Don’t Do That – Taboos in Hollywood, Part II

30 05 2012

In 1949, Hortense Powdermaker wrote that “every part of a movie production is circumscribed by a very specific code of taboos.  We know all societies, from primitive ones to modern Hollywood, have their ‘thou-shalt-nots’.”  This is the second in a two-part entry on taboos in the entertainment industry.  The first part covered taboos about what could be shown onscreen; this writing covers taboos in the industry itself.

As mentioned in the first entry, most taboos serve one of two purposes: to insure luck and success in an endeavor or to maintain a social status quo.  The onscreen taboos against what can and can’t be shown generally serve the first purpose; the taboos discussed today serve the second.

Anthropology of Hollywood

“Mondo” movies like as this one confronted so many social taboos that they had to be produced outside of Hollywood (mostly in Italy)

Because the entertainment industry is a community that is, in a sense, a professional one (you usually join by working within it), taboos in Hollywood often govern working relationships.  For example, a complicated set of status quo taboos dedicated to maintaining departmental boundaries govern below-the-line workers on a set.  “Keep it in your department” is the law of the land; don’t go outside your department with complaints, or to air dirty laundry; never touch equipment belonging to another department.  And make sure your loyalty to your own department is paramount: be on time, never leave early, and if your department head quits, you need to at least consider doing the same.

Actors have a number of taboos for the auditioning process; once again, these are mostly professional taboos, dedicated to making sure everyone acts in a proper way: don’t shake the casting director’s hand.  Don’t make small talk around your audition with the casting staff.  And most of all, once you go on, don’t tell the casting director that you need to “take a moment” to get into character.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but you get the idea; other taboos govern nearly every occupation or type of work in the Industry, and can be seen across the professions involved in movie and TV production: if you’re in a guild, for example, it’s considered a serious transgression to work a non-union show (at least by your union).  There seems to be a taboo against stealing each other clients among agents and managers, but from the limited amount I’ve spoken with people about it, this seems less of a true taboo, and more like etiquette.

Taboos also cover the attribution of credit on a production: it’s considered pretty bad to try and take credit where credit is not due, or to screw people out of it when it is due: just ask the plaintiffs in the many lawsuits over credits that have been filed over the years; the long-running one over the movie Crash was an example of this.  Suits over credit- and idea-theft have entangled movies including Titanic, The Matrix, The Expendables, and Kung Fu Panda.  And just last November, a nun sued the studios that produced Sister Act almost twenty years earlier, saying they stole her life story – apparently some taboos even the Lord’s people will not forgive.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Is this the original Kung Fu Panda, and the Dreamworks creation just a knockoff? His creator hopes a court thinks so.

Note that in these cases, there isn’t much of a taboo against actually doing it – people try and screw other people out of credit all the time – but there’s a solid taboo once you get caught.  Taboos can be like alcohol: if they begin to be transgressed often enough, society eventually develop a tolerance, and once-forbidden behavior can find its way into the mainstream.  This isn’t to say that one day it’ll be okay for a gaffer to make off with the costumes on set, or people won’t care if you steal their clients – but social rules do change, and it’ll be interesting to see which taboos hold sway over Hollywood in the next fifty years.

                                                                                                                       — Scott Frank

  • The departments on a set can include: Camera; Grip; Electrical; Sound; Art Department; Hair/Makeup/Wardrobe.
  • There are many excellent anthropological works about taboos; some of the more interesting are Mary Douglas’ work on food taboos, and George Gmelch’s writings about taboo and superstition in baseball.
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3 responses

30 05 2012
site

Have you considered adding some videos to your article? I think it might enhance viewers understanding.

21 06 2012
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Fun post, I actually had a good time reading it, keep doing all the good efforts.

29 06 2012
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Good post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very glad if you could elaborate a little bit further. Bless you!

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