See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Taboos in Hollywood, Part I

23 05 2012

Anthropologists love to talk about taboos.  By talking about what is forbidden, you can discover the hot-button social issues in a society.   Roughly speaking, a taboo is any sort of behavior that is significantly frowned upon by society at large; how big that frown is (are you killed for transgressing? Exiled? Sued?) depends on the society, the nature of the taboo being broken, and the purpose of the taboo.  Some taboos are in place to insure luck or success in an endeavor – like the groom shouldn’t see the bride before the wedding.  Some taboos exist to maintain a social status quo – such as those governing which races, religions, and sexual orientations are allowed to marry.  Taboos of sex, religion, and violence are common in societies around the world, including our own.

Taboos are a big subject, and so this will be a two-part entry on taboos in Hollywood.  This week we’ll cover taboos against what is shown onscreen, and next week taboos on people actually working in the industry: what you are and aren’t you allowed to do if you’re a gaffer, actor, agent, etc.

Onscreen taboos – what you can show or say and what you can’t – have been a part of Hollywood since the beginning.  Concerns over the content of sex, violence, and drugs have been part of the dialogue about movies since they were just starting to be made: in 1934, to head off possible government intervention, the MPAA created the Production Code, overseen by the mighty Hayes Office.  The Code was a very explicit expression of the social mores of America at the time; or at least a segment of them.

The Code had very strict rules for what you were allowed to show onscreen: all crime had to be explicitly punished by the end of the movie, for example.  No profanity was allowed, and of course interracial mixing was strictly forbidden (also, by the way, you weren’t allowed to show childbirth).  The censors of the Hayes office reviewed every film, and if you didn’t pass you got fined $25,000 and couldn’t show your movie in member theatres; as well as facing boycotts by powerful social organizations like the League of Decency.

anthropology of Hollywood

An image that shows ten of the things forbidden by the production code (taken by A.L. Shafer, at that time the head of photography at Columbia Pictures)

Hortense Powdermaker, writing in the late 1940s, suggested that while the Production Code appeared to be enforcing taboos to maintain the status quo, its real existence was to enforce the kind of taboos that ensure luck and success: if a moviemaker followed the dictates of the Code, then their movie could be released, and make lots of money.  In this view, making a movie that followed the rules and abided by the Code was a ritual that enabled the filmmaker to avoid the bad luck of boycotts and fines, in favor of official approval and a successful release.  We see a similar pattern with the way films are made today.

The eventual successors to the Production Code, of course, are the MPAA ratings that everyone is familiar with: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.  What the Ratings Board allows and doesn’t once again tells us things about society; the primary criterion on which a movie’s rating is based include sexuality, violence, and profanity.  But of course, those aren’t given equal weight: a PG-13 movie can have plenty of violence (as long as it isn’t “realistic and extreme“), but the moment two naked people have sex, it’s a R rating (naked people not having sex can be PG-13.  So look, but don’t touch, people).  Also considered worse than violence are drugs and swearing – any drug use automatically means a minimum PG-13 rating, and if you swear more than once, you’re rated R.  So are we, as a society, less worried about violence than about sex?  Or is it just that the ratings board thinks we are?

In the final analysis, what’s interesting is that these taboos also fall into the category of ones in place to insure success or luck: the people who write and produce these movies and TV shows usually don’t believe in the taboos they are required to enforce, but they have to pretend as if they do in order to insure that the TV show will be allowed to air, or the movie will get a good rating from the MPAA and thus get a shot at a successful box office take.

anthropology of Hollywood

Why does that one couple have the same creepy smile on their faces when they view G-rated content, as when they’re watching an NC-17 movie?

Critiques and controversies arise in these taboo-regulation systems when the censors start to march out of step with society as a whole.  This happened at the end of the Production Code era (it collapsed in the late 60s), and you can see it today in controversies and challenges to the MPAA system by the distributors of Bully, Darren Aronofsky (for Blue Valentine), Kevin Smith (for Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and of course the so-ironic-it’s-almost-too-good-be-true battle over the rating for This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a film about the rating system itself.   From all this, we see that taboos tell us about the values a society holds both when they are enforced, and when they are broken.

— Scott Frank

    • The standards for what can and can’t be shown on television also merit a solid discussion.  There wasn’t space for that here, perhaps in a future entry. The cultural reasons for those standards, however, are very similar to the ones outlines here for films.
    • The criteria for MPAA ratings are a fascinating read, and can be found at http://mpaa.org/ratings/what-each-rating-means
    • You can still read the Hayes Office censorship reports upon request at the Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  They’re a fascinating read.
    • My favorite lines from Hayes Office reports: “There must be no excessive gruesomeness in the shot where Lorenz lets the dead, limp body of the hag slump to the floor.”  And “Delete shot of Doctor smothering Pygmy’s face with cotton wool while Pygmy is in his hand.”
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2 responses

23 05 2012
author

I’m glad you mentioned “This Film is Not Yet Rated”. It was interesting to see in that movie how secretive they are about the film rating process and how they aren’t so clear and arbitrary (at least I felt) about how things get rated. I mean how can violence be worse than swearing or drugs. It’s also interesting to see the differences between what we censor and other countries. When I was living in the UK, sex, swearing was ok on TV, but violence not so much. And it really is a shame about the rating for “Bully”. It excluded the main group of people the movie was about and geared towards.

4 06 2012
here

This website has some really helpful information on it. Cheers for helping me.

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