The Hays Code and it’s Continuing Influence on Queer Subtext in Media
I’m bookish, so I always wanted to write about this.
Very briefly, the Hays Code (or Production Code) was imposed on American cinema in 1930 by the MPPDA, which is now know as the MPAA. Basically it restricted what could be shown, talked about, or eluded to. It envisioned motion pictures as upholding the morals of puritan descendants. No sex, nudity, violence, interracial relationships, lustful kissing, homosexuality, disrespecting the flag, etc. Films made during this period alluded to homosexuality, inferences that sometimes only other Queers could catch on. Sometimes the responsibility for the implied queerness came from the writer, sometimes from the directors, and sometimes from the actors. Sometimes the other actor would be totally clueless that this is what was going on in their scene. Literally, the Hays Code fostered a hidden code for queer spectators to see tinges of their lives briefly appear on screen. This became subtext, think Spartacus, or Dave and Hal in 2001 a Space Odyssey, or a slew of Hitchcock films. The Hays Code officially died in 1967, and became the MPAA ratings system. Although one might think that’s a positive step, consider how often queer films have been given the dreaded NC17 label, effectively hampering it’s distribution and audience. Some out there directors (ie Todd Haynes) still shoot alternate scenes in case they need to squeak under to an R rating.
Anyway, back to subtext. I was an avid subtextual audience member. I loved subtext, and I have to admit I still do. Oh sure, I love blatantly queer work for sure, but in uber mainstream stuff subtext cranks my nipples. The last great subtextual lesbian relationship I was obsessed with was Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine. It was a great plot, starship captain meets borg, liberates her, and succumbs to her feelings. Only that’s not what really happened. But I liked to live in a world where it did happen, and so did lots of other lesbians.
Which brings me to slash, or fan fic. It was a natural progression from subtextual readings. Some of the most popular slash is Kirk/Spock, Xena/Gabrielle, and Janeway/Seven. A billion other pairings exist out there from shows such as CSI, Buffy, all Star Treks, Lord of The Rings, Batman/Robin, etc. Some of it’s romantic, some of it’s sexual, and some of it is violent. What I like about slash is how people were able to interact and engage with mainstream characters and make them more complex, more queer, sometimes even tell WAY better stories than the originals. These iconic figures are our modern day folk heros, and like any good stories, people change them, people retell them differently, they grow and evolve. This is a natural occurance in all cultures with story telling traditions. Of course now we have things called copyright and trademarks and so forth. But it’s hard to send someone a cease and desist for sending out photocopies of stories or posting writing on message boards under pseodonyms.
Another interesting thing somewhat related to the Hays Code and the later MPAA is the rise of Queer Film Festivals. The need was obviously there, film and video equipment was becoming more available to the public and experimental films were being created. People wanted to see their lives depicted by people from their communities, we wanted our own stories told. So voila, film festival. If their films were screened for the MPAA ratings board (which was a must in all films being screened), too many films would be censored. So the smart thing to do was for the festivals to require the audience to buy a membership. You can screen whatever you like to members of your society. A lot of festivals do this nowadays, even the big international festivals. Sadly, I think the hayday of the Queer film festival is fading. Programmers are making more conservative choices, shorts aren’t being screened as often, and the audiences are demanding films and videos that are more slick and Hollywood, even though we were shunned out of Hollywood all those years ago and still are. There’s a lack of decent funding for queer work, and yet DIY work is kind of poo poohed, even though it’s the medium for the most marginalized voices.
Anyway, I have one more thing somewhat related. My first video was being screened at The Fire I’ve Become, a queer film fest at the Glenbow in Calgary. I had just turned a squeaky clean seventeen. I wasn’t out at school. Some people knew, but not a lot. I still had another year to go. The title of my video was Lessons In Baby Dyke Theory. I thought it was a funny title. The cast were some pipe cleaner dolls and a monologue of me wondering where all the other teenage lesbians were. Well, the Ratings Board in Alberta got a hold of it. Basically it was rated so that even if I was at the screening I wouldn’t be allowed admission because I was underage to see my own video. Not only that, but I got outed by Alberta MP’s and MLA’s. It’s true. One sleepy morning my mom showed me the paper and there was my name, along with a whole lot of garbage about how it was a recruiting film targeting children. The irony of all of this was that my friend Christopher was being kicked out of his MFA program for outing Sylvia Fedoruk, the then Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan. She was a prominent official and if word got out she was a rug muncher she could have problems. Whereas I was just a teenage lesbian in a redneck city in a teeny closeminded high school subject to bullying, harrassment, and violence, and my life didn’t mean much.
Yup. And that’s my story of how the Hays code came to bite me in the ass when I was a teen.
Oh yah, and to illustrate subtext from my fav pairing, check out Captain Janeway checking out Seven’s breasts. I too noticed she kept checking out that bust.