The moral censorship of Hollywood

Words: Isabelle Drury


It’s easy to think that portrayals of subjects considered risky or controversial in film and TV have undergone a linear progression over the last century. LGBT+ communities and People of Colour receive more and better representation today than they did ten years ago: why wouldn’t the same progress be true of the last 100 years?

In reality, progress has been far from straightforward, and has had to maneuver over numerous barriers. For Hollywood, the highest of these was the Hays Code.

The Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, was a set of moral guidelines for self-censorship in the cinema industry, adhered to by most major Hollywood studios from 1934 until the late 1950s. 

In the early 1900s, the public image of Hollywood and the movie industry had become ‘scandalous’ by definition. Popular newspapers and magazines ran gossip stories about the biggest stars, while directors pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on screen – homosexuality, orgies, violence, murder, shameless political critique. It was all there.

The supposed lewdness of this content led to the federal government to threaten to establish a national censorship board. To prevent it, Hollywood bosses and movie studios decided to voluntarily censor themselves.

The US-based trade association Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was established in 1922. It came to be known as the Hays Office after its president, Will H. Hays.

The code was written by a Jesuit priest and Catholic publisher, Daniel A. Lord, and began as an advisory but quickly became obligatory. It required all major and minor film producers to submit their scripts before production for censorship: if a film was released without approval, the makers would face heavy fines.

The Hays Code ruled out the inclusion of any of the following in major film releases:

  • “Pointed profanity — by either title or lip — this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  • Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  • The illegal traffic in drugs;
  • Any inference of sex perversion;
  • White slavery;
  • Miscegenation;
  • Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  • Scenes of actual childbirth — in fact or in silhouette; 
  • Children’s sex organs;
  • Ridicule of the clergy;
  • Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.”

It also required the taking of ‘special care’ in the treatment of the following subjects:

  • “The use of the flag;
  • International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  • Arson;
  • The use of firearms;
  • Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron [a reference to people with learning disabilities]);
  • Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  • Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  • Methods of smuggling;
  • Third-degree methods [torture];
  • Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  • Sympathy for criminals;
  • Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  • Sedition [incitement to civil disorder];
  • Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  • Branding of people or animals;
  • The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  • Rape or attempted rape;
  • First-night scenes [sex as consummation of marriage];
  • Man and woman in bed together;
  • Deliberate seduction of girls;
  • The institution of marriage;
  • Surgical operations;
  • The use of drugs;
  • Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  • Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy” [criminal].”

Some of this seems reasonable. Some of it less so. But what’s striking about the Code today is its unforeseen and ongoing consequences.

For example, despite no clause limiting the presence of People of Colour in movies, the Code inhibited their work. Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American actress whose career had blossomed pre-Code, was meant to be a shoo-in for a role in The Good Earth (1937), a film about Chinese farmers. But the creators cast a white male in yellowface as the protagonist, which – because of the miscegenation rule – meant the lead female had to be a white woman in yellowface, too. 

Fredi Washington, an actress of mixed-race heritage, also struggled as a light-skinned Black woman during the Code years. She was unable to play alongside a white man, but she wasn’t allowed to stand opposite a Black actor, either, because there was a potential for her to be perceived by the audience as a white woman.

It took a while to interracial couples to appear in pop culture after the Code’s influence dwindled in the 50s. The first kiss between white and Black actors famously took place on American screens in Star Trek in 1968. (A British TV show, Hot Summer Night, had broken the same barrier in 1959: Britain’s version of the Hays Code, a 1916 list of infractions written by the British Board of Film Classification, had less stringent rules on race – but it outlawed depictions of things like ‘the relationship of capital and labour’, and ‘subjects dealing with India’.)

The Hays Code also ruled out sympathy for criminals: those who did wrong were expected to get their comeuppance. But Hollywood also had a tendency to code criminals as camp, with men often effeminate and dainty, and women more likely to be masculine. The 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter was about a female vampire known for killing women, and was said to follow the lesbian vampire trope; The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941, portrayed its male character Joel – who is eventually confirmed as the villain – as feminine, which for the protagonist is a source of suspicion. 

These villains usually die at the end of their respective stories. The commonality led to the trope known as ‘bury your gays’, which continues to this day.

The authority of the guidelines started to weaken in the 1950s, due to the influence of foreign films and controversial directors who pushed boundaries, and the Code was eventually replaced by the MPA film rating system in 1968. But the tropes and biases the Code created are still a prominent feature of today’s film industry. Villains are still camp: Disney, particularly, has been called out for queer-coding its antagonists. It’s been said that Satan himself is portrayed in a flamboyant way. 

Similarly, actors of Colour continue to be pushed out the door in favour of white counterparts. Recent examples include Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell (2017) and Juliette Binoche in The 33 (2015), while ‘like goes with like’ continues to be commonplace in depictions of romantic relationships involving ethnic minority characters.

Although a product of regressive political and social attitudes, as well as a contributor, the Hays Code had a serious effect on the depiction of certain groups and practices in the pop culture that an entire generation grew up on. We all learn ‘normality’ from the films and TV we watch, at least in part, both as children and as adults. The social schisms reinforced by the Code still run under our political interactions and the culture we consume: equal representation in film and TV still has a long way to go.

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Isabelle is a writer and journalist who focuses on activism and mental health. You can read more of her work on her Medium, or follow her on Twitter.