Taboo Subjects Through Time (II)
Racism, Miscegenation and Homosexuality
Although there have been plenty of taboo subjects through time, some had a greater impact on people, and remained socially unacceptable for a very long time before eventually appearing on the big screen.
Racism and miscegenation are quite similar in the way that there was once a time, when showing a relationship between black and white people was unacceptable. This absence of filmed romance between a black and white couple lasted until the late 1970s. Films relating to these issues include D.W Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, released in 1915. It deals with the US Civil War and the Reconstruction, but at the same time depicts negatively black people (in the film, played by white actors in blackface). It shows the ‘anarchy in the black-ruled South after the war’ (IMDB). The black men are portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive towards white women, as well as unintelligent. While the Hays Code explicitly stated that miscegenation was forbidden, several films were made to contest this rule. The film ‘Pinky’ (1949) by Elia Kazan and John Ford was one of those films that pushed the code, featuring a light-skinned African American woman ‘passing’ for white, who falls in love with a white doctor. The film ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’ (1967) by Stanley Kramer, dealt directly with the issue. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy star as a couple whose daughter falls in love with a black man (played by Sidney Poitier). By then the production code of 1930 was starting to loose influence. The film was meant to be ‘educational’ for white Americans (National Vanguard Magazine no117, 1997).
With the loosening of racial and sexual prohibitions, independent films wasted no time in using these touchy subjects and raising awareness. It is argued that interracial mixing then became something necessary and morally right. The film ‘The Last of the Mohican’ (1992) is said to depict white men as weak, disloyal, cowardly and barbaric, while the Native Americans are seen as noble, courageous and dignified. The leading white female eventually leaves her white fiancé to run away with the Mohican hero.
Homosexuality has been a taboo subject for a very long time before being talked about openly like it is nowadays. Hitchcock’s 1948 film ‘Rope’, features homosexual undertones, which had the critics and audience buzzing about it. Add to this the slightly disturbing plot: two friends commit a murder before hosting a dinner party where the guests dine unknowingly over the dead body. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969) by John Schlesinger, deals neutrally with the love story of two male hustlers. Apparently, advised by a psychiatrist that the film was promoting ‘mental illness’, the movie was rated X for this neutral take on homosexuality. I should also mention the British film ‘A Taste of Honey’ (1961) which dealt with racism and homosexuality. A young white girl aged 17 has a brief relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant and he abandons her. She is supported by her gay friend. There are many other examples of films, which dealt with homosexuality throughout time. Much like miscegenation, some were meant to criticize it, while others hoped to depict homosexuality truthfully. There are more modern films which correspond to the latter: the 2005 film ‘Rent’, based on the musical, has two of the main characters homosexual. The film (and musical) takes it even further, as it also deals with the issue of venereal diseases, which can also be added to the long list of once taboo subjects. I won’t fail to mention the release of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in 2005; a film which really is about ‘forbidden love’. Many TV shows also feature gay or lesbian characters in a positive light nowadays; to name a few, major characters from the following shows are homosexual: ‘Glee’ (2009), ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011), ‘Smash’ (2012). It seems that talking about the issue has enables society to slowly start accepting it. There are less and less taboo subjects in films nowadays. Those that still shock are the horrific things that unfortunately still happen all around the world. However even these are more and more dealt with in film and TV. The idea is not to accept them but to bring them to light and recognize them as real issues that we shouldn’t neglect. Being aware of those is what may lead to their limitation in the future.
Sensitive Subjects: Incest and Euthanasia
So basically, reading about these films and researching their contents, I realise that there really are two categories of taboo subjects: those that are morally unacceptable for their despicable nature such as rape or abuse, and those that were deemed unnatural by a society who had had these prejudices ingrained for so long that it took a very long time for it to slowly start accepting them. These include racism, miscegenation and homosexuality.
The problem with incest is that it’s not easy to categorize. Although on one hand, incest dealing with a relationship between parents and children can be seen as child abuse and therefore fall in the second category, there may sometimes be situations in which these relationships become unacceptable only from the moment they’re recognised as such. For example: with IVF nowadays, which is anonymous, people don’t keep track of who their descendants are. Two strangers meeting in the street and falling in love would therefore never know if they are actually related. The same goes for a brother and sister separated at birth. It’s quite a problematic subject to talk about; a bit like the issue of euthanasia that was also a taboo subject a few decades ago and is still quite delicate nowadays.
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WONG.A., 2014. Has Pop Culture Changed our Perception of Incest? Toronto Film Science [online], April. Available at: http://thetfs.ca/2014/04/21/has-pop-culture-changed-our-perception-of-incest/#.VGnuSygmXTM [accessed 23rd November 2014]