The Hays Code and its Effects on Representation
Writer: Veronica Yung
Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat
Graphic Designer: Hannah Bugeja
Tw: mention of suicide
The lack of representation in the media, especially in movies, has been a problem for a long time. Before the mid-1930s, movies such as ‘Birds of Paradise’ (1932) and ‘’The Toll of the Sea’ (1922) had BIPOC characters portrayed by BIPOC actors (although some portrayals were offensive). That all changed in 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code began to be enforced within the film industry.
Some of the rules enforced were not negative, even leading to iconic symbolism within cinema. Foot popping during kisses was a result of a rule that forced women to have one foot on the floor to avoid sex scenes. Some were also humorous, like depicting married couples as sleeping in separate, twin beds, even if they had children, such as Lucy and Desi in ‘I Love Lucy.’
But because of the code, interaccial relationships were deemed ‘immoral,’ putting it on the same level as beastiality, making the enforcing code an extremely questionable decision on Hollywood’s part.
Many old films had plots where romance was integral, so the banning of interracial relationships led to BIPOC actors being casted as supporting characters instead of lead ones, as Hollywood preferred movies with white protagnists. There was also a rule that actors of different races could not have on screen relationships, even if one was in black/yellowface, which heavily impacted BIPOC actors with previous success in the industry.
During the code-era, Anna May Wong, a popular Chinese-American actress with international acclaim, known for ‘The Toll of the Sea’ (1922) and other successful movies, was only given supporting roles despite her talent and fame, with lots of lead roles for Chinese characters going to white people in yellowface. In 1935, casting for the 1937 film, ‘The Good Earth,’ a movie about Chinese farmers, began. Not surprisingly, she was rejected for the lead role of O-Lan, with the role being given to a white woman, Luise Rainer, instead. And guess what?
She won an Oscar.
Which is absolutely infuriating.
Another actress affected was Fredi Washington, a light-skinned, mixed-race woman who was most well known for her role in ‘Imitation of Life’ (1934). During the code-era, she struggled to find roles as she could not be paired with other black actors and because studios thought she may be mistaken as white. Because she was black, she was not allowed to be portrayed in a relationship with white leads. After her last film role in 1937, she worked in theatre and civil rights activism. Most prominently, she and other black actors, such as Noble Sissle and Ethel Waters, advocated for providing black actors with a wider range of roles instead of casting them in
stereotypical or minimal roles.
While the code stopped being enforced in 1964, movies that have come out post-code still show the impacts of it.
Tropes such as the Black best friend is a result of the code, and is still seen today. The Black best friend is seen with Dionne in ‘Clueless’ (1995), ‘Sam Fuller’ in Miss Congeniality 2 (2005) and Fareeda in ‘Tall Girl’ (2019), all of them being portrayed as sassy and violent. This made their characters stereotypical and one-dimensional in comparison to the white leads.
Whitewashing is also a product of the code, as black/yellowface isn’t used to stop hiring POC actors anymore. In the 2015 movie ‘Aloha,’ Emma Stone, a white woman, plays a character named Ng, who is quarter Chinese, quarter Hawai’ian and half white. ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2014) portrays biblical figures, who are from the Middle East (which Western Christianity continuously refuses to accept), as white. Sadly, there are countless more examples.
The code also had a lasting effect on LGBTQ+ representation, with no positive portrayals of homosexuality being allowed. Most of these portrayals showed homosexuality as evil or predatory, like in ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1961), or directors just chose to end it negatively, like in ‘The Children’s Hour’ (1961), where a character commits suicide. These aspects are seen in post-code movies, namely with the ‘psycho lesbian’ trope (‘My Summer of Love’, 2004), just giving the plot a sad ending (‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ 2019), or most commonly, a combination of a sad ending and an uncomfortable age gap (‘Carol’ (2015), ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (2017), ‘Ammonite’ (2020)). Other ways homosexuality escaped censorship was through queercoding, where they weren’t portrayed explicitly but through characteristics and stereotypes. This is seen in characters such as Cairo in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1936) or Dr. David Huxley in ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938).
It’s upsetting to see how a single censorship code has carried on past the 1960s into the 21st century in an industry that is so influential and claims to be very progressive. The amount of movies with lead BIPOC characters are few, and BIPOC directors even fewer. How the code has managed to engrain itself into the industry really makes you wonder whether Hollywood would be like it is today if it was never enforced.