Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dissecting the Hays Code

Not sure how many people know about this. Most people probably know bits of it, like the fact that there was a rule that forbid them from showing Jeannie's belly button on I Dream of Jeannie, but once upon a time there was a code governing all films and television that would be made.

Is it any wonder the majority of movies back then sucked? A few mentions...

To paraphrase, evil must be wrong, good must be right.
As they explain in their reasonings, later, this rule does not mean that the bad guy can't be a sympathetic character, just that the thing they're doing has to be shown as bad and destructive. In other words, if a character in your movie rips off his friend and makes millions of dollars, even if he later gets arrested and thrown in prison forever, that will not be allowed to appear in the movie. That's simply unrealistic.

As they go on to say later, there are some sins which are obviously bad and repel people such as murder and rape, but there are others that can be attractive such as "daring theft," "sex sins," etc. Is it wrong to say things as they are? I say it is not.

"Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation."
Later on they explain that no movie can ever suggest that a criminal or rebel is right in challenging the state, nor to suggest that the system as a whole is corrupt. You heard it here first folks: Imperial England and Nazi Germany should have won, according to the people who wrote the Hays Code!

Look, I get what you're saying, people who wrote this. That people should be patriotic, and a movie that forces them to think of their nation as bad is hurting their patriotism. But sometimes a country IS bad and people need to think for themselves and figure it out. America was not founded by people who believed questioning their place in society was a sin. It was founded by people who realized corruption when they saw it and did something about it. Think about this, too: how would the second world war have panned out if Albert Einstein, rather than fleeing to the United States, had instead remained in Germany and blindly allowed Hitler to do as he pleased with him?

Note: I'm going to mention the nazis a lot. At least wait until the end before you call Godwin on me.

"Hence the important objective must be to avoid the hardening of the audience, especially of those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime. People can become accustomed even to murder, cruelty, brutality, and repellent crimes, if these are too frequently repeated."
Now you know where Thompson got it.

"Revenge in modern times shall not be justified. In lands and ages of less developed civilization and moral principles, revenge may sometimes be presented. This would be the case especially in places where no law exists to cover the crime because of which revenge is committed."
Goodbye, Batman! Goodbye, Hamlet! Goodbye, Poe!

"The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution."
Again, imagine all the timelass dramas and romances that would have never happened if people actually followed a rule like this.

They go on later to talk about impure love. Actually, they're not talking about homosexuality here (remember, this is before people acknowledged its existence) but rather rape and seduction. These things must never be presented comically nor sympathetically. Okay, yeah, no rape. But seduction? Goodbye....90% of films and television shows presented after the 50s.

"The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon the young and upon immature persons, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists. Hence the fact that the nude or semi-nude body may be beautiful does not make its use in the films moral. For, in addition to its beauty, the effect of the nude or semi-nude body on the normal individual must be taken into consideration."
Nonsense. Patent ludicrosity. How can the expression of beauty be immoral? Is a rose immoral? Is a sunset immoral? No. So how is the human body's presentation immoral?

I can see where's they're going when they talk about improper use, such as putting nudity in just to give your movie a little "kick." But to suggest that nudity and semi-nudity can never be used for plot and can never be shown?

"The reason why ministers of religion may not be comic characters or villains is simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience's respect for a minister."
This I can't make fun of. This one was just plain prophetic. Seriously, who do YOU blame for the wave of religious cynicism in America today? It's not the Priest touching the boys that's the problem, it's the liberal media telling you that the Priest touched boys. ...I think?

To its credit, they don't just say Christians here. They extend this to all faiths, so according to the Hays Code it is equally wrong wether you slander a Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, or...whatever you call a muslim holy man. Stupid maybe, but discriminatory the Hays Code is not. (Except later when they talk about White Slavery being wrong to show, but say nothing about blacks.)

"The just rights, history, and feelings of any nation are entitled to most careful consideration and respectful treatment."
Yes and no. For example, what about a World War II movie where the nazis are involved. Is it right to say in that movie that all Germans are evil because of a few bad apples at the top, or that German heritage is something to be ashamed of? No, that is wrong. But is it right to insist that the nazis themselves were bad? Most definitely yes.

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Is it any wonder the majority of old movies were lame and stilted, dancing around real issues to present mindless pseudo-entertainment? But for that matter, is it not the fault of this code that the modern media loves so much to defy these rules for no other peurpose than to defy them, so much like a kid so long denied a candy that when he finally gains access to it he gorges himself?

Look, I'm not going to say there's not a lot of bad messages out there or that a person like Jack Thompson doesn't ALMOST have a point. As the people who wrote the Hays Code says, this media reaches a lot of people and is accessible and understandable by all, so if you're a parent or guardian to a youngster it is important you monitor what your children watch so that you can protect them.

But the next time you start to think that a person like Thompson is right and we need a code in place, think about this: if these codes were in place throughout history, the entirety of Shakespeare and Poe would have been banned. Elvis? The Beatles? Never would have happened. We live now in a world of highs and lows. Yes, there's bad movies both morally and artistically, but there are also movies that are bad morally and good artistically as well as ones that are good morally and bad artistically, but I've never seen a movie that was good both morally and artistically. Wether it's Christian video games, old cartoons that are usually only enjoyable ironically (or at best are good in spite of the good morals, not because of them), it's just impossible. Stories are about conflict, which you can't have when everyone is moral and lovey dovey. I'm not saying you have to go to the extremes like Itchy and Scratchy (another example of bad morally and bad artistically, but that was the point so it's okay) but if these people had their way we'd live in a world full of mediocre shlock, providing mindless entertainment that would soothe your spirit but would never stimulate your mind, and no one would like that. Freedom of expression, all expression, is necesarry for art. As has been said: either everything is okay to write about or nothing is.

Remember, also: Nazi Germany enforced a similar code. They banned all music except German folk songs, they banned the Bible and many other works of literature and film. Now's where you call it, Godwin fans.

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