Department of Theatre and Film
Myth, Genre and Censorship in Hollywood Films
It is well known that film scholars have taken various approaches to the study of cinema. For example, some have insisted on lending a certain kind of autonomy to “auteurs” while others have pushed for a more historically grounded understanding of films. Perhaps less widely acknowledged is the fact that U.S. films are part of an industry that has millions of dollars riding on it every year, and, like any other major industry, it is concerned with generating a profit. Any consideration of films as an art form or social document must reckon with the reality that a film is, at a very important level, an industrial product. It is part of an industry that has to limit risks and that must pander to, as well as create, audience tastes and demands. For all the potential that cinema holds as an artistic or cultural medium, the collusion between different powerful institutions in the U.S. such as religion, education and politics means that U.S. films become a means of perpetuating certain myths that make these institutions more powerful. It is interesting to look at the role these institutions play when considering questions of tacit censorship in mainstream U.S. cinema.
In this essay, I will argue that Hollywood operates as the chief medium through which the normalizing “myths” of capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, and family are fed to audiences in a palatable manner. By myths, I refer not just specifically to sacred stories of a remote past validating one’s religion, but rather, I use the term to indicate all values and beliefs that have been constructed over time in the U.S to justify mainstream ways of life. Bronisław Malinowski argues in his essay “Myth in Primitive Psychology” that myths function as fictitious accounts of the origin of rituals, thereby corroborating them; myth “gives rituals a hoary past and thereby sanctions them” (199). The daily rituals of American social, political, religious and economic life that the secular myths justify are best ingrained through Hollywood movies, especially genre movies. It is partly through such movies that, these myths come to operate as a form of censorship, and indeed censorship boards in Hollywood, such as the MPAA (formerly the MPPDA) have always reflected and continue to reflect the ideals contained in these myths.
Hollywood movies have largely been genre-driven and genre formulas are one of the predominant tropes through which Hollywood presents audiences with a view of the world that maintains the status quo. As Judith Hess points out, “Hollywood genre films—the western, science fiction film, horror film, gangster film—have been the most popular (and thus the most lucrative) products ever to emerge from the machinery of the U.S. film industry” (Hess). Traditionally, “genre” has been understood as a limiting, separating category and different genres are usually considered in isolation from each other. Timothy Corrigan defines genre as “a category for classifying films in common patterns of form and content” (79). Similarly, Jacques Derrida, in his essay, “The Law of Genre,” notes that, “as soon as the word ‘genre’ is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn” (56). However, as Robin Wood observes in “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” similarities in plots and stories are found not just within certain genres, but across genres as well. He argues that “one of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre has been the tendency to treat genres as discrete” (Wood).
Critical of this tendency to treat each genre as pure and in isolation, Wood contends that “an ideological approach might suggest why they can’t be, however hard they may appear to try: at best they represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions” (Wood). He identifies a set of themes that can be found in a number of genres. These include the glorification of the heteronormative, patriarchal family and the importance of monogamous marriage; the promotion of capitalism and the notion of “honest labour”; and stereotypical, sexist depiction of women as either “pure,” saintly nurturers or evil seductresses (Wood). Wood’s demonstration that all Hollywood plots, across all genres, can be reduced to a few basic ideas recalls Vladimir Propp’s contention in A Morphology of Russian Folktales that all Russian folktales can be broken down into thirty-one functions and seven character types (25). Propp’s thesis has been adopted by formalist critics of films, but his theory also neatly compliments what Wood implies in his essay on film genre.
The connection between mainstream Hollywood genre films and folktales or mythology is also noted by Thomas Schatz. In his essay, “The Structural Influence: New Directions in Film Genre Study,” Schatz looks at the genre film as a “contemporary folktale” (46). He proposes that “considering the genre film as a popular folktale assigns to it a mythic function that generates its unique structure, whose function is the ritualization of collective ideals, the celebration of temporarily resolved social and cultural conflicts behind the guise of entertainment” (47). Similarly, in “Genre Films and the Status Quo,” Judith Hess points out that genre films have traditionally been successful because “they temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts. They helped to discourage any action which might otherwise follow upon the pressure generated by living with these conflicts. Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt” (Hess). Hess thus identifies the covert agenda of genre films. She points out that genre films “serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts”(Hess). In doing so, the genre film functions as a purveyor of cultural myths.
A myth is very much a part of the story that a culture/nation, wants to narrate about itself. In “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” Malonowski points out that a myth fulfills “an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency and contains practical rules for the guidance of man” (199). Reading Propp’s and Malonowski’s discussion of myths in conjunction with Schatz’s, Wood’s and Hess’s essays on genre, it becomes clear that the myths that U.S. mainstream films codify include the sacredness of private property, the importance of hard work, the idea that money is not the key to happiness, the belief that a “good” woman stays at home and cares for her children, and so on. Importantly, these are all myths that help to sustain a capitalistic, patriarchal social order. What seems to emerge, then, is that most Hollywood films basically find different ways to reaffirm some combination of myths that maintain the status quo. Sometimes, as in the case of horror or noir films, this is done by exploring the fears that threaten these myths, and then by the end of the film magically expelling those threats. Thus, different genres may have different themes, narrative styles, and settings, yet the essential principles governing the films remain the same.
The fact that genre films’ endorsement of these national myths is not purely incidental, but rather well-thought out and deliberate, becomes clearer if we consider the kinds of directives that Hollywood’s censors (both official and de facto) have been meting out to its moviemakers. In Hollywood Censored, Gregory Black explains the main problems with the studio system of classical Hollywood: “Movies were the product of a large corporate, collaborative enterprise. The cost of production and distribution was enormous. The goal of the studios and the corporations that controlled them was profit, not art” (5). And profit, invariably, lay in feeding the old, familiar, somewhat comforting myths to the audiences. At the same time, though, no less important was the power of censorship boards over the content of Hollywood films. Black explains that in the studio era “much of the blame for the failure of the movies to deal more frankly and honestly with life lay with a rigid censorship imposed on the industry itself . . . which the industry not only accepted, but embraced, encouraged and enforced” (5). Black is, of course, talking about classical Hollywood and referring to codes like the Motion Picture Production Code, which was created by the very Catholic Martin Quigley and the Jesuit priest Father Daniel A Lord, and endorsed vehemently by head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, William Hays, who was also a Presbyterian Elder and former head of the Republican National Committee (Black 21-44).
Indeed, what was censored by the Production Code was anything that shook the American faith in the sanctity of the heteronormative nuclear family, Christianity, and the American nation. For instance, the Code censured positive depictions of infidelity, incest, or homosexuality, with tenets like “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld” and “impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful,” while stipulations like “the use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful” and “ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains” respectively sought to ensure positive representations of the American nation and of the Church (The Motion Picture Production Code). By no means unaware of the power of film in influencing the masses, the Production Code also stated that “a wide knowledge of life and of living is made possible through the film. When right standards are consistently presented, the motion picture exercises the most powerful influences. It builds character, develops right ideals, inculcates correct principles, and all this in attractive story form.” It also asserted that “if motion pictures consistently hold up for admiration high types of characters and present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind” (The Motion Picture Production Code).
Thus, what Schatz identifies as genre films’ tendency to represent an idealized cultural self-image, and what Robin Wood identifies in American films of all kinds as a sometimes blatant, sometimes covert “American capitalist ideology” (Wood), can be attributed at least partly to powerful institutions like the MPPDA/MPAA that control film content through censorship and other regulatory methods. It is not surprising that what institutions like the Hollywood censorship board or the Church try to curb in movies is often precisely anything that endangers the myths that Wood and Schatz describe—myths which keep the status quo of capitalism, Christianity, patriarchy, etc., in place. Indeed, when Malonowski says that myth “expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency and contains practical rules for the guidance of man” (199), he may well be talking about the goals of the Production Code Administration.
While the Production Code was scraped in 1968, the current film rating system enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America is no better, and the anonymous board that rates films before their release ends up upholding pretty much the same values as those endorsed by the Production Code. As demonstrated in Kirby Dick’s exposé on the MPAA, This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), not only do the Christian clergy continue to play a significant role in the MPAA’s suggested edits and ratings, but the MPAA also keeps pandering to the major studios and distribution companies. Dick’s investigations reveal, among other things, that the board seems to treat homosexual material much more harshly than heterosexual material, that senior raters have direct contact with studio personnel after movie screenings, and that the MPAA’s appeals board is made up mostly of movie theater chain and studio executives—not to mention the two members of the clergy (one Catholic and one Protestant), who are always included on the appeals board.
Thus, questions of genre, ideology, economics, and censorship seem to intersect over the question of the content of Hollywood films. American film, for all its potential as an art form, has found it difficult to break out of the limitations put on it as an industry with monetary profits as its goal. Aided by market-driven concerns and external and internal censorship boards, Hollywood has emerged as a business that sells national and cultural myths as its primary product, and in doing so provides “entertainment” that abates fears and provides neat resolutions to complicated questions about ourselves and our surroundings.
Black, Gregory. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.
Hess, Judith, “Genre Films and the Status Quo”. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 1, May-June 1974. Web. April 25, 2011.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). <http://www.artsreformation.com/ a00/ hays-code.html> Web.