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.
Advertisements




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.”