With questions of cinema’s effects on the audience becoming more prevalent, Laura Bell examines the long tirade of history surrounding American film censorship.
Censorship in the film industry is as old as the medium itself. The Supreme Court had already decided in 1915 that motion pictures would not receive protection under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. By 1922, Hollywood’s bad reputation had become a problem for the studios, and so Presbyterian elder William Hays was recruited to change it.
In 1927, the infamous list of ‘Don’ts’ and ‘Be Carefuls’, under the moniker of the Hays Code, was released. The ‘Don’ts’ portion of the list was the most pointed, and included “profanity, [such as] the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, unless they be used reverently”, nudity, drugs, any inference of sex perversion, sexual relationships between black people and white people, the representation of white slavery, and scenes of childbirth.
The ‘Be Carefuls’ centred on more trivial matters. The American flag, sympathy for criminals, men and women in bed together, surgical operations and so on. At first, filmmakers felt comfortable ignoring the Hays Code; this period is known as the Pre-Code Era and is considered a golden-age in film as directors made violent gangster flicks and wrote morally ambiguous characters.
Eventually, the code’s sphere of influence broadened. Local offices all over the U.S. worked and censored independently, but filmmakers obviously couldn’t make a different cut of each movie for every city in America.
This led to massive uncertainty about what kind of market a film could reach, and so the Production Code Administration was formed. All films released after July 1st, 1934 had to be approved by the board before their release.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that studios began to feel the pressure of the burgeoning television industry on ticket sales. As Hollywood began to lose considerable sums of money, filmmakers and the studios behind them began to push the envelope in order to make a splash.
The turning of the tide is quite clearly marked by the 1966 release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, wherein Richard Burton suggests his party play a game of “hump the hostess.” When another character objects, Burton cheekily responds, “Oh, you want to wait until later and get her off into the bushes?”
These two pretty tame lines of dialogue were the breaking point for censorship in the western world, and so instead of cutting out anything the censors didn’t like, the rating “suggested for mature audiences” was introduced. Two years later in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was formed.
The MPAA was sold to audiences as censorship, but in reality was formed as a ruse to prevent government intervention and leave power in the hands of Hollywood’s biggest executives. Nowadays, the MPAA treats censorship as a four-letter word. Emphasising its use of “regular” people, it seeks to create the illusion that the public are making a choice in what movies they view and how they view them.
That the association was created in order to head off the government interfering in Hollywood business is now a point of contention between its advocates and dissidents. A government system, it is argued, would theoretically have to be regulated in a proper and transparent way; the board members would face accountability; and every decision undertaken would have to undergo due process.
The MPAA of course, gives the public the exact opposite. The association is financed primarily by the six major U.S. movie studios: Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal City Studios, and Warner Bros. Entertainment.
It also receives funding from the multinational conglomerates behind various media corporations. In simple terms, the MPAA is in bed with 95% of the American film industry and 90% of mass media outlets.
The membership of the Motion Picture Association’s board is anonymous. While the board is supposed to be comprised of parents of children under 18, whom the ratings decided upon actually affect, investigations into their identities have revealed that hardly any of the members have children under 20, if they have children at all.
The Association insists that its procedures are standardised and treated as such. These procedures are still not public knowledge, so nobody knows what exactly they are. In the words of the late Roger Ebert, “If something is not allowed, it’s because it’s against the invisible rules.”
Independent filmmakers are hit hardest by MPAA regulations. Without studio backing, the ratings return arbitrary and unexplained. Movies rated NC-17 (an Irish 18) are excluded from advertisement by the mainstream media; trailers won’t air on TV or radio and print ads won’t run in newspapers. The MPAA effectively has the power to decide who sinks or swims in Hollywood, and beyond.
In theory, cuts aren’t always necessary for ratings satisfaction. There’s an appeals process overseen by a special committee. Indeed, it looks outwardly even-handed, but the board is actually comprised of top-level studio execs, including the CEO of Fox Searchlight.
Undoubtedly this is a group of people with a vested interest in keeping competing indie films out of movie theatres. Bizarrely, the requirement that rounds out this high-ranking committee is for two priests, one Catholic and one Episcopalian.
The importance to the Christian faith to the powers that be at the MPAA is underscored by their stance on adult content. The Association is incredibly liberal when it comes to scenes of extreme violence, and incredibly conservative when it comes to sex and anything to do with it.
Four times as many films received the NC-17 rating for sex than they did for violence. One profound example is that Brokeback Mountain and the Saw series can both boast an R rating.
It has been scientifically proven that children exposed to violence at a young age are more likely to have problems relating to aggression as adults. These studies show no similarly negative effects upon children exposed to non-violent sexual imagery, and is of no apparent concern to the MPAA.
Ultimately, they are buying into political values and playing out a culture war between adults instead of examining the psychology of the demographic they seek to protect. As Newsweek critic David Ansen has asserted, “Even though the MPAA is supposed to protect children, it’s turning us all into children.”