This week in puzzling online discourse, a subset of Gen Z is looking wistfully back on the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, a voluntary (well, technically) set of censorship standards Hollywood rigorously adhered to from 1934 through the late 1960s.
It all began with a plea for a return to the halcyon days of yore, when nice people made nice movies without a single exposed ass:
But smutty movies aren’t a modern invention. From its earliest days, the movies have been sex obsessed (obviously). The production code just required Hollywood to be more subtle about it—but before the Hays Code was in place, the movies were plenty dirty. When people talk about the “pre-Code” era, they’re generally referring to the “talkie” years, before the Code was formalized and enforced by studios…so roughly 1929 to 1934, with 1933 being a peak year. It’s not that these movies contained a lot of nudity or graphic sex—society in generally still shedding the prudishness of the Victorians—but there was a definitely greater freedom for films to explore adult sexuality. Even nearly 100 years ago, these movies acknowledged, for instance, that women might have and even enjoy sex, and grappled with sexual power dynamics between straight men and women.
Insisted upon by vocal Christian organizations, the Code didn’t enforce an existing status quo, but a new one based on a particularly narrow view of acceptable behavior. And it wasn’t just sex: The movies couldn’t show authority figures in general, and religious leaders in particular, as flawed unless the filmmakers were extremely careful to make clear that such individuals were outliers. Among other authoritarian impulses, that lead to decades of popular mass entertainment that told Americans that the police were never wrong and that the clergy would never harm you. Crime couldn’t ever be seen to pay, so even the most unjust laws were to be venerated. Homosexuality was strictly out, as was any romantic or sexual race-mixing. The “virtue” that fans of the Code profess to miss also entirely erased female sexual power, queerness, or the idea that a relationship could be made up of anything other than exactly two straight people of the same race.
Films of the Code era eventually found subtle ways to defy the strictures of the Hays office—directors like Hitchcock knew how to amp up sexual tension (and innuendo) to craft scenes that feel at least as sexy as actual sex scenes while also misdirecting the censors—and some of the greatest movies ever made were indeed made by either scrupulously following the rules of the Code, or by bending them in just the right ways. But romanticizing censorship that was mostly designed to keep women in their places and to value authority over the problems of the less privileged is pretty misguided. Instead, let’s honor the freewheeling spirit of these pre-Code films, which prove the movies have always had vice on the brain.
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