Home Industry What was the Hays Code and why should we care? Hollywood history, the origins of queer coding, and so much more.

What was the Hays Code and why should we care? Hollywood history, the origins of queer coding, and so much more.

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Written By: Unscattered Horizons

The Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code, was a code that self-censored Hollywood for decades in the middle of the twentieth century. Often discussed in the context of queer coding, the Hays Code had wide reaching effects for all forms of media and the individuals who work in the entertainment industry that continue to this day. Nicknamed after Will Hays who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922-1945, the Code largely dealt with the “morality” of the film industry’s productions, both on and off the screen. This article will discuss who Will Hays was, how he was able to have this power, the contents of the Code, how it was enforced, the consequences of the Code’s enforcement, and the legacy it leaves.

William Harrison Hays Sr. was a presbyterian elder who was hired as the first ever President of the MPPDA in 1922 after several risque films and off screen scandals took over Hollywood’s image. Fresh off three years as leader of the Republican National Committee, Hays was considered a Washington insider, with years of political influence and experience to his name. He also served as US Postmaster General during the administration of President Harding. Hays’ political power and religious connections were the primary reasons for his selection to lead the MPPDA. He was also personally conservative with a strict adherence to his morality; Hays did not drink, smoke, swear, and was deeply committed to his Christian values.

During his time with the Harding administration, Hays was involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal, a bribery scandal that eventually caused Hays and others to resign from their positions. Due in part to this scandal, Hays had strong connections to the federal government and to Wall Street, making him an ideal candidate for the MPPDA who were eager to keep the federal government from interference with their industry. As the president of the Association, Hays became the face of Hollywood, and when referencing “official” Hollywood, for decades it was in reference to Hays’ office.

During the 1920s and 30s, Hays was the highest paid lobbyist in Washington. American politics are complex and corrupt, so to briefly explain: a lobbyist is someone whose job is to influence actions, policies, and decisions of government officials and governing bodies. With Hays’ influence on the US government at the federal level, he was less of a traditional lobbyist and more of a direct influence on the government. He used these political and financial connections to keep the government out of the film industry in any official capacity for decades.

It’s difficult to find a modern example of someone with this sort of influence and power. Will Hays had deep connections to the federal government, held power as a religious leader, and with his appointment at the MPPDA, he also controlled all of Hollywood with no oversight. Somehow, his reputation remained unscathed from the Teapot Dome Scandal, despite being involved and resigning his position. With the scandal, he also gained connections to deep pockets and questionable financial streams. This one man was influencing government, media, and by extension, all of American society for decades, in a way that we still feel the effects of today. It’s almost shocking to know the power Will Hays had, and the fact that most people have never heard of him without the context of the Code.

So how did Will H Hays Sr. end up in this position? To understand the film industry that Hays took over, the story starts a few decades earlier.

The earliest films were silent films, and while they had their share of controversy, it wasn’t until the “talkies” began that censorship efforts were widespread. In 1897, Maine passed the first censorship law in the US that pertained to film. The censored material was boxing, which was illegal in all states except Nevada at the time, and the penalty for noncompliance was a fine of $500.

In 1907, Chicago gave the Chief of Police the power to issue and deny permits for film exhibitions on moral grounds. This was the first municipal film censorship, and Chicago was the second largest domestic market so this was a significant concern. Shortly after, on Christmas Eve of 1908 in New York, the largest domestic market of the time, the Mayor revoked the licence of all movie theatres, using the excuse of fire safety and “moral grounds.” Eventually, many other states began instituting their own film censorship laws and initiatives.

The People’s Institute brought together about ten organisations to create the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship (NYBMPC), and because New York was such a large market, their decisions started to have a wide reaching impact far beyond their state borders. Their censorship and prohibition of certain films became standard to the extent that they renamed themselves to the National Review Board. The NYBMPC/National Review Board was a source of inspiration for the MPPDA, though it wouldn’t be officially formed until years later.

The film industry was actively fighting against these local censorship initiatives, and eventually pursued legal defence of their work. This did not end well for the film industry. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that films were business and not art, and therefore were not entitled to First Amendment protections; films did not have freedom of speech or expression and were subject to censorship at all levels. This ruling remained in place until 1951 when it was finally overturned by another Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the First Amendment rights of the film industry.

It took years for the film industry to come up with a plan that they felt could adequately protect their work from government censorship. In 1922, the five largest film production companies formed the MPPDA and appointed Will Hays as the President. These five companies were Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and RKO. Each was considered vertically integrated, meaning they controlled all aspects of their industry, from creation to production to distribution. This will become relevant again later, but in 1922, it meant that the MPPDA had complete control over the industry, so long as they could circumvent government censorship.

In 1924, Will Hays introduced what he called “The Formula.” This was his guidance to film industry creators for how to avoid the censors and get their films shown in cinemas across the US. There were no consequences for not following The Formula and it was largely ignored by filmmakers.

Sound entered the film industry in 1927. With the introduction of sound, films started pushing the boundaries in all ways more than ever before. Technology was advancing rapidly, culture and society were forever changed after the first World War, and the Roaring Twenties were ongoing. Films in the 1920s included queer characters, sexual content, independent women, and several other things that would later be banned by the Hays Code.

In an attempt to reign in all of these changes, Hays introduced a list of “Dont’s and Be Carefuls” in 1927. The list contained 11 items that were never to be included in a film, and 25 topics that had to be handled in a specific way. Similar to his earlier Formula, the list of 26 total items was largely ignored and Hollywood continued to progress in a direction that both violated local censorship and dismissed the authority of Hays and his MPPDA.

Films released between 1930-1934 were some of the most outlandish films released by many standards. Going even further than the films of the 1920s, this new “pre-code” era was heavily influenced by the Great Depression. Film makers were doing their best to get people in the theatre and paying for tickets by showing what was considered scandalous. This meant more sexual content, more violence, and anything else that would tempt people into the theatres. For example: the first lesbian on screen kiss was in the 1930 film Morocco, and the second was in 1933 for a film called Queen Christina, a biographical film about the Swedish Queen. Scarface was also released during the pre-code era, displaying gang activity and violence in a way that wasn’t seen again for decades.

In addition to the films themselves, Hollywood had several interpersonal scandals involving murder, suicide, drug use, and sexual assault. With Hays running the MPPDA, there was an overwhelming effort to control talent off screen in addition to the content of the films themselves. Tabloid journalism was expanding rapidly at the same time as Hollywood, so the lives of the film stars, and in some cases directors and producers, became national “news” and would also trigger censorship efforts from local authorities in some cases.

The Hays Code was first established in 1930, though it wasn’t enforced until 1934. The Code was the studios’ effort to self-regulate rather than try to follow hundreds of local censorship laws around the country (37 states had some version of censorship for the films by this time). There was a high chance that the federal government was going to begin censoring the industry, as many other industries were receiving new regulations under FD Roosevelt’s administration. Industries like agriculture and transportation were seeing new levels of federal involvement, and the film industry was worried they would be next.

Written in 1929 by two Catholic individuals, Father Daniel (a Jesuit priest) and Martin Quigley (editor of the Motion Picture Herald), the Code was heavily influenced by Catholic morality and it was as much propaganda for the film industry as it was censorship. Outside of the list of regulations, there are several pages of the Code that contain a sort of philosophy about what film can and should be, and how it would affect the morality of the populace.

The Code was set up with the main principle that films were prohibited from lowering the moral standards of those who view them. While dozens of specific regulations were included, there was significant room for the Code to be applied to censor almost any behaviour, or to allow it if they deemed the context appropriate. More on that later when the Code became enforceable in 1934.

One of the reasons that the Code was so heavily Catholic was because of the censorship efforts of the Legion of Decency. The Legion was a Catholic PAC (People’s Action Committee) formed by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in America prior to the adoption of the Hays Code. During Sunday mass, parishioners would recite the Legion pledge and promise not to attend films that the Legion had deemed immoral. It was an exclusively Catholic institution, but it had the support of several other religious groups in any attempts to pressure the populace away from the theatres.

There’s several stories of how increasingly involved the Legion became. They would station clergy and Legion members outside theatres and watch for Catholic parishoners who had pledged not to attend, and then intimidate them away. Even non-Catholic individuals were discouraged (sometimes through physical means) by the Legion from attending the films, deeming it their duty to retain the moral purity of the community and the country. The Legion (and the MPPDA with adoption of the Code) viewed their censorship efforts as patriotic. The government’s involvement in the film industry has been present since the beginning, even if it was “off the record” so to speak, and therefore encouraged this link between national pride and “proper morality.”

The Legion provided the following labels for any new films released: A for acceptable; B for morally objectionable; and C for condemned. This was a precursor to the Hays code and to other classifications of film like those we still use today. While the United States film industry wasn’t the only market, with the British Board of Film Censors’ releasing recommendations around the same time, the US was the primary market for films at the time. As such, the Hays Code was as much an appeal to advertisers and investors as it was a self-censorship measure.

Some early promoters of the Code claimed that it was progressive because it forbade racial slurs and cut down on the sexualisation of women and minors (which admittedly did increase again once the Code was repealed). But those supposedly progressive aspects were always enforced in a very specific way, and racial stereotypes, discrimination, and of course, homophobia, were ingrained in the Code from the beginning.

In addition to the Hays Code, the MPPDA created a moral code for the actors and other industry personnel to follow. It was often included in the actor’s contracts, which will be covered in more detail in a later section. The Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) covered the acceptable “morality” on screen, while the off screen lives of the stars were controlled through other means. There was not an aspect of the industry that Hays and the MPPDA did not control.

The contents of the Code are readily available, though tedious to wade through. Several links in the sources will take you directly to the Code in full, including all regulations and the introductory philosophical portion.

The Hays Code was based on three principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

All of the regulations fell under one of these categories, and where there was not a specific rule, these three principles could be used to censor essentially anything that the MPPDA deemed unallowable. The regulations fell under the following categories: Crimes Against The Law; Sex; Vulgarity; Obscenity; Profanity; Costume; Dances; Religion; Locations; National Feelings; Titles; and Repellent Subjects.

To list only a few of the regulations, especially those that have proven to have long-lasting detrimental effects, these are some examples of what was considered forbidden or restricted:

Anyone who committed a crime, either against the legal system or against “morality,” was required to be punished on screen to teach the audience the moral lesson.

Law enforcement could not be shown to die at the hands of a criminal. In some cases, even sustaining injuries was forbidden, depending on the film and the context.

The human body must be covered with opaque materials at all times. This included legs, full back, anything besides the hands and face.

Prostitution was forbidden, even in reference or even if punished by the rule mentioned above. No mention of prostitution or any sex work was allowed, even in subtext (though many films found a way around this).

“The court of the land should not be presented as unjust.” This meant no laws or law enforcement agencies could be portrayed as unjust or in any way morally questionable. No villains could hold public office, be a police officer, serve as a judge, or any profession along those lines.

Anything related to “sexual life” or “sexual sin” was forbidden entirely, not even allowed in conversation. This included pregnancy, impotency, sex within marriage, generally any reference to sex or sexuality.

“The sanctity and the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” This covered many topics, from infidelity to unmarried women to homosexuality.

Interracial relationships of any kind were strictly forbidden.

Homosexuality and transgender identities fell under the category of “sex perversion” and were entirely off limits. No reference or mention to the queer community was allowed in any capacity.

The preceding snippets are just a sample of what was contained within the Code. The Code was also nationalistic, not allowing any negative portrayal of the military or of any government, that of the United States or any other country. It also forbade mocking of religion, though this was mostly enforced for the Christian religions, while other religions were often represented as stereotypes or in blatantly negative ways without interference from the MPPDA.

To enforce the Code and all of its regulations, the MPPDA eventually formed the Production Code Administration (PCA) headed by Joseph Breen. It took until 1934 for the PCA to be formed, largely because of the interference of the Great Depression and its upheaval of all industries. Joseph Breen was also Catholic, and due to pressure from the Legion of Decency mentioned above, the PCA decided that all films released were required to get a certificate of approval from the agency before they were permitted to be released. The MPPDA would fine any film released without this PCA seal of approval $25,000 which would be approximately $600,000 today. Film studios could not afford this fine in almost all cases, and while the studios had come together to form the MPPDA, they were now ruled by it and under its authority.

Joseph Breen was head of the PCA for two decades, from 1934-1954, and the Code was sometimes referred to with his name because of his influence (though still under the hierarchy of Hays and the MPPDA). During that time, the PCA required pre-approval of all scripts, cast, design, and any other aspects of the film before it could begin production. They would cut scenes, change dialogue, require cast changes, and even decide not to approve a film after going through all of those changes. Films could be “canned” due to advertising that the PCA didn’t agree with, changes in “moral judgement” before its release, or even without cause. The PCA was able to have this absolute power because the studios owned the theatres.

The vertical integration mentioned earlier became a steadily increasing issue, where the MPPDA created, approved, and distributed the films, giving them complete control over all aspects of the film industry. The consequences of the Code and its enforcement began immediately in 1934 and continues to influence the industry almost a century later. Even mediums like stage productions or television that were not subject to the Code adhered to certain aspects because the censors for those industries would refer to it as a guideline in their own areas.

Some of the consequences of the Code seem silly or inconsequential, like bathrooms not being able to be shown on screen or married couples having to sleep in separate twin beds rather than sharing one. Even cartoon characters like Betty Boop had to get an entirely new look to appease the PCA. But other consequences of the Code were much more sinister and shaped the entertainment industry and American society in permanent ways.

Because interracial relationships were forbidden, actors of colour were rarely cast as leads. And those who were hired at all were required to “pass” white beauty standards due to the racist way that the “natural law” portion of the Code was enforced. White supremacy was baked into the Code from the very start, and there was no denying that in its enforcement. That’s not to say there weren’t brilliant, talented people of colour working in film, but they were always paid less, given side roles, and mistreated on set and even at award shows and industry events. (There is so much more to know about the racism of Hollywood, from lighting to costuming to plot to literally every other aspect, but that is an entire topic on its own that I cannot cover adequately here).

In several famous examples, when there was a scripted character who was a person of colour, the studios would often hire a white actor and put them in black face or yellow face or red face, depicting stereotypes of a race or ethnicity or cultural group portrayed by a well known white celebrity. The actual actors of colour would be given side roles or the roles of villains, and the effects of that blatant racism continue across all forms of media, despite the progress that’s been made.

Additionally, the Code was universally applied with a gender bias, “emphasising the restraint of female sexual desire and behaviour.” This could mean enforcing clothing restrictions on the female characters of a film, but allowing a shirtless male actor on screen. Women were also forbidden from being shown as independent or in any way in charge, because the Code explicitly called for the upholding of the “traditional family.” Women could be mistreated by their husbands or fathers on screen without being censored (within reason, as outright violence was not allowed), but the women could never be shown to push back against this or to have their own opinions without being punished in some way on screen.

The Hays Code is also why queer coding was created and solidified as a media tactic. Since homosexuality was strictly forbidden, the creators of the films had to find loopholes. One thing that the censors would allow was a queer coded character to be a villain and therefore punished. This was seen as “morally acceptable and right” because it adhered to both 1) not explicitly mentioning homosexuality and 2) punishing it if it was interpreted through subtext. This enforcement is how the industry fell into the “bury your gays” trope, along with other pervasive queer stereotypes.

If queer coded characters were included, they were either feared, pitied, or laughed at, often all of the above. They could be referred to as “dandy” or “sissy” and could be flamboyant and flirtatious, but even those were restricted to only a handful of references before the PCA would consider it too overt. Since the queer coded characters could not be realistic, stereotypes were reinforced, most commonly effeminate gay men and butch gay women. This isn’t to say that those people didn’t and/or don’t exist, but that they don’t represent the entirety of the queer experience, and that all queer individuals are multi-faceted people with more to them than their (in this case hidden) sexuality.

Because the queer coded characters were almost always in villain roles, this leaked out into society, with the majority of the population demonising queer people because that’s all they’d ever known. Their only experience with even vague queer representation was negative, dangerous, and always punished. This would have been the message received by both queer and cishet audiences, and homophobia and transphobia remain pervasive in the entertainment industry as a result.

Disability representation also came to an immediate halt with the enforcement of the Hays Code. If the “Ugly Laws” are an unfamiliar term, they were municipal ordinances that fined or criminalised “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” from existing in public. The Ugly Laws meant that the ill, disabled, or injured were barred from appearing in films because it violated the “natural law” principle. That principle was the most heavily overused when the PCA decided to censor a film or aspect of a film, but there was not a specific regulation for it. And because disability was never shown on screen, and in many cases disabled people were excluded from public life, they had no representation and able bodied individuals had no exposure to these stories or the realities behind them. And like with the other groups mentioned above, the disability community is still dealing with the effects of this censorship a hundred years on, unable to get the same representation or access to the entertainment industry as their able-bodied counterparts.

The actors and directors who made the films were also controlled by the Hays code, and by the morality clauses that became part of their contracts. Back then, actors were signed to a studio, not to an independent agency. This meant they were contracted for a specific number of films or years of work and could be “shelved,” meaning the studio would stop giving them work for any reason, but they couldn’t go work anywhere else because they were locked into their contract. The companies used this as punishment and as a threat to get them to comply with their rules because they knew the actors had no options. The studios controlled their relationships, where they lived, the tabloids written about them, every aspect of their lives imaginable. And it was easier to shelve an actor they no longer found useful than to let them go because they didn’t want to give their talent to another competing company.

What this meant was that the actors, and often directors, were forced to comply with the regulations in the Hays code. No homosexuality, no interracial relationships, no excessive substance use, at least none of that in public or in a way that could be traced back to them. This is how actors were forced into lavender marriages: to keep their jobs, they had to “uphold traditional family values.”

As for controlling the tabloids, the entertainment industry figured out very early on that the tabloids cared more about sensationalism than truth. So the studios would exploit an on screen relationship as essentially free advertising in the tabloids, leaking “intimate details” about the actors and the way they fell in love on set, or “secret weddings” that never actually took place, knowing it would sell both the print tabloids and the film the actors appeared in together. This is a well documented practise and it still continues to this day in many forms.

The “Golden Age” of Hollywood was only golden to specific individuals due to their power and control. Everyone else who worked in the industry was mistreated and considered disposable. Because of the monopoly that the MPPDA had over the entire film industry, they were able to have almost authoritarian control. Since they had self-censored themselves to keep the government out of their industry, they were free to do as they chose. The actors and directors who signed these contracts had no legal grounds to break them, and many have spoken out about the effects of being locked into these industry contracts, trapped with no way out and being forced to make films or fuel the tabloids against their wishes. This started in the film industry, but the music industry has also continued these practices, even though most talent signs with their agent and an independent agency nowadays.

The MPPDA started to see a decline in their power in the 1950s as the Second World War ended and society underwent massive cultural shifts once again. In 1948, the Supreme Court vs Paramount Pictures ruled that the film industry had established an illegal monopoly by owning both the studios and the theatres, and forced them to sell their theatres to outside companies. This was the first crack in the absolute hold of the MPPDA on the industry. Foreign films and independent films could be shown for the first time, and those films were not subject to the Hays Code.

In 1952, the Supreme Court overturned its decision from 1915 and declared that the film industry did have First Amendment rights, and therefore could not be subject to government censorship. With this ruling, the strength of the Hays Code was weakened as there was no longer that looming pressure of federal interference with the industry, at least not in the way they had been so concerned with in the 1920s.

Also in the 1950s, one of the biggest changes in entertainment was the television. Americans were starting to own televisions in their homes, and the theatres were no longer the only way to consume visual media. Television shows were not subject to the Hays Code, though originally the television industry was under even stricter guidelines than film. Many filmmakers felt the pressure to update what they were allowed to portray on screen to compete with the new technology and the way it changed society. 

During this decade, the Hays Code became a frequent subject of ridicule, scorn, and comedy. There’s a picture entitled Thou Shalt Not that listed the top 10 Hays Code Don’ts in the top right corner, and then broke every single one of them in the frame. Films without Code approval were becoming popular and even receiving awards, so it became clear that there was a mismatch between what the audiences wanted and what the Code allowed. Society had changed, but the Code had not changed with it.

In 1959, the PCA decided that if a “moral conflict provided the proper frame of reference, a Code approved film could deal with any topic, except homosexuality.”

Some Like It Hot was released in 1959 and is considered by many to be the final domino that ended the power of the Hays Code. The film is a comedy where two men dress in drag for a large portion of the film, there is very clear queer subtext, and there’s inherently sexual content. Despite not receiving the PCA’s approval, the film was released and became an immediate hit. If the Code had been weak before, it was now almost useless.

While the Code no longer had the same power by the end of the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1968 that it was finally removed. The MPPDA was now the Motion Picture Association (MPA), and it replaced the Hays Code with the rating system we still use today: G, PG, R, and NC-17. PG13 was added later in the 1980s when several films were being released that didn’t fit neatly into any of the existing categories. There are still many issues with the modern rating system, but in comparison to the Hays Code, it’s hard to justify how long it was allowed to continue.

And now that the Hays Code is gone, and has been for more than fifty years, why does it matter that it existed at all? Why is it important that it’s still taught as part of film history and education? Because the effects of the Code are so ingrained in the entertainment industry that it’s impossible to separate. The industry that exists today is a direct product of that era, and no understanding of the current situation is possible without understanding those consequences of the Code that were covered earlier.

Queer people and their stories were banned entirely for decades. Racism was rampant in the entertainment industry, and still is, as in every other aspect of American society. Ableism has been perpetuated despite the Hays Code being affected by two World Wars that left millions with disabilities and requiring support needs. None of these stories were told. They were hidden and shamed and treated as evil, if alluded to at all.

The stories told (or not told) shape society and the individuals who live in it. There’s no denying the influence that the media has. The government regularly uses the entertainment industry for propaganda or as a distraction. Even back in the 1940s, the PCA overlooked the portion of the Hays Code that was very clear that no government, foreign or domestic, was allowed to be shown in a negative light because the federal government asked that pro-war, anti-German and anti-Japanese films be made and promoted. The government knew the influence the film industry had on the population and they used it to garner more support and sacrifice for the Second World War (this practice still continues).

All those who were hidden by the Hays Code are still trying to reclaim what they were excluded from a hundred years ago. It has taken decades to have queer films with queer main characters, and even longer to have queer films with any sort of happy ending. There is still a notable lack of roles for actors of colour and an even worse lack of awards given to those actors. Halle Berry was the first Black Woman to win a Leading Actress Oscar in 2001. That was 70 years after the Hays Code was created. No black actress has won that award since. Disability representation in the media is still decades away from where it should be. If stories about disability are told, they are often tokenizing, or used as inspiration for the plot or the main character, and often the roles are played by able-bodied actors rather than those living with the disability.

The effects of the Hays Code remain in the film industry and have infiltrated all forms of media. Television, streaming, publishing, music, and more have been affected by the legacy of the Hays Code and the way it was weaponized and manipulated to control people and the industry. Understanding the history of the Hays Code, how it came to be, and the consequences of its enforcement will make for a more media literate, well informed consumer. There is not a piece of media in existence that has not felt the effects of the Hays Code in some way. Recognising the inherent biases and discrimination in the industry are essential to understanding the entertainment landscape as it exists today.











































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