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Movie Posters in Controversy: Banned, Censored, Analyzed

Updated on July 15, 2014

The intention of this article is to cover, review, and comment on some of the most prominent controversial movie posters released in the United States. For the time being, I've skipped posters that were banned in the U.K. because their reasons for censoring or banning movie posters reflects differently on them as a society (though I do have one odd exception in here). Those movie posters that are controversial in the United States usually serve as a commentary on cultural standards. Some of these movie posters may have been banned, censored, rejected by the MPAA, or simply been at the heart of some other controversy. I've provided as much detail as possible.

If you know of other movie posters that have come under some kind of controversial scrutiny, please feel free to provide that information in the comments section and, if possible, provide a link to any information and I'll add it to this list. I'd like it to be as comprehensive a list of controversial movie posters as possible.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo teaser poster (2011)
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo teaser poster (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Although not banned, this movie poster caused a great deal of controversy upon its release. The controversy was twofold: the nudity of the poster and the juxtaposition of the characters in terms of their roles in the story.

The first issue is fairly straight-forward since few, if any, movie posters contain nudity. Here, actress Rooney Mara's breast is visible, as is the nipple piercing. However, what struck many more people about the poster is the fact that Daniel Craig's character, Mikael Blomkvist, appears in a dominant position. Lisbeth Salander is in a submissive position. This is hardly representative of the story, where Lisbeth is the tough one and hardly the huggable type. It's something of an insult to her character that she appears this way.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno banned poster (2008)
Zack and Miri Make a Porno banned poster (2008)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

This movie poster was rejected by the MPAA, though it was used in Canada. At issue, obviously, is the appearance at the bottom of the poster that oral sex is being performed on Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks. However, it's not like the title itself doesn't suggest a bit of impropriety (and actually, the title was a controversy in itself and was changed in some instances). Furthermore, the actors are clothed, making oral sex somewhat improbable (though more likely for Rogan). Although I like Kevin Smith and most of his films, I think this poster could have been better designed. That being said, it's hard to believe that the MPAA wouldn't expect a movie with this title to have a controversial poster and then freak out over this poster, which seems pretty tame.

Saw 2 banned teaser poster (2005)
Saw 2 banned teaser poster (2005)

Saw 2 (2005)

The MPAA's issue with this poster was that you could tell that the fingers have been cut off. Thus, it was rejected. The poster that replaces this one simply shows two fingers from much closer and the viewer cannot see that they're not attached to the hand. However, the fingers are dirty and the fingernails are broken, so one can certainly make the leap that some degree of abuse has taken place.

Overall, it's a dull poster, but it's dull because if you're a fan, you already know what the film is about and if you're not a fan, you probably don't go see the sequel. The point is, the "Saw" series has a built in fan base and whether the poster features a severed head or a picture of a teddy bear, fans are going to go see it. While the MPAA probably didn't take this into consideration when it rejected the poster, the rejection made no difference one way or the other and just saved people from having to stare at severed fingers.

The Road to Guantanamo banned poster (2006)
The Road to Guantanamo banned poster (2006)

The Road to Guantanamo (2006)

The banning of this poster highlights the kind of hypocrisy that makes the MPAA a joke to many people. The poster that was ultimately approved by the MPAA has everything in it except for the head with the burlap sack over the head. A spokesperson for the MPAA explained that this poster showed torture, which was not appropriate for those in a theater who might be exposed to it. In other words, a child in a theater who was there to see, say, "Winnie the Pooh" might have to look at this poster and would be shocked or scared or whatever. Hey, I understand. That would certainly be a reasonable rationale if there weren't a million horror film posters with much stronger images. Thus, it's not exactly clear what kind of logic was used in banning this poster.

Rules of Attraction banned poster (2002)
Rules of Attraction banned poster (2002)

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

It's probably telling to point out that although this poster was banned in the United States, it was allowed in both Canada and Great Britain. Obviously, when it comes to sex, sexual innuendo, or anything else related to sex, the United States demonstrates its repressive nature with this sort of censorship. Undoubtedly, the rationale used here was connected to the fact that these were children's toys in adult positions.

In terms of the poster's usefulness in advertising the movie, I would say this is a great poster. It is certainly good for a laugh. For a film that's a dark comedy, it seems entirely appropriate. The film was directed by Roger Avary, who was credited with writing the story for "Pulp Fiction". The movie is based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis. Given this film's dark pedigree, the poster works.

Goldeneye (1995)
Goldeneye (1995)

Goldeneye (1995)

Something that becomes evident even in a short article such as this one is that the MPAA doesn't seem to have much tolerance for guns when they are pointed at people. In the case of this James Bond entry, the gun was pointed directly at the audience at that was the case for its being banned. The subsequent poster featured James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) pointing his gun up in the air.

Comparing the two posters, one definitely gets the sense from the banned poster that Bond is a much more threatening character. In the replacement poster, the emphasis clearly shifts to Bond's role as a ladies' man. The gun becomes something of an accoutrement. It's a very interesting change, yet is somewhat distasteful in that the violence inherent in the movie is sublimated. The MPAA would probably argue that exposing children to the idea of pointing a gun at somebody is irresponsible and could potentially be disconcerting to some.

The poster was not banned in most international markets.

The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Little Mermaid (1989)

If you are familiar with controversial movie posters, then you may be familiar with this one for "The Little Mermaid". The issue with the poster is that there's a spire in the castle that resembles a phallus. As a result, Disney changed the posters for some home video releases.

The issue of how and why the supposed phallus got into the poster is a matter of media and public invention. The truth is that the resemblance was inadvertent. The myth around this poster is much more interesting and surrounds a disgruntled Disney employee who, when he found he was being laid off, drew the phallus to get back at the company.

The phallus was discovered about a year after the film's initial release and the rumor about its origin spread.

Couples Retreat poster (2009)
Couples Retreat poster (2009)

Couples Retreat (2009)

Although the controversy surrounding this poster was in the U.K., I'm including it because usually movie posters get changed for American audiences and not the other way around. In this case, the change to this poster was that the African-American couple (played by Faizon Love and Keli Hawk) was taken out of the poster.

Universal received enough complaints of racism from British viewers that the studio scrapped plans to use the poster elsewhere. Certainly, the removal of the couple represents some serious stupidity on the part of the studio, but it's interesting to note that the American poster features the couple... in the back of the poster. It's also racist in a certain way, though the subtlety of that racism went unnoticed and undiscussed.

Censored A Clockwork Orange poster (1971)
Censored A Clockwork Orange poster (1971)

Again, this poster demonstrates the differences in sexual mores between America and much of the rest of the world. This is the original poster, which shows a nude woman in the middle of the triangle. She is the statue from the Korova Milk Bar.

This poster was used in much of Europe. In the American poster, the woman is wearing a bra and panties. The poster was designed by Bill Gold, who has designed thousands of movie posters, among them: Mystic River, J. Edgar, The Jazz Singer, Barry Lyndon, and The Exorcist.

As the movie itself is considered a landmark in the presentation of sexuality and violence, it's probably not surprising that the poster was a bit controversial and ultimately censored. In subsequent versions of the poster, the image of the Korova Milk Bar woman was taken out altogether.

Taxi to the Dark Side poster (2007)
Taxi to the Dark Side poster (2007)

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Like "The Road to Guantanamo", the issue with this poster is the prisoner in the hood. The MPAA rejected the poster because of the hood, explaining that the poster depicted torture and it was inappropriate for children to see. Obviously, this is pretty amazing considering some of the stuff on other movie posters, particularly some sexual stuff. Not surprisingly, the filmmaker, Alex Gibney, was unhappy, and had this to say:

"Not permitting us to use an image of a hooded man that comes from a documentary photograph is censorship, pure and simple. Intentional or not, the MPAA's disapproval of the poster is a political act, undermining legitimate criticism of the Bush administration. I agree that the image is offensive; it's also real."

What a Girl Wants Poster (2003)
What a Girl Wants Poster (2003)

What a Girl Wants (2003)

Unlike many of the posters on this list, this one was not censored or banned by the MPAA. The poster pictured here is the one the studio was going to use prior to changing it. In this case, Warner Bros. decided that showing Amanda Bynes giving the peace symbol might have been interpreted as a war protest (remember, it was 2003 and U.S. troops were fully engaged in Iraq). Consequently, the poster was changed so that Bynes' arm was down at her side.

It's a little ridiculous to think that anyone would think that an Amanda Bynes movie would have a political message, but who knows what goes through the minds of studio executives. The character Bynes plays discovers her father is a wealthy British politician. Thus, the American flag on the shirt. However, the peace sign really has no meaning in this context, so perhaps they removed it as much for stupidity as anything else.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)

Once again, the MPAA saw fit to ban this poster based on the fact that Nicolas Cage's character is pointing a gun at another character. Like the James Bond poster discussed above. the MPAA takes issue with the violence implied by a gun pointed at somebody, but no problem with a gun in general.

This poster is much more shocking than the poster that was ultimately used for the film. The official poster is your typical, boring film poster with large images of the faces of Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes. The film is about a character who is a very bad cop. The banned poster perfectly conveys that as Cage is pointing a gun at one character and apparently stealing a necklace off another.

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)
The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

Of the posters that have been rejected by the MPAA, this one might be the most ridiculous. The change that was made from this poster and the official posters was that instead of a showing a hand reaching out of a bag, the official poster shows a pair of legs.

While I don't know the exact reasoning behind this, based on their other decisions, one could assume that the MPAA made the argument that a live person in a bag implies torture while a dead person in a bag does not imply torture. If that isn't splitting hairs, I'm not sure what is.

Both posters display a pretty high level of brutality and it's hard to understand why either was allowed. However, the rejected poster certain raises the level of horror.

Yogi Bear poster (2010)
Yogi Bear poster (2010)

Yogi Bear (2010)

I've got to find something to say about this poster that's reasonably long because, for whatever reason, the poster itself is long. If I don't stretch out the commentary on "Yogi Bear" then the formatting of my entire article will be off. Just saying.

So, this is the second controversial movie poster featuring bears, which seems an odd coincidence. Not only that, but it's the second movie poster featuring bears in which copulation is the controversial issue. Believe it or not, the catch phrase of this poster "Great things come in bears" was thought by some to be a double entendre.

Personally, it should have been more of a controversy that the film was in 3D, which seems a completely pointless use of 3D. Anyway, it's probable that the intent of the poster was to attract a combination of young and old. Since the original fans of Yogi, who made his debut in 1958, were not exactly the target audience for this film, it's not impossible to think that somebody thought the risque nature of the poster might raise some eyebrows.

Although it was critically panned, the film did break the $100 million mark, so perhaps it worked.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

Well, just a tiny bit of irony here. Basically, a film whose subject is censorship has its poster rejected by the MPAA due to the provocative nature of the image. Once again, the poster was only banned in the United States. Everywhere else, this was the official poster.

Several different stories came out in regard to the poster. Columbia Studios maintained a middle-of-the-road story, saying that the banned poster was only one of several they were considering, while all the filmmakers and star Woody Harrelson said they preferred the more provocative poster.

According to director Milos Forman, then president of the MPAA Jack Valenti told him that he was concerned that the poster would inflame conservative forces and he, Valenti, needed to be wary of that.

I Spit on Your Grave (2009)
I Spit on Your Grave (2009)

I Spit on Your Grave (2009)

Of all the banned, rejected, and/or censored posters discussed in this article, this one is probably the most deserving. The film is about the brutal torture and rape of a woman. This poster actually has the audacity to titillate the viewer with the backside of the woman.

While there is an element of revenge in the film, the implication of the poster itself is that the purpose of the movie is to watch the woman get raped (which is actually the point of the movie). The movie was widely criticized as disgusting, so the poster is actually in keeping with the poor taste of the whole thing.

Audiences may have seen through the entire thing as the film did very poorly at the box office.

The Outlaw (1943)
The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw (1943)

Although tepid by today's standards, the controversy over "The Outlaw" was one of the more famous film controversies, though it was very much inflamed by the film's own director. The poster itself wasn't targeted any more than the movie itself. The objection overall was about the focus on Jane Russell's bosom.

Interestingly, the film was directed by none other than Howard Hughes. Yes, that Howard Hughes. Howard Hawks was co-director, but was uncredited. Though the MPAA didn't exist then, the Hays code was in effect. The Hays code basically was the censorship code that explained what was acceptable and not acceptable in movies.

Since Hughes had problems getting the film approved, he manufactured a lot of opposition to the film in order to get it released. The call for the film to be banned created the necessary interest in it to get it released, which it was in 1943, though it had been completed in 1941.

Which movie poster do you find most controversial?

See results


Submit a Comment
  • GetitScene profile image

    Dale Anderson 

    21 months ago from The High Seas

    Interesting stuff. I am a fan and collector of movie posters but I never thought of doing an article like this one.

  • crankalicious profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Colorado

    Thanks for the comments, Jeff. But liberal agenda? What is that agenda exactly? Or is just that artists tend to be liberal? People in open, creative communities are likely to hold liberal views, I think. And liberal artistic expression sells much better than conservative expression.

  • profile image

    Jeff Chamberlain 

    6 years ago

    As a clarification these are not "banned" as in disallowed by the government for display, they have simply been rejected by the MPAA as you indicate in each case. Also as pointed out the MPAA can be inconsistent, and often at odds with common sense. Do no apply these properties to Americans as you did several times. These are the actual movie studios themselves making these choices (,and we know the liberal agenda Hollywood holds. I'm amazed anything get out at all unless its from the 6 studios making up the organization.

  • marstoblog profile image


    6 years ago from Hitchin, England

    Very interesting hub, thanks!

  • supermanparadis profile image

    Drew Paradis 

    6 years ago from New England

    Great hub! I actually still have the Saw II original somewhere in my basement. You know have something good when you put up a poster and within days you receive notice from the film company to "Take down and destroy" 1 sheets. I always keep them when I get that notice!


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