Why Hollywood is sexist, according to Andi Zeisler

Image credit:  KALW Public Radio

Image credit: KALW Public Radio

When I think about sexism, I usually think about gender bias so ingrained that it’s almost impossible to point out a single cause. I figured that sexism in Hollywood -- the shortage of roles available for older women, the lack of funding for female-directed films -- was much the same. Then I read Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once and realized that a lot of Hollywood sexism can, in fact, be traced to one tangible document: The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.

Zeisler points out that early silent films often featured complex women as protagonists. They tackled topics that seem more 1960s than 1920s, including (to my surprise) legalized birth control in the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Thrillers like Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face revolved around crime and sex, but the women on-screen were whole people embodying a vast array of characteristics:

“In what’s now known as the pre-Code era of Hollywood films, women were smart, professional, ambitious, forthright, opaque, tricky, even criminal. They blackmailed bosses, had babies out of wedlock, seduced other women--and the thrillers were even steamier... [Women] were simply as human onscreen as the men, as full of appetite and humor and stubbornness and fallibility.” (We Were Feminists Once)

Apparently, ladies' human agency was too much for moralistic men to handle. Will Hays, the chair of the Republican National Committee and Postmaster General of the United States, introduced a code of conduct to maintain high moral standards in film. Maintaining such “moral standards” meant eliminating non-heterosexual behavior, interracial relationships, and adultery. Zeisler summarizes:

“The Code detailed ways in which films must be plotted and written so as not to tempt audiences into crime, revenge, or moral ambiguity, and it devoted special attention to issues of adultery, interracial relationships, “impure love” (including homosexuality and transgender relationships), and even dancing. Nudity was verboten, the mocking of religion a no-no. ‘Art can be morally evil in its effects,’ warned the Code. ‘This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama.’” (We Were Feminists Once)
Cover of The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930

Cover of The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930

Zeisler refers to The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, also known as the Hays Code, as “a program of self-regulation.” It helped Hollywood sidestep potential government intervention in the film industry. At the time the Code was introduced, America was closely following a rape/manslaughter case involving an actor and young actress named Virginia Rappe. The actor was acquitted, but Hollywood’s penchant for crime and sensation became the topic of the day. What followed were 35 years of strict Hays Code enforcement, which came at the expense of women in film:

“There’s no question that the rules laid out in the Code -- among them, that “impure love…must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience” -- had much broader implications for representations of women than they did for men… In his 2001 book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, film critic Mick LaSalle noted that the Hays Code was especially preoccupied with the lives of women on-screen, seeing portrayals of fulfilling careers, sexual hungers, and lives that didn’t depend on one man as unnatural and -- that word again -- 'impure.’ It wasn’t immorality so much as it was gender equality that put the Code’s authors and administrators in a lather.” (We Were Feminists Once)

From 1934-1968, the Code functioned like a film censor. With a devout religious man named Joseph Breen in charge of applying Hays Code guidelines to new productions, the Code effectively erased birth control, divorce, and shared beds from movie theatre screens. Sexism on-screen grew and grew, and by the time the Hays Code was lifted, America’s imagination had changed:

“The handprints of the Hays Code were all over the plots of women’s pictures: where women had been the architects of their own lives, now they were the victims of them. The chief themes were abjection and self-sacrifice in the pursuit of love and motherhood, often to the point of sickness and madness; and the screen pulsed with a moralism that pitted women against one another, often in the form of doppelgangers.” (We Were Feminists Once)

So began the era of women depicted as devoted wives and caring mothers, enamored with the “traditional family values” that politicians still invoke. Zeisler lists three 1930s/40s “women’s films” that neatly obeyed Hays Code mandates and gained tremendous popularity: Stella Dallas; Now, Voyager; and Mildred Pierce. All three releases reinforced motherhood as a woman’s highest calling. Other women's films followed suit, and according to Zeisler, only the rise of indie movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought back the full-fledged, independent, morally complicated woman protagonist.

It's both gratifying and frustrating to find such an obvious culprit behind inequality. Of course, the Hays Code isn’t the only cause of sexism in the entertainment industry (the men who wrote and enforced the Code clearly had sexist beliefs to begin with, and America has been equating morality with motherhood and marriage since long before 1930). At the very least, you can always cite The Motion Picture Production Code as proof that the rise of June Cleaver-esque characters who stood for America’s good old “traditional family values” were 100% contrived.


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