Taboo Subjects Through Time (I)
Throughout time there has been a long list of taboo subjects, which, over the years, slowly became more and more acceptable. In previous posts, I looked at the way society could influence the contents of films, stories or even music. It is also the case with certain news: people magazines respond to the demands of a part of the population who like to know more about the lives of celebrities; documentaries on history show our interest in the past and our evolution. Therefore, as society changes, so do the subjects that were popular or unpopular in the past.
What sorts of subjects were once considered taboo in the film and TV industry? Have they changed?
It is really interesting to discover more about the topics that were once talked about in whispered voices, yet that are openly discussed nowadays. To today’s audience, it would be absurd to think that certain subjects used to lead to controversy.
The Hays Code
An MA research paper by Ashley Haygood (2007) has been quite insightful. She researched the rise of controversy in films and compared older films with their more modern remakes. She mentioned the Hays Code (the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930), which I then researched, in order to know more about it. The code was a set of moral censorship guidelines that was applied to the productions released by most major studios in Hollywood from 1930 to 1968. It explained what directors could and couldn’t do with the content of their films; strictly spelling out what was or wasn’t acceptable. Although aware that several subjects were quite delicate to deal with back then, I hadn’t known there had been an actual list published, enumerating clearly what one couldn’t or shouldn’t include in a film. It’s when reading this list that we realise how much society has changed and how much more free the film industry has become. Here are some examples from the long list of things that “shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this association:
- Pointed profanity (including the words ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Hell’, ‘damn’)
- Any suggestive nudity
- The illegal traffic in drugs
- Sex perversion
- White slavery
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)
- Scenes of actual childbirth
- Ridicule of the clergy”
This is just a portion of the long list of ‘don’ts’. There were also key points enumerating things one could do with certain subjects; however they were to be treated with special care:
- The use of the flag
- Fair representation of other nations
- The use of firearms
- The use of drugs
- Rape or attempted rape
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime
- Sympathy for criminals
Once again, the list goes on; this gives a glimpse of the sort of subjects that were then considered as taboo to a certain extent.
Mainly during my BA, as well as earlier at the beginning of my project, I had researched the universal aspect of films and how much influence they could have on people. If used wisely, they can question certain aspects of our society and our beliefs; however in the past, during wars or dictatorships, they were a great mean for propaganda (the numerous films made by the Germans during Hitler’s dictatorship: ‘Triumph of the Will’ (1935) ‘The Eternal Jew’ (1940); in America, films praising the American Way of Life). So it seems logical that back then, in a world stricter than it is nowadays, there would have been subjects to avoid in order to keep a certain control over the population.
Looking at the previous lists, I noticed several subjects that, only a couple of decades ago, were still shocking to the audience. These will be further investigated in a next post.
Reading through the code, I have not come across anything regarding incest. However seeing the numerous restrictions concerning crimes and sex, to even consider mentioning incest would no doubt have been unacceptable. One of the subjects that were to be treated with special care included showing a man and woman in a same bed, as well as excessive kissing. Therefore, I think it is clear that dealing with homosexuality would have been unimaginable as well. I would also like to note the “sympathy for criminals” key point which, I think, is quite an actual subject too that I would like to research further in a later post.
“Hence, the MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something, which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work. So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation. Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race.” (Passage from the Motion Picture Production Code/ Hays Code of 1930)
Bynum. M., 2006. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). Arts Reformation [online Blog], 12th April. Available at: http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html [accessed 23rd November 2014]
SPOILER! Couch.A., 2014. ‘Game of Thrones’ Director on Controversial Scene: Jaime ‘Traumatized’, Cersei ‘a Wreck’ (Q&A). The Hollywood Reporter [online]. 20th April. Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/game-thrones-director-controversial-scene-697733 [accessed July 2014]
SPOILER! Couch.A., 2014. ‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: Jaime Takes Incest to Disturbing Next Level. The Hollywood Reporter [online]. 20th April. Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/game-thrones-recap-jaime-takes-697731 [accessed July 2014]
2014. Making Historical Film/Series Lesson #5: Incest. Ask Me Anything! [online blog]. Available at: http://darkphoenixgoddess10.tumblr.com/post/80223161680/making-historical-filmseries-lesson-5-incest [accessed 2014]
Patterson.J., 2009. John Patterson on the last taboos in film. The Guardian. [online]. 9th May. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/may/02/incest-film-taboos-delta [accessed 2014]