by W Stephen Gilbert
The Hays Code transformed the face of Hollywood in the 1930s, introducing rampant, some may say absurd, censorship and restricting the creativity of writers and directors. Here we take a closer look at what it meant, and what it can teach us about our own time
From 1930 for almost forty years, film production and distribution in the United States was entirely governed by the Motion Picture Production Code. A set of dogmatic guidelines as to depicted behaviour, the explicitness of imagery and the tenor of the moral lessons to be deduced from a story’s outcome, this semi-literate document was known to all as the Hays Code, after its overseer Will Hays.
Where a man like Hays would be coming from can be spotted a mile off. He was a Republican cabinet minister and a deacon in the Presbyterian church; to write his code, he commissioned a Catholic priest.
The restrictions placed on screenwriters and movie directors inevitably look both piffling and dispiriting today. Thus:
[The Motion Picture Production Code, March 31 1930].
If a movie breached the code, it was sent back to the cutting room or denied a theatrical release. Well, let’s give the dog a name. It was censorship. It may have operated in practice as self-censorship, but the rules were arbitrarily laid down by a censorious man with a particular axe to grind.
Happily, writers and directors who were witty and inventive soon learned how to circumvent these tiresome restrictions. Sophisticated audiences got the message, both they and the artists being rather more subtle than the censors. The work of directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, Josef van Sternberg and Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock might indeed be thought to have been improved by the necessity to think more cunningly about the dialogue and the plot.
In shockingly killing off his apparent heroine (and best-known star) after the first reel of Psycho, Hitchcock was able to follow the code, still in force in 1960, by punishing a thieving adulteress (even though she has apparently found repentance) and yet proceed to unveil one of the most perverse characters that had hitherto appeared on screen. That annus mirabilis in cinema – which also brought À bout de souffle, La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura, The Apartment and (though its release was delayed) Peeping Tom – wrested cinema morality back from the puritans and inaugurated a very different film culture.
Much of the film-making that followed in the wake of the new amorality was deplorable and exploitative: slasher movies, vigilante movies, gratuitous sex scenes and nudity. But of course it was not made by geniuses like Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Wilder and Michael Powell. This is no less true of the kind of highfalutin porn that reckons to pass for art-house cinema, wherein distinguished actresses are routinely required to display their breasts for ‘artistic’ reasons, than it is of multiplex trash. Censorship oppresses the meretricious as well as the questing and the radical.
Today it feels as though Will Hays is alive and well, as though a new code is coalescing around public expression in an effort to impose a moral outlook. The area under scrutiny covers a spectrum from child rape to the degree to which offence may be taken on behalf of others. Social media and the readiness of mediated public platforms to reflect viewpoints that may be kneejerk and wholly unconsidered have widened the constituency from which the code is being constructed. Few of us will live to discover whether this new moral force will seem as naive, autocratic and self-righteous ninety years hence as the Hays Code looks today.
It began quietly and, as it happens, in Hollywood. At the beginning of autumn, stories began to appear in The New York Times about a history of sexual harassment of women in the industry, especially young actresses, by the mogul Harvey Weinstein, widely revered for his longtime support of thoughtful, elevated movies. Once the door had opened, allegations poured through until the accusers ran to dozens.
Of course – and this is apt to be overlooked – they remain allegations, though Weinstein has acknowledged the behaviour of a sex pest (not illegal) while repudiating accusations of rape (illegal). But his guilt has been rendered irrefutable by the sheer weight of accusation. Whatever else happens, too much have been alleged for him ever to recover. His career is over.
That the issue was not confined to Weinstein was soon apparent. An expectation of droit de seigneur was assumed to be part of a contemporary movie executive’s entitlement package. And it had ever been thus. What in decades past was known as the casting couch was then alluded to with little more than a shrug. In her autobiography, Dawn Steel, the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio, reflected that “you can only sleep your way to the middle” [They Can Kill You But They Can’t Eat You, 1993].
But you don’t need to study cinema history with a close eye to see that the notion of men availing themselves of women is central to what the culture has to say to its audience. Throughout its course, cinema has perpetuated the notion that it’s perfectly acceptable for conventionally attractive men to hit on anyone they fancy, indeed that the denouement frequently consists of the capture of the hunted by the sleek hunter – the conventional ‘happy ending’.
What was never welcome to women characters in movies were the attentions of men conventionally thought to be unattractive – for instance because they were over 35, though this changed as the likes of Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford aged. Since the vast majority of men are not movie stars, films provide an unreliable guide to behavioural acceptability. And men who make, bankroll and market movies (and are generally above 35) may be even more susceptible to being misled by movie myths than the lay audience.
But then sex as a power-grab works both ways. Some of those who find themselves to be attractive – and mere youth may be sufficient – discover that allure can pay dividends. Henry Kissinger famously told The New York Times: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Back in 1973, the general view of such a sentiment (including among many women) was that Dr K’s roguish claim only burnished his reputation. The following year, Kissinger married a woman eleven years his junior. Only a very insensitive politician would say such a thing now.
At this point, it might be useful to remember what Donald Trump said about his own behaviour, recorded verbatim:
I did try and fuck her. She was married … I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s not got the big phony tits and everything … I’ve got to use some Tictacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.
It’s striking how Weinstein is destroyed because of his alleged behaviour and yet Trump, despite this candid recording being disclosed during the campaign, went on to be elected president.
It is highly significant that the two Hollywood players deeply embroiled in this scandal are the leading producer of liberal works and Kevin Spacey, a star whose interest is in members of his own sex. Outside Hollywood, Lars Von Trier, one of the most radical of working film-makers, is particularly targeted as a power-abuser. We are told again and again that the problem is industry-wide, yet where are the reactionary producers whose careers are being stalled, where are the heterosexually predatory stars who are being excised from completed movies? If Will Hays himself had been alive to choose the protagonists he most wanted to bring down, he wouldn’t have chosen differently. That there is an agenda further to that of abuse is not hard to see.
The floodgates opened by the Weinstein case raised a high tide in theatre (where Spacey also worked) and then, inevitably, in politics. Again, while it is widely suggested that the problem affects all professions, offices and other workplaces where men and women mingle, little specific has emerged beyond the fields mentioned above. The mainstream media, for instance, imagine they are immune to being drawn into this examination of past behaviour and they have every reason to fear being so drawn. But they can expect to be protected by the customary failure of the MSM to examine their own history, as was clear during the long furore over expenses claims by MPs. Nevertheless, we now live in a world where social media reaches deeper into the public consciousness than the MSM does. Perhaps in time, some distinguished editors, reporters and columnists will be fingered.
The expenses scandal was a more straightforward proposition because it concerned demonstrable facts and figures. The present hullabaloo is characterised by its subjectivity. That individual cases revolve around the accounts, sometimes of events long past, of the only two people involved makes a difficulty for both parties. Inevitably, some of those justly accused will deny everything, confident that status confers credibility. There is an expectation on the part of many powerful men that the old boy network will protect them, that the ramifications of an important man being publicly humiliated and even sacked are too embarrassing and potentially contagious to be contemplated, that their peers agree with them that women are apt to be emotional, unreliable, hysterical and over-promoted.
But to be falsely or unjustly accused – of racism or misogyny or homophobia or antisemitism just as much as of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ – can be as painful as being subjected to those oppressions. And in the present climate, behaviour on a spectrum from innocent clumsiness to tentative flirtation is liable to be blown into a major outrage. When it is cited retrospectively, the undeniable phenomenon that different people genuinely remember events very differently comes into play.
What’s more, accusations, whether substantiated or not, are useful ammunition for those looking to harm their political foes. Thus the Labour backbencher Jess Phillips, who wages a daily one-woman campaign to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, seizes on allegations against any Corbyn ally as a basis for accusing Corbyn of winking at abuse or at least of failing to be omniscient. Michael Bloch’s biography of another beleaguered Jeremy quoted Michael Foot: when Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership of the Liberals was in trouble in 1976, his old friend observed:
They pretend to be against you for your morals, but really hate you for your politics Jeremy Thorpe, 2014
That is the Phillips technique.
If “everyone knew”, why did no one say?
So much stored-up anguish and resentment now pouring out demonstrates that the potential for disclosure was always there. It is remarkable that it needed a similar outpouring in a different field – the film industry – to prompt the breaching of the dam at Westminster. That so much of the disclosure concerns behaviour in years past – even long years past – both weakens the credibility of a certain amount of the testimony (the sense of grudges nursed and perhaps magnified over years) and implies a kind of complicity in victims. This is a pity because undoubtedly there has been a great deal of vile and dishonest behaviour in many fields for decades, even centuries. It ought to have been addressed long ago.
In a Guardian piece, Hannah White, a former House of Commons clerk, cites “the bullying and harassment by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons that I witnessed during ten years working for parliament” without ever acknowledging that her decade of
silence on the matter might implicate her, save to observe blandly that “staff are normally unwilling to make a fuss and risk detriment to their future careers” [Journal, November 8].
Plainly if she was alone in witnessing this bullying and harassment, she would have been at a considerable disadvantage. But if such behaviour was so prevalent, it must have been witnessed – and indeed endured – by many members of the staff. Did they never talk to each other about anything? Did they never compare notes? Did they never perceive that this was a widespread and egregious matter? Did they never talk of collective action: instead of a single, vulnerable victim complaining, an organised protest representing dozens of otherwise powerless individuals? Had nobody in this world of political action come across the notion of collectivism? Did no one ever raise the possibility of strike action?
Anyone summoned to justify a complaint made to the whips’ office or some other authority should take a recording device and preserve the conversation. If the complainant is given to understand that making such a complaint will go poorly for the complainant’s career advancement, the complainant should ask for that to be put in writing. The inevitable refusal should then be queried and, if no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, the complainant should ask whether the authority figure’s unwillingness to put the matter on a formal footing is because he knows that the ‘threat’ is illegitimate.
After leaving the office, the complainant could then send a note informing the chief whip, or whoever it may be, that the conversation has been recorded. Such a note could be sent even if no recording device was used. The chief whip will not know that this is a lie and will dread exposure.
Individuals have more cards than they evidently realise. Oppression only succeeds if it is tolerated by the oppressed. I do not take the dishonest stance that the victim is the author of her own fate. But when victims become numerous, they might be thought to be able to avail themselves of the power of numbers.
The question pertains to Weinstein and Spacey and other serial sex-pests too. If ‘everybody knew’, why did nobody say? More to the point, why did the victims not pool resources at the time, as they are so comprehensively doing now? Examples cited in another Guardian piece (Gaby Hinsliff, G2 November 9) describe circumstances in which women were truly isolated. They are not isolated in politics or the cinema, in offices or factories or the professions or indeed – and it is sad to report but anecdotal evidence suggests a particularly bad record – in trades unions. Women may be a minority in these fields but they are numerous enough to speak first to each other and then to power together.
A further revelation about Weinstein concerns his supposed hiring of professional spies to monitor the responses of his sexual victims. This has been widely taken as no more than further evidence of the venality of executives. But at least one actress, who has accused Weinstein of statutory rape, evidently talked to two such spies who presented themselves as journalists. It seems to me extraordinary that a woman with such a serious charge to make against a palpably powerful man would talk unguardedly to strangers without first ascertaining their bona fides. There are enough reporters covering the Hollywood beat for one to be contacted in full confidence. It’s another opportunity to address the issue being squandered. Men abused women because they could. Only now are women banding together to examine how these opportunities might be closed down.
There is a danger that too many disparate threads have become woven into this tangled knot. ‘Inappropriate behaviour’ is a hopelessly nebulous concept. It’s no good some women saying “we all know what that means” because clearly many men and some women don’t. It is as catch-call a notion as the warning before some transmissions on Sky Movies channels: ‘mature themes’. What is inappropriate to one person is mildly amusing to another and traumatisingly invasive to a third.
Moreover, if you weren’t there, it’s difficult to judge the weight and effect of a phrase. “He said to me” doesn’t by itself convey the spirit or the atmosphere in which he said it or the history, both immediate and long-term, that informed his saying it. Something similar applies to the reporting of the supposedly offensive exchanges of others. Overhearing a conversation or blundering onto emails between old friends is a recipe for presumptuous and judgmental conclusions. People who know each other well are wont to talk and write in a manner that only they fully appreciate. Strata of irony and allusion are missed by the intruder, whose ignorance of the history has not been allowed for (as indeed why should it be?). Yet people have lost their jobs because somebody outside the exchanges found offence where none was taken by those for whom a remark was solely intended.
The huge imponderable in all this is context. A jest scripted for Groucho Marx to make to Margaret Dumont in a comic movie of the 1930s would be wholly different if spoken into the ear of a pre-pubescent girl in council care by Jimmy Savile in the 1990s. A word or a phrase or a sentiment taken out of context can be utterly changed by its lack of resonance against a background.
Moreover, we seem to be galloping towards a climate in which anything that pertains to sexuality is in danger of being held to be actionable. Among the outrages pinned on Theresa May’s deputy Damien Green is that he had pornography on his computer. Excuse me? In which universe is that a reason to call for dismissal? Mrs Grundy – the proverbial prude one had thought buried before World War II – is evidently alive and well.
The case of Jared O’Mara raises a number of resonant issues. When O’Mara took the Sheffield Hallam seat from Nick Clegg at the June election, much was made of his uniqueness and courage on becoming the first MP with cerebral palsy. Once O’Mara was fingered as the author of offensive remarks, his condition dropped out of the coverage. That it might play a role in his behaviour was not to be contemplated, there being no extenuating circumstances around any breaches of the new puritan code. That the offending material dated from at least ten years before his election and was uncovered by the avowedly partisan Guido Fawkes website, itself guilty of numerous libels and outrages, was not thought relevant by the media at large.
If the pre-fame history of public figures is to be trawled through for transgressive behaviour or opinions, will anyone escape? If David Cameron were running now for the leadership of the Tory party and his drugs-and-pigs past had surfaced, would high office have eluded him? There must surely be a statute of limitations on what can be excused as immaturity – after all, O’Mara was barely out of his teens when his ill-considered postings were promulgated.
I hope some diligent left journalist is digging deep in the past of Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes posts, who is a determined and partisan campaigner against the Labour Party. A serial drink-driver and drug-abuser, Staines has a long history of questionable political activities and associates, not least David Hart, bankrupt, tax evader, undercover operative against the miners’ strike of 1984, mercenary, homophobe and all-round bad egg. Hart may be thought fortunate to have died before the present climate kicked in.
The case of Kelvin Hopkins raises other concerns. A named party activist reported the MP as having rubbed himself against her and sending her ‘inappropriate’ text messages. The matter was dealt with by the then chief whip, Dame Rosie Winterton, and was presumed settled. After that and only for a few months, Hopkins served in the shadow cabinet. The complainant has now revived the matter and she and others have made an issue of whether Hopkins should have been elevated. Hopkins now “categorically” denies any ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.
We can at least judge one of the texts, which was shown on BBC News:
The dispassionate observer cannot know whether the text came after a nodding acquaintance or a frequent working relationship or a comfortable and informal friendship of some length. Those predisposed to condemn the MP will see the term ‘lover’ as invasive and the words “were I to be young” as offensive rather than – as Hopkins must have felt – wistful. Those not predisposed to condemn Hopkins will find no offence in it and may even think it charming and kindly.
There may be a generational divide discernible here. After all, Hopkins is 76 and it may be that the older you are the less you are liable to read this text as giving offence. Men of Hopkins’ generation have bred into them a number of behaviours – standing when a woman joins a gathering, walking outside a woman on the pavement, giving up one’s seat on public transport, holding open a door, tipping a hat. Such gestures are now scorned by some as patronising, but others – I have observed this myself – enjoy a frisson of pleasure at an unexpected and gentle courtesy. Hand in hand with this dying behaviour is the idea that a complimentary remark about a woman’s appearance would not be unwelcome. It will be thought sad that all these ancient gallantries have been folded in with guiding by the elbow and – much worse – bottom-patting (now accounted, in an intentionally loaded phrase, as ‘ass-grabbing’), clearly more dubious behaviour from the same tradition.
Men who behave in the old-fashioned ways are also liable to find the phony intimacy of modern manners makes them uncomfortable in their turn – being addressed by a forename and being kissed in greeting by complete strangers, for instance. There is no little irony in the invasiveness of contemporary modes sitting beside the new puritanism.
To men of Hopkins’ generation, “what women want” has increasingly seemed a source of perplexity. A lot of women go to some trouble to emphasise those aspects of their appearance that have traditionally made men look at them, from short skirts to perilously high heels, from cleavage-revealing necklines to breast enhancement, from makeup that enlarges eyes and lips to botox and plastic surgery. It was after all the feminist of whom even the least informed men have heard, Germaine Greer, who described a fellow commentator on sexual relations, Suzanne Moore, as wearing “fuck-me shoes”.
On the other side of the political aisle from O’Mara and Hopkins, a malicious list was circulated among Tory MPs. It cited 40 Tory members said to have strayed from the Haysian ideal of behaviour. The listed peccadillos ranged from impregnation and the use of sex-workers, through being “inappropriate” and “handsy”, to the kind of liaison that only looks unacceptable to the jealous and the prudish, those who are roused by the thought that someone somewhere might be having fun.
The two women members of the government who were accused of “fornicating” – a choice of terminology that speaks volumes about the author of the list – had done so, it was claimed, with a Tory man who is black. Given the likely prejudices of the voters in their respective constituencies, this detail can only have been intended to do damage. It speaks of a great deal of discontent in the Conservative Party.
The other matter of urgent but vague concern is that people are being made to feel ‘uncomfortable’. Dear, dear. Well, politics is often said to be a rough old trade and few people go into it seeking a quiet life. I imagine that there have been precious few days since the general election that Theresa May has felt comfortable, just as Jeremy Corbyn was made to feel daily discomfort from the moment he was elected Labour leader until he confounded expectation in the June election.
Had I been a political aide and had I been invited to dinner with the family at an MP’s house, I should certainly have felt uncomfortable had they said grace before the meal, more so if they had asked me to say it on their behalf. Would declining the invitation have blighted my career? What I know for sure is that I wouldn’t have considered complaining about it, either at the time or years afterwards. Some bullets need to be bitten and if you get through your career with a full set of teeth, you have been unusually lucky.
What has to be borne in mind is that we’re dealing here with a spectrum of behaviour and of words, and indeed a spectrum of response. In the present climate it’s easy for the anger and resentment to spread along that spectrum until real damage is done. One suicide so far is one too many. Carl Sargeant, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, was sacked from the Welsh government on the basis of a generalised complaint of “unwanted attention, inappropriate touching or groping” – the use of ‘or’ indicates the unspecific nature of the supposed offence(s). Sargeant was given no opportunity to defend himself but was publicly discussed on television by the First Minister, Carwyn Jones. Suffering great distress through the four days after his dismissal, Sargeant took his own life.
In the continuing feverish climate, Jones evidently determined that he was not going to be accused of favouring abusers, even if it meant acting precipitately. As he and Sargeant were old friends, the turn of events must have greatly pained him. But the absence of natural justice and pastoral care for the oppressed in the past that is now universally excoriated is clearly also absent for the accused.
Of course, my writing about this will be deemed by some as ‘mansplaining’. Well, there it is. Perhaps only women should be writing about these things. But there will also be some following this whole sorry and self-important saga who will say this:
Many people are being driven into poverty, out of their homes, onto the streets, into food banks. Many people are being obliged to wait for the benefits to which they are entitled, while others are being forced to seek work that they are palpably not fit to do. The NHS is collapsing as it is starved of adequate funding while being surreptitiously privatised by the back door. Public transport is in chaos, the reduced police force has lost control of the streets and of crime, the power companies are bleeding their customers dry and the super-rich, already favoured by the tax system, are gaily getting away with avoiding the meagre tax that they are asked to pay.
Meanwhile, the government is daily making a pig’s ear of the negotiations over leaving the EU. Yet the big story is that a few privileged people working at Westminster have been made to feel uncomfortable or have had inappropriate things said or done to them. Once again, the aim of the media is to divert the public from what is important, of the reactionaries to prevent the public from concentrating on the really important stuff that is going down.
This is what some will say. I say it too.
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