The Hays Code part 2: What are we even talking about, here?

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This week, New 32 co-founder Charlie Monroe provides some context on her thoughts regarding the Hays Code, in part two of a three-part series.

If you have no idea why I am writing about the “Hays Code debate,” here’s a three-sentence summary to get you caught up:

  1. Earlier this year, some discourse went viral on Twitter, Tumblr, and TikTok.
  2. This discourse—which didn’t start in 2023 but certainly picked up steam—revolved around people’s discomfort with nudity and sex in movies, whether or not these scenes are necessary or appropriate for the tastes of a modern audience, and whether or not it would be a good idea to simply ban explicit scenes altogether. 
  3. Some people concluded that the Hays Code, a self-enforced set of Christian-conservative moral standards that practically dictated what could or couldn’t be shown in Hollywood movies between the 1930s and 1960s, should be reinstated to address these concerns.

Last week, my colleague gave a concise overview of the history of the Hays Code, which almost spoke for itself as an argument against bringing it back. But today, I want to talk about this discourse in more depth. I want to look critically at what this debate is really about—in all its many facets—and acknowledge its inherent silliness, while also responding empathetically to legitimate criticism of sex scenes in movies. 

Lastly, I want to offer my personal perspective as a trans survivor of sexual trauma as to why banning these scenes (even for ostensibly “good” reasons) is a misconceived notion, both on the face of it and as it pertains to the larger reactionary movement in our country that is currently using “decency” as a dog whistle to ban LGBTQ and BIPOC content, as, indeed, the Hays Code did in the mid-20th century.

This is going to be a two-part article, as before I can really get to any of my arguments, I need to provide more context for what I am even arguing against. Starting with an obvious fact:

 

BRINGING THE HAYS CODE BACK WOULD BE RIDICULOUSLY ILL-CONCEIVED—BUT YOU ALREADY KNEW THAT.

If you clicked on this article, chances are you already know that bringing back the Hays Code—like, reinstating the actual, full-on text of the original Hays Code—would be ludicrous. If you don’t, there are approximately one hundred million billion gajillion articles/blogs detailing the subject from every possible angle: the Hays Code was homophobic; it was misogynistic; it was Islamophobic; it was racist; it was bad for artistic freedom; it was rife with extremely funny and arcane rules. On the face of it, a sincere argument for this code’s reinstatement is a regressive, reactionary, ahistorical argument. It’s an argument that is pinned on the two great hallmarks of all reactionary belief, first lamenting the perceived deterioration of moral standards in society, followed by an invocation of nostalgic fantasy for the “good old days” when society was classier and more civil. But there’s the thing:

 

THIS DEBATE IS (MOSTLY) NOT ABOUT THE HAYS CODE ITSELF.

I don’t think very many people actually want to bring the full Hays Code back to life. That’s not really what this debate is about. Rather, this is a debate that is laser-focused on sex and nudity. We don’t see a lot of people engaging with the other elements of the Hays Code, arguing that movies were better when there was a ban on interracial couples, or mandating that homosexuality always be cast in a villainous light (both of which were staples of the original code). 

Now don’t get me wrong: there are absolutely a ton of conservative weirdos who do think that way: who, for example, balked at casting a Black actress in The Little Mermaid, and decried the elevation of female protagonists in the Star Wars sequels. These people would probably love to see all non-straight, non-white, non-cis representation removed from their movies altogether. There is a vicious, lively reactionary movement in the U.S. today. But these guys aren’t necessarily the same people who are engaged in the Hays Code discourse. 

Based on what I’ve observed, the Hays Code discourse is being propagated by young social media users who are baffled by a perceived preponderance of sex in movies. For them, “Hays Code” is a memetic phrase; it’s shorthand: rhetorical synecdoche for their desire to see sex scenes reduced or entirely removed, and while I don’t ultimately find their arguments persuasive, I do think they are worth examining on their own merits

 

THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE SHOULDN’T BE LEERY OF THIS KIND OF RHETORIC.

As a trans person in film, I know for a fact that any widespread ban on “indecency” will be weaponized against mine and many other communities. But since I think it’s unlikely that any of this online Hays Code discourse will actually lead to any kind of actionable ban—unless it is somehow folded into the aforementioned larger attack on marginalized rights in this country—I want to take a look at the reasons that someone would feel so strongly opposed to sex and nudity in their media. In Part 2 of this article, I will get more into this sinister overton window stuff.

 

SOME ARGUMENTS I’VE SEEN AGAINST SEX AND NUDITY IN FILM THAT AREN’T ABOUT GODLESS MORAL DEGENERACY:

  • Explicit sex scenes are really really uncomfortable for some viewers to watch, and since they are unnecessary to the plot, why have them? This begs all sorts of interesting questions about what the purpose of a sex scene is, or ought to be, in a film’s narrative, and whether every element of a movie needs to have an express narrative purpose to begin with.
  • Sex/nude scenes contribute to chauvinistic depictions of women in film, and perhaps to the mistreatment of women in real life by baking the objectification of women into the social milieu. Also, sex/nude scenes contribute to the mistreatment of actors, especially young women who are told that this is how to get ahead in their careers. I think both of these arguments deserve a very thoughtful consideration, even if I disagree with the proposed solution of banning these scenes altogether.
  • Sex scenes are alienating to asexual viewers. Seeing as the ace community is often invisible within the scope of queer discourse, I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that allosexual preferences have led to a presumption that sex will be inherently compelling to viewers.
  • If you remove these scenes, filmmakers are forced to write better, more compelling female characters.
  • On the really extreme end of things, I have seen it proposed (albeit not by a huge amount of people) that sex/nude scenes could perhaps constitute a violation of viewers’ consent, which—yeah—misunderstands consent on a fundamental level, but is worth addressing for those who have felt triggered by a scene they’ve come across (which has definitely happened to me).

You can already see, within this list, that people are approaching this conversation from myriad perspectives, not all of which can be simply waved away as a bunch of religious nerds or Gen Z puritans getting riled up over nothing. I want to offer a more thoughtful rebuttal to some of these points, as well as a personal explanation for why I personally do see inherent value in sex and nudity in film (if portrayed responsibility).

So now that I’ve properly contextualized the terms of the debate that I think is worth having, that’s what I’ll be writing about next week. Stay tuned, I guess.

 

P.S. ONE LAST LOOSE THOUGHT I COULDN’T FIT ANYWHERE ELSE:

I think it’s pretty debatable that Hollywood movies are disproportionately hyper-sexualized in the first place. To me, a lot of recent mainstream cinema has actually been rather sexless—look no further than the ubiquity and box office dominance of Marvel/Disney. Frankly, I think movies in the 2010s and 2020s are already cow-towing to pretty prudish values, owing in part to the consolidation of the industry into a few giant mega-companies, which are always concerned about broad appeal.

Molly

Molly

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