This is How It Should Work: 'The World's End' Letter from the Censor
This is how it should be in the United States. This is how the MPAA should operate. Technically speaking, I guess I don't actually know if this is how they do work, or if these kind of exchanges happen and if this is the kind of polite discussion that arises when filmmakers are looking to obain a certain MPAA rating. However, everyone knows that's not the case. We all know the MPAA rates with an over-generalized system and foul language alone can earn a movie an R-rating despite containing no other offensive content. Edgar Wright recently posted the note he received from the British Board of Film Classification when he asked them for help/guidance while writing the script for The World's End, the Cornetto Trilogy finale out this month.
Edgar explained on his own blog that, back in 2011 when he was writing the screenplay for The World's End with Simon Pegg, he emailed the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) requesting their help figuring out how they could use the word "cunt" in their dialogue without getting the "18" rating (somewhat equivalent to the "R" rating in the US). In his letter, Edgar wrote: "I know that this word appeared once only in both Shaun & Hot Fuzz, but is it the case that using the word more than once would push the film from a 15 to an 18? Love to find out what the guidelines are." Here is the response he received back from the BBFC:
Dear Mr Wright,
Thank you for your email, which Hammad Khan has passed on to me.
The BBFC's Guidelines at '15' state 'The strongest terms (for example, 'cunt') may be acceptable if justified by the context. Aggressive or repeated use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable'.
As a general rule, it is highly unusual for the BBFC to permit more than three or four uses of very strong language at '15' in a feature length work. In terms of context, it is more likely that we would pass throwaway, matter-of-fact, or comic uses than uses that are aggressive, personally directed, or accompanied by complicating factors such as violence, threat, racism, or a power imbalance (for example, male to female uses are more of a problem than the other way around). In an extreme case, even a single aggressive use can push a film to '18' (for example, if a man were hitting a woman and calling her a cunt, or a man of one race hitting a person of a different race and using very strong language in combination with racist terms). Similarly, putting several uses together in a very short space of time may breach the 'repeated' section of our Guidelines and cause problems at '15'. It is generally better if uses are spread out somewhat.
As you say, we passed a single use in SHAUN OF THE DEAD because the use in question was throwaway, unthreatening, and essentially a term of endearment amongst friends ("Can I get any of you cunts a drink?"). In the case of HOT FUZZ we actually permitted two uses, one spoken and one written. First of all, we see the word 'cunt' on the list of prohibited terms on the swearbox in the police station and then we hear "What a cunt" when a man tells his friend about a man who sold drugs to kids. In the first case, the use was written (which reduces its impact) and of course lacked any aggression. In the second case, the use was not aggressive and was not personally directed but instead uttered about a person who is not present at the time.
So, the answer to your question is that it is possible to receive a '15' with three or four uses, provided they are not aggressive or threatening or complicated by any kind of power imbalance. However, it's best not to concentrate them together into a short outburst and we'd certainly caution against more than three or four uses.
I hope that's helpful to you.
I love it. This is how things should work with the MPAA. They should be this polite and considerate. There's so much thoughtful insight and contemplation put into something as simple as using the word "cunt" in a movie it's kind of remarkable to see. On one hand, I could argue that it's just a word and it shouldn't be such a big issue to begin with, but if they have to regulate something, then at least they care how it's used in context and if it's "complicated by any kind of power imbalance" which is a rather interesting note on usage.
I'm sure if anyone from the MPAA were to be asked about this kind of consideration, they would say they put just as much thought and care and concern into how they rate movies here in the US. But I don't believe that. I don't believe it for a second. As far as I can recall, I've never heard of anyone coming out and posting their correspondence with the MPAA showing they actually made a smart call based on context. Instead, all we hear about are the endless fights and ratings debacles over the use of one bad word, and the occasional story about the filmmaker who convinced them to get a PG-13 despite excessive violence. Maybe one day in the future the MPAA will clean up its act and get on the right track with their ratings. Until then, The World's End remains rated R by the MPAA in the US "for pervasive language including sexual references."