Saturday, June 23, 2007

Hayes Code, Women in Movies

This post was inspired by this Krystalline Apostate post that mentions the the Hayes Code. There's something of a hidden story there that I feel the urge to talk about, so I shall!

What was happening in cinema during the early years was that a lot of the income was being derived from white, middle-class women who stayed at home. Well, since it doesn't actually take eight hours to keep the house clean and cook dinner for the "man of the house", after they got the kids off to school they often had several hours in the middle of the day with, functionally, nothing to do. And this was before not only the proliferation of TV but also radio. But every neighborhood had a cinema. So a large number of movies were being produced directed at the housewife audience with the values, scripts and stars that would appeal to that audience.

The sort of movie I'm talking about was The Sheik by George Melford starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres. It's the story of an English noblewoman who doesn't want to get married because she's fearful of losing her independence (played by Ayres), but on a trip to the Algerian desert she's kidnapped by a sheik (played by Valentino). During the course of the movie, the woman falls in love with the sheik, who learns to treat her as an equal. The movie is orientalist crap, and in our day and age the very idea of a backwoods Muslim warlord treating a woman with respect and dignity is absurd, but women loved it. That housewife matinee movie crowd saw it as many times as fourteen year old boys would see the first Star Wars movie.

The male establishment . . . did not like it. It was about a woman who saw marriage as a burden, who eventually falls in love with a sand nigger. The very orientalism I detest they feared -- the notion that "out there" were men willing to treat women as equals. And not just The Sheik, either. These movies were filled with independent women taking lovers, and dismissing them, being in charge of their sexual destiny, rejecting the traditional roles that society was forcing on them. Obviously, this had to be put to a stop, which is what ultimately lead to the creation of the Hayes Code.

The Hayes Code did everything in it's power to destroy the movie culture in America. Initially, it was simply ignored. But the big distributors got together and eventually demanded certification as a precondition of distribution. And then there was a whole generation of movie makers and audiences that simply refuses to submit to the code peacefully and pushed, pushed, pushed against it -- so you have all these movies that still had powerful female leads (and actresses) such as Bette Davis. By the fifties and sixties, however, there was almost no movie being made where women were allowed to have powerful roles. Women, as important characters in movies, had been almost eliminated. Entertainment Tonight's list of the 100 greatest movies is illustrative in this regard. The top ten movies are The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Chinatown, Raging Bull, La Dolce Vita, The Godfather Part 2, Gone with the Wind, Some Like It Hot, and Singing in the Rain. The ones with female roles that aren't merely love interests are Casablanca (where the female lead is a Resistance fighter) and Gone With the Wind (Scarlett O'Hara, duh). The Godfather movies, Citizen Kane and Raging Bull functionally lack a female presence at all, in Chinatown the women are dilettantes and victims. In La Dolce Vita, Some Like It Hot and Singing in the Rain they're merely the love interests of the male characters. Most of the top one hundred movies follow this pattern, and it is noteworthy that the movies that do include women as something other than love interests are almost all from the fifties and earlier. Like I said, by the sixties, women as serious people had been virtually removed from cinema.

As a writer, I think this is a shameful episode in American literary and cinematic history. It deeply offends me that the forced removal of powerful women from cinema is virtually unnoticed by . . . virtually anyone at all, not to mention the deep damage this has done to American cinema as the rules of the Hayes Code functionally forced women into passive roles.


vjack said...

You've just been tagged with a blog meme:


Gracchi said...

Chris great post.

I suppose one area where the woman survived is in film noir the kind of femme fatale figure which I find very interesting. One of the most interestng film noirs from that perspective is Born to Kill I don't know if you've seen it but basically it involves an homme fatale seducing a woman away from marraige and civilised life.

its interesting what you say about the modern gangster movie- I was just thinking back and whereas the Godfather say has no real female characters- some of the earlier films like the Roaring Twenties have some very strong women in them- I suppose exemplified ultimately by the mother in one of Cagney's later films who controls the gang whilst he is in prison.

Its interesting but the demise of dialogue (possibly about marketting movies abroad) has also contributed- it means that say Rosalind Russel's character in His Girl Friday is much more intelligent than your average romantic comedy heroine today.

Anyway interesting post- its sent me off in a number of different directions- thanks very much for it.

Ian Appleby said...

Manual trackback: "Chris at at Blogpower prospect-blog Deeply Blasphemous provides a very persuasive take on the reasons why the Hays Code was adopted by Hollywood in the 1930s..."

Apologies that my response is not nearly so erudite as Gracchi's.

Chris Bradley said...


Most of the interesting things going on in movies, nowadays, seems to my mind to be going on in, uh, TV. Longer storylines, better dialog, character development, almost everything that we say we want in movies is routinely becoming the standard in TV. So much so that watching a series when at the end of it things are at the same status quo as at the beginning are becoming difficult to watch. :p But one of the ways that TV is somewhat in advance of movies is the inclusion of women in roles other than love interest, fairly chief amongst this being characters like Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But, yeah, the femme fatale has survived in a weakened form, because one of the things the system teaches young women is that sluts will get it in the end. So a sexy woman badguy who is caught and punished by the masculine representative of the system is non-threatening. It's a not-too-subtle way of casting sexually independent women as villains.

Gracchi said...

Chris I agree- and often TV shows like the West Wing say (an obvious example I know) are more willing to tackle a tough issue like say reparations for slavery in the US than are the mainstream movies.

On femme fatales yes I suppose the slut is the descendent but there is a key difference- in that the slut isn't really in control of her sexuality- the classic femme fatale though is as bright as her male antagonist and can exchange quick dialogue with him.

I agree with you on the loss of female characters- the possibility of a film like Persona which has no male characters ever getting far again is diminishing. The other thing though in my opinion is that films are just less intelligent than they should be- they don't try very hard at the moment to say something as well as entertain- rewatching Ed Murrow yesterday I thought of your post and what Murrow said of TV that without intelligence its just lights in a box- that's what modern cinema is in danger of becoming.