The Hays Code

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Sex in movies and TV is a hot topic right now. Actor Penn Badgley recently stated that he told You showrunners that he didn’t want to film unclothed sex scenes, citing the fidelity in his marriage. On Twitter—and across the internet—this has contributed to an already active conversation about Hollywood and its portrayal of intimacy. Some people are outright decrying explicit sex scenes in media, claiming it does nothing to further the plot and that, from a story standpoint, the same thing could be communicated through a tasteful fade to black. Others went as far as to invoke the Hays Code, saying that it’s high time we bring it back.

Penn Badgley (and any actor) should always have the right to say “no” to a sex scene, and viewers are certainly entitled to their feelings of discomfort around explicit sex scenes. There are myriad needed conversations about how to create safe sets and protect actors from being pressured to expose themselves. But the proposal of banning sex scenes entirely and even reviving the Hays Code is—to put it lightly—a really, really bad idea. We think (we hope) that most people calling for the return of the Hays Code don’t understand what, exactly, this restrictive set of guidelines was. Today, I’ll talk more about what specifically the Hays Code was, and next week, New 32 co-founder Charlie Monroe will share her thoughts on why it definitely shouldn’t come back today under any circumstances.


What is the Hays Code?

To define it simply, the Hays Code—or the Motion Picture Production Code—was a set of industry guidelines. It was ostensibly created to help major production companies self-censor their work in order to stop the government from censoring film. It was enforced between 1934 and 1968, but its history begins before that.


What is the history of the Hays Code?

In 1915, a court case ruled that free speech did not cover motion pictures, because movies were solely a business and not an art form. (We know, it makes us mad too.) But this ruling meant that the government had the right to censor films, which obviously the studios did not want. 

In 1927, there was a proposed list of things that either shouldn’t be featured in film at all, or should be portrayed with an extremely light touch. This list ranged from obvious things like profanity, nudity, and “any inference of sex perversion” to things like men and women being in bed together at all and “ridicule of the clergy.”

You may already be able to see some of the problems with these recommendations. We’ll get into it more next week, but obviously some of these edicts limit a lot more than just artistic expression. Especially when we get into things like the loosely-defined “sex perversion” (not to mention banning the portrayal of interracial relationships) things get… well, a little dicey.

In 1934, the Production Code Administration, or the PCA, was founded. Essentially, Hollywood movies would follow these guidelines, and the PCA would give them their stamp of approval.

This list of don’ts and be carefuls was formalized into the Hays Code in 1934. The first “general principle” of the code was that “no motion picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” This becomes sinister when you start thinking about what “morality” means and who gets to set those standards. In this case, it was Christian—specifically Catholic—morality that was being measured. Part of not lowering the moral standards of the viewer meant not ever having them sympathize with criminals, and always having the bad guys lose in the end. Considering that homosexuality was only federally legalized in the US in 2003 (yes, you read that right), this sweeping moral imposition limited the types of people who could be portrayed “sympathetically” on-screen to mainly straight protagonists. Again, we’ll get more into this next week, but it feels worth pointing out how problematic this is here.

For the next few decades, the Hays Code was just how Hollywood movies were made. This didn’t apply to independent films—it was self-censorship, not actual governmental law—but those films often weren’t widely distributed, so almost all movies in theaters and shows on TV followed these strict rules. It’s why we always saw Lucy and Ricky sleeping in separate beds; it’s why Rick made Ilsa leave Casablanca. Of course, plenty of good film and TV were made during these years, but if you watch carefully you’ll notice the ways in which the creators had to be cautious in their portrayals, not just of sex and sexuality, but of basically everything that appears on screen.


How did the Hays Code end?

The Hays Code didn’t so much end as it faded away. For example, Some Like it Hot featured plenty of things that would lower the viewer’s moral standing; it didn’t earn a stamp of approval from the PCA, but it went on to become a huge hit. By the 60s, movies with things that flagrantly broke the Hays Code—including homosexual characters—were getting approved by the PCA with minimal edits. Things that were considered deeply offensive in the 30s were simply not regarded the same way in the 60s. 

In 1968, Hollywood abandoned the Hays Code for good and formed the Motion Picture Association of America, which formed the rating system we still use today. This rating system allowed for filmmakers to be as daring as they wanted to while still making sure viewers didn’t consume content they weren’t comfortable with. (The MPAA isn’t perfect—it also engages in tactics of puritanical moral enforcement, particularly when it comes to queer intimacy on screen. But it’s certainly an improvement.)

So there you have it: a quick and dirty history of the Hays Code. Hopefully, you’re already beginning to understand why calls to have it come back are at best ignorant and at worst deeply problematic, but next week we’ll dive into more of our thoughts on the Hays Code and explore its deeper implications. See you next week!




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