film still from 1948 showing a close up of a baby’s head and doctor’s hands during a delivery. The MPA’s ban is ironic and regressive—the ad is not only promoting a short about the history of film censorship in New York, the image in question was originally censored in the 1950s by a precursor to the MPA.
To make Governing Body, Weist reviewed more than 7,000 archival documents created by New York’s Motion Picture Division which was active from 1921-1965. The Division, a branch of state government which was eventually dissolved, censored movie scenes deemed “indecent” and “immoral” based on gender-biased standards. Censorship skewed heavily toward curtailing the representation of women and non-binary characters’ bodies and freedoms. Weist researched 464 films that were censored for gendered reasons and located dozens of scenes eliminated for 20th century audiences in New York. It’s a selection of these clips that makes up the entirety of Governing Body, which is 17 minutes long. The film was given an R-rating by the MPA for graphic nudity involving childbirth and some sexual content.
In the run up to the film’s release this winter, the MPA rejected several other versions of key art for the film including posters featuring breastfeeding and nude sculptures of the female form. Archive Film’s choice to use the childbirth still in Times Square originated with the language used by the MPA in its disapproval memo. The advertisement was cited as being too “realistic.”
“With the loss of their constitutional right to abortion, American women have re-entered an age of forced birth. Simultaneously, the MPA is censoring ‘realistic’ depictions of child birth,” Weist says. “The MPA is perpetuating a legacy of suppression and control that stigmatizes bodily autonomy.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship issued the following statement about the billboard, “We are disturbed that the MPA has denied approval for a film advertisement depicting a black and white image of childbirth—ironically, for a project about the history of government censorship of film. We urge the association to reconsider its decision and to update its standards to avoid future anachronisms.”