Showcase Television re Bubbles Galore

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair),P. Fockler, M. Hogarth, S. Whiting and M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

On Friday, June 19, 1999, Showcase Television aired the
motion picture Bubbles Galore at about 11:10 p.m., following an
introduction of the controversial film by film critic Cameron Bailey. Briefly
summarized, the film's story and relevant bits of the backstory are as
follows.

The profession of the lead character, Bubbles Galore, is that
of an adult film star who has left her role as an “exploited” participant
in such films to become a creator of pornographic movies, which she will
produce and direct with a woman's perspective. Presumably as a part of
accomplishing this goal, if not also for other reasons, Bubbles has severed all
ties, professional and romantic, with her former director/producer/lover,
Godfrey Montana. He is alienated by, if not also jealous of, her new career, if
not also annoyed by the fact that, at the start of the film, he is informed by
his theatrical exhibitor that screentime for his forthcoming film will not be
available because of Bubbles's new feature. He is determined to destroy her as
a competitive adult film producer. For her new film (within the film), Bubbles
casts an apparently naïve new porn star in the leading role. She and the other
characters of the film are totally unaware that this woman is more than what she
appears to be; she is, in the reality of the film, a heaven-sent “guardian
angel” who is posing in the role of porn star in order to aid other women
victims of the sex trade (as she was in her former life). The two other leading
characters are Buck and Vivian. Bubbles has a real soft spot for Buck, whether
as the result of the relationship which they both had when they worked together
for Godfrey or out of sympathy for the fact that Buck is now so heavily into
booze and drugs that he has become impotent. During much of the film, Bubbles
has a very impersonal relationship with her devoted lesbian assistant, Vivian,
who, late in the film, develops a sexual, if not also a romantic, relationship
with Bubbles.

There is considerable nudity, sexual activity and foul
language in the film, as well as a few scenes involving violence. Two of the
latter involve the henchmen of Bubbles' former lover, who, in the first
instance, humiliate the impotent Buck sexually and, in the second, rape Vivian.
While Buck is seen to suffer at the hands of his attackers, Vivian seems
bizarrely detached from, and unfazed by, the ugly attack on her. While Buck is
clearly oppressed by the humiliation, Vivian's detachment from the event
seems, in some respects, to place her psychologically in control of the events
which are clearly happening against her will.

The broadcast of the film was preceded by the following
viewer advisory in both audio and on-screen formats: “The following program
contains scenes of nudity, sexuality, violence and coarse language. Viewer
discretion is advised.” The movie was rated as 18+. After each commercial
break, a voice-over indicated that “Bubbles Galore continues on the
Showcase Revue. Viewer discretion is advised.” At midnight, following a
commercial break, the “long version” of the viewer advisory in both
audio and on-screen formats was repeated and an on-screen icon again displayed
the 18+ rating.

There were several complaints received by the CBSC but only
two which followed through with Ruling Requests; these are the basis for this
decision. The first complainant (of June 21) said that she was “registering
a complaint in regards to graphic sexual content” which did not constitute
“appropriate subject matter for television [emphasis original]”
at 11:00 p.m. or any hour. The second (of June 22) had similar concerns and put
them more explicitly. (The full texts of both letters of complaint, the
broadcaster's reply and the subsequent letters from the complainants are
included in the Appendix to this decision.) Although it is not an issue for this
Council, the complainant also expressed concern about the use of public money
for the production of the film.

The broadcaster replied to the two complainants on July 19
and 28 respectively, saying, in part, that Bubbles Galore was “a
feminist satire of the pornography business — not a pornographic film.” It
also explained the procedures it has in place “in order to double-check
compliance with these [broadcast] Codes.” Neither of these complainants was
satisfied with the response and both returned their Ruling Requests with
accompanying letters. The first said, in part:

I was not seeing the filming of two people during a sexualact in bed etc, but a graphic, domineering, degrading scene. It was a pornomovie within a cheaply produced porno movie!!!!!!!

… Am I being told that a movie with a sleazy low lifeman, his large penis sticking out of his open zipper, INSISTING forcibly tothe woman kneeling in front of him, to take it in her mouth, falls within the”ethical guidelines” of this station and broadcasting codes?

She added that parents are not always at home and that even
an 11 p.m. broadcast time was unsatisfactory.

I still STRONGLY….. VERY STRONGLY…. object to films ofthis nature being aired on television. They belong on a video… in the adultsection of a video store, for rent/purchase… NOT…. I repeat… NOT ONTELEVISION FOR A GENERAL VIEWING AUDIENCE!

The second complainant said that “many of its scenes
were disgusting, degrading and unnecessary” and that “a 'viewer
advisory' is not a license to indulge in unsavoury programming.”

THE DECISION

The CBSC's Ontario Regional Council considered the
complaint under Clause 4 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Sex-Role
Portrayal Code
and Articles 1.1, 3.1 and 7 of the CAB Violence Code.
It viewed a tape of Showcase's broadcast of Bubbles Galore and reviewed
all of the correspondence. It considers that the broadcast of the film is not in
breach of any of the foregoing provisions.

The Type of Film

The first complainant was concerned about the appropriateness
of the subject matter for television at any hour. The second complainant shared
that view but was more specific about the film, alleging that the “movie
was scum”, that it contained “sex, violence, bad language and very
little in the way of a plot” and asked whether “the standards of
decency have fallen so low that vulgar people can show anything they want on T.V.?”

The Council wishes to make it clear at the outset that
broadcasters are entitled to the benefit of freedom of expression. The CBSC has,
however, often made the point that, “in Canada, we respect freedom of
speech but do not worship it,” meaning that other important Canadian social
values are frequently set against free speech in reasonable limitation of that
principle which is not absolute, even as cast in the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms
. Where, for example, a broadcaster violates one of the
Codes administered by the CBSC, the Council will limit that particular free
expression in conformity with the principles established by Canada's private
broadcasters. Conversely, where a complainant may be offended by
“inappropriateness” of subject matter, bad taste, a badly scripted,
plotless or otherwise badly made film, the Council's position is that the
complainant must resort to the on/off switch as his or her personal sanction or,
of course, register his or her protest to the broadcaster. Although the point
has not generally been made in previous decisions, the Council's experience is
that broadcasters pay attention to audience complaints.

Accordingly, in this decision, the Ontario Regional Council
deals only with those elements which touch on Code principles, whether these
arise from the complaints themselves or are raised by the Council on its own
initiative. Thus, it does not delve further into those aspects of the film which
may merely touch on questions of taste or decency. Nor does the Council deal
with the cartoonish nature of the film, the overly broad brush strokes which may
or may not be intentionally applied by the film's creators, except to the extent
that these have a direct effect on the Council's understanding of
elements of some of the analysed scenes.

Sex-Role Portrayal: Exploitation in Evidence?

Pursuant to Clause 4 of the Sex-Role Portrayal Code,
although the question was not pointedly raised by either of the complainants,
the Council considers that it is useful to briefly broach the issue of
exploitation on the basis of gender. While it is only accurate to observe that,
on a strictly quantitative basis, there may be more nudity of women than men
depicted in the program, the Council considers it material to remember that the
goal of the movie, as well as the film within the film, has been to portray
adult film creation from the point of view of women. The creative point,
therefore, is intended to be inherently sensitive, hence unexploitative, from
the perspective of gender portrayal. In any case, there is male nudity depicted
and, in the context of the film, the Council is not of the view that there is
any material imbalance in this respect. Moreover, as will be discussed below in
a different context, the creators of Bubbles Galore have clearly depicted
the female characters of the film as superior to the male characters in both
morality and intelligence but not in so inegalitarian a fashion as to unbalance
the equation from the other point of view. Although not precisely applicable to
this movie, the Ontario Regional Council believes that the observations of the
Prairie Regional Council in CKX-TV re National Lampoon's Animal House
(CBSC Decision 96/97-0104, December 16, 1997) are worth noting.

It is essential to remember that the principal goal of the Sex-RolePortrayal Code relates to the equality of the sexes and not toissues of sexual behaviour which do not go to equality or exploitation, whichis itself a form of inequality.

While the portrayal of the women in the film is not overlyflattering, it cannot either be said that the portrayal of the men is anybetter or advantages them in any way. All in all, the presentation of almostevery one of this group of young college people is as unflattering as onemight expect from a film emphasizing the frivolous, narcissistic, often gross,occasionally disgusting portrait of college fraternity life which can best becharacterised as high farce. The question of portrayal inequality does notcome into play.

Gratuitous Violence: The Principle and the Jurisprudence

While most forms of dramatic programming with violent
elements (other than programming intended for children) are subject to certain
requirements as to the time at which they may air or the advisories or ratings
which must accompany them, the case of gratuitous violence is very different.
The basic principle is, of course, that programming broadcast at any time of the
day or night by a Canadian licencee may not contain gratuitous violence,
even though the watershed hour may long since have passed. In the decision in CITY-TV
re Silence of the Lambs
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0120, August 18, 1995), the
Ontario Regional Council provided what remains the definitive understanding of
the term.

Gratuitous violence is defined by the Code as being”material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot,character or theme of the material as a whole.” Where, in other words, aprogram includes scenes of violence which are unnecessary to the progress ofthe story, which do not drive the plot forward, which play no role in thedevelopment or definition of the characters and are clearly serving asensationalistic purpose, that program will be seen to contain gratuitousviolence.

In the CITY-TV decision, the Council pointed out that
“the film deals with the sociology of serial killers, one in prison for
much of the film and one at large” and that, while much of the film could
be expected to, and does, deal with the “constant threat of imminent
violence”, there is only one occasion when the viewer is exposed to murders
taking place during the course of the edited broadcast version of the
film, namely, on the occasion of the escape of Dr. Lecter, the protagonist, from
custody. In that case, therefore, the Council did not consider, in the first
place, “that the film was afflicted by considerable violence” and, in
the second place, did consider that “the violence present [was] integral to
the development of plot and character.”

Similarly, in CIHF-TV (MITV) re an Episode of
“Millennium
” (CBSC Decision 96/97-0044, February 14, 1997), a case
in which the complainant alleged that the violence depicted was gratuitous and
sadistic, the Atlantic Regional Council concluded that the violence was integral
to the story being told.

As in the case of Silence of the Lambs, the theme ofthis episode of Millennium involves a psychopathic serial killer andthe attempts to put an end to his homicidal activities. While violence iscentral to the tale being recounted, the underlying saga is that of a formerlaw enforcement official with psychic powers who is attempting to restructurehis family life away from threats he and his family had suffered in the “backstory”,i.e. the time prior to the beginning of the first episode of theseries. Such violence as occurs in the episode is central to the plot andcharacter of the principal protagonist. Furthermore, the scenes complained ofdo not generally show the occurrence of violent acts as much as they do the resultsof the violent acts and, at that, the violence is not overplayed. There isalso violent imagery and effective editing which give rise to fear, ifnot terror, on the part of the viewer. These are a part of a genre which isaimed at adult audiences but which does not per se fall afoul of theinterdiction against gratuitous violence.

In CHCH-TV re the movie Strange Days (CBSC Decision
98/99-0043 and 0075, February 3, 1999), the facts were, in one material sense,
different from those in the present case. There, the Council faced the fact that
one of the very premises of the film was violence. That is not, of
course, the case of Bubbles Galore. Even so, in the CHCH-TV case,
the Council refused to be caught in the circular trap of justifying any
violent element on the basis that every violent element in the film would
be needed to drive forward a plot which is based on violence. It stated:

To the extent that a program has violence as itsfundamental premise, the question for the Council is to determine whether thatpremise alone will justify any and all portrayals of violence which thecreators of the program might wish to include in it. To this circularargument, the Council must answer no. If this were the case, Article 1 wouldbe rendered devoid of substance and the Council cannot presume that this wasthe intention of the codifiers.

Gratuitous Violence and the Case at Hand

In the present case, one of the difficulties faced by the
Council is what it considers the rather erratic structure and execution of the
film. While its task has been rendered somewhat more difficult thereby, it is
not the case with respect to the issue of gratuitous violence. It is clear that
the two scenes containing violent elements are atypical of a film whose creators
appear to wish to deal more with eroticism and irony as the basis for their
story. Nonetheless, the tale does involve conflict and this between an
individual who has been created in the stereotypical mould of a Mob-like
gangster (Bubbles' ex-lover) and a relatively defenceless heroine (Bubbles,
perhaps not in an entirely traditional heroic mould) with her flawed “saviour”,
Buck.

In other words, the storyline is such that some physical
violence can readily be understood as being required to drive the plot forward
as a component of the conflict resolution. Unless, in such circumstances, the
violence is so excessive with respect to what is necessary in the evolution of
the tale, it will not be considered gratuitous. That, in the view of the
Council, is the case here. The scene in which the two goons attack Buck is
discomfiting and humiliating, to be sure, if not downright ugly. All things
considered, including the buffoonish, if not cartoonish, nature of the two
thugs, the absence of dangerous weaponry, the lack of blood or other evidence of
significant physical harm, the Council does not view the violence as excessive,
much less gratuitous.

The Rape Scene: The Application of Article 7

In dealing with rape, which is, by definition, an act of
violence, the Council must consider both the general provision in Article 7.1
and the first sentence of Article 7.2, both of which are really a subset of
Article 1.1, and the second sentence of Article 7.2, which provides that
“Broadcasters shall be particularly sensitive not to perpetuate the link
between women in a sexual context and women as victims of violence.”

To some extent, at least in the general context of dealing
with rape, the Ontario Regional Council is assisted in its view of the matter by
previous decisions which it has rendered. In the first of these, CTV re
Complex of Fear
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0022, August 18, 1995), the Council
drew certain conclusions about rape in general terms. It held:

The Regional Council noted four rape scenes in the film.While any scene depicting rape is necessarily awful, the members remarked thatno scene lasted more than several seconds, none depicted the actual rape, andnone glamorized the rape. In fact, scenes following the rapes depicted the consequencesof the rape: the shock and despair of the victims as they related the event tothe police; the occasional refusal of police to accept the characterization ofthe event as a rape; victims' self-doubt as to blame for the occurrence; theimputed role of previous victim behaviour as a contributing factor; and so on.

In no way did these scenes encourage or glorify violenceagainst women. While the film dealt with a form of crime that is defined byviolence against women, the film itself did not depict gratuitous, orunnecessary, violence against women. In other words, the Council affirmed thata film about rape does not necessarily condone rape.

The Council concludes that there is nothing in the scene in
question which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes any aspect of the violence
asserted by the rape scene involving Vivian. Indeed, there is much in the scene
which could be described, as noted earlier, as cartoonish and, in some senses,
the scene is as removed from a realistic depiction of a rape as one could
imagine. During the scene, as an apparent dramatic contrivance of the film's
creator, Vivian remains, as also noted above, detached, unmoved, apparently
unconcerned by the rape which is taking place. It is almost as though she has
occupied a superior psychological position, asserting to the perpetrator that,
“to the extent that you wish, by this act, to assert your control over me,
you have failed. I am unaffected by what you are doing.” When he says that
he will put his penis in her mouth, she simply replies that, if he does so, she
will bite it off. When he takes out a gun and asks her whether she would like
some “lead come”, she is equally unruffled. While there is no denying
the despicable and criminal nature of the act, in the context of the “duelling”
individuals, psychologically speaking, the Council considers that Vivian has had
the upper hand. Moreover, the rape scene demonstrates none of the serious
concerns which the same Council had in the case of CHCH-TV re the movie Strange Days (CBSC Decision 98/99-0043 and 0075, February 3, 1999), in which
the woman was sexually attacked in graphic fashion, with fear and pain writ
large over her every feature, and ultimately strangled to death.

The one scene, though, which has most troubled the Councilis the gruesome strangulation and rape of a woman which, in its length andgraphic presentation, exceeded in the television context what may havebeen necessary to advance the plot. Whether the scene should have been as long(or longer) in the theatrical version is not at issue. For the televisionversion, measured against industry Codes, it is the view of the Council thatit could have been edited without sacrificing any artistic integrity, andought to have been edited in order to be long enough to make its point but notso long as to amount to violence for violence's sake.

If a further element were required to “to perpetuate the
link between women in a sexual context and women as victims of violence”,
the film Strange Days provided it. As the Council put it, “That link
could not be more evident than in a case such as this, where the recording of
the event for sale as a thrill-seeking narcotic is its raison d'être.”
In the circumstances, the Council concluded that “The length and graphic
component of the scene constitute an unacceptable example of gratuitous violence
against women, contrary to Article 7 of the Violence Code.”

Almost none of the elements which permitted the Council to
conclude as it did in the case of Strange Days is present here. All in
all, in terms of the way in which the scene was filmed, together with its
purpose in the development of the film's plot, it is considerably closer in
nature to what the Council reviewed in the case of the motion picture Kids.
In that case, the Ontario Regional Council decided that the lengthy rape scene
was not in violation of the Code for the following reasons.

In this case, the rape scene is quite lengthy, lastingclose to five minutes. It is the final “active” scene of the movie.While, as stated in the decision excerpt quoted above, rape scenes are alwaysdisturbing, the Council notes that this particular scene is neither graphicnor “energized” by violent action or sounds, but rather isdepressingly slow moving and silent and, on another level, haunting. The younggirl who is raped is the one who, throughout the movie, has been coping withthe knowledge that she is carrying the AIDS virus. However unpleasant the rapescene, by virtue of what it represents, the Council does not consider itexplicitly violent. In the Council's view, despite its length, this scenewas integral to the plot's development, including the irony of its settingand the twist of the plot, in the sense of the viral nemesis which willultimately be suffered by the rapist. For these reasons, coupled with theabsence of a graphic or explicit presentation of this scene, the Councilconsiders that it not gratuitous, and that it did not otherwise sanction,promote or glamorize violence.

Here, too, disturbing as the scene is, in no small measure
resulting from the fact that Vivian is so unaffected by the violent act
portrayed in the scene, a circumstance in which one would be inclined to project
a more emotional reaction onto her, the Council considers that Vivian represents
the film's triumph of Woman over Man in the world of the “pornographic
arts”. Calm and collected is portrayed by the filmmaker as superior to
unruly and uncontrolled. This aspect of the film, like many others, is a
caricature, structured to make a point (whether well or badly). In some senses
there is no violence intended to be seen as real, much less glamorized. This
scene, while an unenviable component of an unenviable film, does not amount to a
breach of the Violence Code.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the
complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster
to the substance of the complaint. In this case, the Council commends the
broadcaster on its thorough and detailed response. Although the complainant was
not convinced by the arguments of the Showcase representative, the Council does
believe that the broadcaster addressed fully and fairly all the issues raised by
the complainant and, consequently, has not breached the Council's standard of
responsiveness. Nothing more is required.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.