Let’s just get this out of the way: the Hays Code was awful. It was sexist, racist, homophobic nonsense that set film back decades and reinforced a lot of cruel moralizing that weakened the gaps between art and faith, thus ensuring decades of culture war bullshit. It baffles me that I even have to say this in 2023. Anyone who knows anything about the history of Hollywood is well aware of how the code caused so much damage to the art form of cinema. Yet a tedious strain of online scorn and politically tangled discourse has seen way too many people acting as though what pop culture needs in the 21st century is a return to mandated puritanism.
ðŸ§µthis is a fascinating defense of the Hays Code to me, a person who has thought extensively about how the Hays Code changed the texture of life in America across multiple decades— Katharine Coldiron ðŸŒŸ (@ferrifrigida) February 13, 2023
(preface: I am not in favor of the Hays Code and these ppl are nuts) 1/ https://t.co/GcY1rtpNGa
It feels like, every few weeks or so, we get another viral hot take on Twitter from someone who bemoans the apparent overload of unnecessary sex scenes in film and TV, and how they think such things just shouldn’t exist. I’m curious as to what these people are watching since modern-day entertainment is extremely tame and sex scenes have seldom been so absent from even adult-oriented programming. This discourse is tedious, yes, and rooted in a version of pop culture that doesn’t seem to exist today, but it also exposes the romanticizing of the ‘good old days’ that has led to Hays Code rose-tints. It’s not just Twitter either. Jonathan Ross, the British comedian and sometime critic, wrote a staggeringly block-headed defense of the Code-era Hollywood for Sight & Sound that echoes many of the arguments you see online. The insistence that somehow films today are in need of censorship to make them more ‘creatively fulfilling’ is laughable and utterly ahistorical.
Really loving this new era of "What if right-wing cultural views, but from middle-brow 21st-century liberals?" https://t.co/QGN4D1qZdH— Robert Skvarla (@RobertSkvarla) August 22, 2021
The Hays Code was introduced to Hollywood in 1930 but not rigidly enforced until around 1934. The Motion Picture Production Code was intended to be self-regulated guidelines for films to ensure ‘acceptable’ content for American audiences. After a series of scandals in the ’20s, including Fatty Arbuckle being accused of rape and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, a number of Christian and political groups decried the movie business as being amoral deviance (and boy, did they love to blame it on the primarily Jewish studio heads.) State censorship of films was common, which meant that studios often had to find a way to comply with up to 37 different state regulators. Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays, Postmaster General under former President Warren G. Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee, was brought in by studio heads to clean up Hollywood’s image. His pre-code list of recommendations include getting rid of ‘pointed profanity’, ‘any inference of sex perversion,’ ‘ridicule of the clergy’, and ‘miscegenation.’
By 1934, the Production Code Administration had been established, and it was headed by Joseph Breen. He enforced the Code with an iron fist. He demanded the removal of any explicit reference to sex between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. He banned the production of a number of anti-Nazi films, citing the rule against depicting ‘in an unfavorable light’ another country’s institutions (that aged well.) He said kisses couldn’t last longer than three seconds. Some films found interesting ways to circumnavigate the Code. Alfred Hitchcock had the leads of Notorious kiss for three seconds then break it off then continue, giving us one of the most passionate scenes of the ’40s. Other studio heads just didn’t submit their films for a seal of approval. One of the big defences of the Code is the notion that it made filmmakers more creative. You couldn’t show sex so you hinted at it, played in the margins of sensuality. It did inspire some great films but they were great despite the code, not because of it.
The Code fell into decline in the ’50s, as filmmakers like Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder started to act as though it didn’t exist and had box office hits in spite of that disapproval. America was getting a tad more liberal, and the studio system was falling apart, allowing for new artistic endeavours to shine. We started to see films deal more candidly with sex, queerness, and with race. Movies like Victim openly tackled the damage that homophobia caused, something the Code decried. Moreover, audiences wanted to see films like this. They wanted Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Some Like It Hot and The Man with the Golden Arm. The Code was eventually abandoned in the early 1960s and replaced with the MPAA’s ratings system. That’s a whole other mess for a whole other article.
The Hays Code was bigoted to the bone. Female characters were usually the ones who suffered the most under the rule against ‘sex perversion’, which is why you see so many films where the seductive dame must die before the credits roll. The banning of miscegenation helped to erase people of colour from film in any sort of role that wasn’t a racist stereotype. Anna May Wong, one of the few Asian stars in 1930s Hollywood, wasn’t allowed to play the lead in The Good Earth, a drama about Chinese farmers, because her romantic co-star was a white man in yellowface and the Code wouldn’t allow her to kiss him on-screen. So they cast a white woman, who then won an Oscar for her troubles. Even the vaguest suggestion of queerness on-screen was to be snuffed out or demonized. This was how the Code worked. These weren’t accidental consequences of its enforcement. The ‘clean’ image of Hollywood that politicians, religious groups, and scornful campaigners the land over wanted was one of conservative whiteness, straightness, and patriarchal rule.
Let’s be blunt here: the yearning for what is tantamount to puritanical censorship only further emboldens right-wing bigots who are currently engaged in mass political criminalization of marginalized communities. There’s little difference between insisting that ‘clean’ entertainment is progressively minded and watching Tucker Carlson rant about drag queen storytime. You cannot separate the Code’s abstracts from its racist, sexist, and homophobic intentions. The point was to erase any form of disruption from the screen and from culture as a whole. We live in the aftermath of the Code, of its bigotry and the ways it revealed how groups with enough outrage and power can demand that the world act as they wish. I see the Catholic League’s pleasure in the Code in modern-day losers tweeting about how queer people in a post-apocalyptic setting is ‘woke’. It’s present in every politician trying to criminalize drag and gender non-conforming identities to ‘protect the children.’
I do not need to hear wistful defences of censorship from tender dorks who can’t just watch something else. The Code never truly went away, as the MPAA consistently demands cuts from films with sexual content. Major Hollywood productions still shy away from any kind of depictions of queer people that go beyond unthreatening stereotypes. Diversity is growing on-screen but at a slow pace and is almost always pushed back against by the same wannabe culture warriors who know its power as a gateway to radicalisation for the masses. I’d argue that movies have never been tamer than they are now, with PG-13 compliant bloodless violence and gorgeous Ken doll physiques on actors devoid of true sensual allure and the opportunity to display some. Corporatized mass entertainment is a step forward from Code-compliance but it’s not truly transgressive, and we don’t have many real options for radical art.
If you don’t like a thing then fine, you do you, but don’t advocate for the enforcement of mass censorship that would lead to its removal from the cultural conversation. That’s true loser behaviour and I’ve no time for it. Don’t pretend that your desires are anything less than staid puritanism with a Tumblr-friendly sheen.