Friday 13 February 2015

Making history

If New Zealand's Censor had not banned Cradle of Filth's famous nun t-shirt, it would not be a t-shirt of historic significance. And it would then not have been worth including in the Canterbury Museum exhibit on the history of t-shirts in New Zealand.

But the New Zealand Censor did ban that t-shirt. It wasn't the first banned t-shirt, but it was the first that got much press. That not only makes the t-shirt a t-shirt of historic and cultural significance, it also makes New Zealand an international laughingstock. And so any museum exhibit of historic t-shirts has to include it.

The Taxpayers' Union put out a press release condemning the use of ratepayer money to pay for a $13 t-shirt.

If you read the Censor's Office decision, it clearly took a bit of work. Here's the text:
The injury to the public good that is likely to be caused by the availability of this T-shirt originates from the manner in which it associates an aggressive and misogynistic meaning of the "harsh, brutal and generally unacceptable" word "cunt" with Jesus Christ, and depicts an image of a chaste woman engaging in sexual activity. A fair interpretation of the messages conveyed by this T-shirt is that Christians should be vilified for their religious beliefs, and that women, including chaste and celibate women, cannot stop themselves engaging in sexual activity. The image on the front of the T-shirt read with the words on the front and back degrade and demean women in terms of s3(3)(c) of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (FVPC Act), and represent Christians as inherently inferior to other members of the public by reason of a characteristic that is a prohibited ground of discrimination specified in the Human Rights Act 1993, namely religious belief, in terms of s3(3)(e) of the FVPC Act.
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 has been balanced against the criteria as discussed in s3(3)(c) and s3(3)(e) of the FVPC Act. 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. The classification given to this publication represents the minimum interference with freedom of expression that is consistent with preventing likely injury to the public good.
They elaborated on the decision in a blog post earlier this month. Other t-shirts might have gotten an R13 rating, but how can you age-restrict the seeing of a worn t-shirt?
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 below 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 Cradle of Filth one, though, was deemed outright objectionable. Anyone found knowingly in possession of objectionable material can get 5 years in jail.

If you click the link at the top of the page, you'll find an American shop selling the t-shirt for about $13 - the cost to which the Taxpayers Union objected. I think there are some rather more substantial costs at play.

I do not believe that the images from the t-shirt are separately classified as objectionable, though they well could be. So be careful. Because this part of New Zealand is in a much crazier part of the asylum than most places.

At least the Ministry of Arts, Heritage and Culture is more sane....


  1. This press release from Family First showed up in one of my Google Alerts the other day. This sounds more like something to be embarrassed about than something to be proud of:

    "Family Group Lays Police Complaint Re Offensive Shirt"