The Facade of Freedom of Speech: The Reign of the MPAA
The second entry in the censorship series tells the story of a man who tossed a cigarette butt into a proverbial creative forest and started an uncontainable wildfire. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), which would later become the Motion Picture Association of America, was formed by an ex-government official, former Postmaster General and stark evangelist William H. Hays. Though not an official government organization, the MPAA has always been run by ex-government employees and leaders. Hays would become known for passing the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code.
Under the Hays Code, nudity and suggestive dances, the ridicule of religion, the depiction of illegal drug and liquor “when not required by the plot or for proper characterization,” methods of crime, references to sex perversions such as homosexuality and venereal disease, depictions of childbirth, various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive, explicit murder scenes, “Revenge in modern times,” the violation of the sanctity of marriage and the home, adultery and illicit sex, portrayals of miscegenation, “Scenes of Passion” when not essential to the plot, “Excessive and lustful kissing,” along with any other treatment that might “stimulate the lower and baser element,” the disrespect of the flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, unfair presentation of the people and history of other nations, “Vulgarity”, defined as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects,” pending “good taste, “Capital punishment, torture, cruelty to children and animals, prostitution, and surgical operations were expressly prohibited or only to be implied.
Where was this “regulation” when The Birth of a Nation was released? There’s a consistent pattern: preserve traditional, conservative values; only apply censorship to freedom of speech when it threatens those values.
Although not in the medium of film, Margaret Sanger’s federal violation for her The Woman Rebel newspaper, published in 1914, was a continuation of the conservative push to suppress progressive values and preserve traditional Christian values. Preaching that a woman had rightful autonomy over her body and spreading the important message that birth control is a woman’s right, Sanger was indicted under the Comstock Act, which made illegal publication, distribution, and possession of information about or devices or medications for “unlawful” abortion or contraception. In 1930, Mary Ware Dennett is convicted of obscenity for distributing The Sex Side of Life, a pamphlet also spreading the word about contraception. Today, nothing seems to have changed, if one were to turn on the news this very instance; despite the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Planned Parenthood, and much progress on women’s rights, eight states, all in middle America, have passed bills to limit abortion, with Alabama banning abortion completely.
The Reign of the MPAA
In film, abortion would eventually be protected under the First Amendment, despite Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio’s 1915 Supreme Court ruling that films are not. Ironically, the MPAA had a hand in helping the First Amendment cover film. Under former head of U.S. Chamber of Commerce Eric Johnston’s leadership, with heat from the federal government, the MPAA would review the Hays Code in 1956, loosening its prohibitions on the portrayal of drug use, abortion, miscegenation, and prostitution. However, the revised code added a ban on “blasphemy” and the ridiculing of clergymen and women, another desperate push to preserve a conservative America in the face of progressive ideologies.
This review came after the 1952 Supreme Court decision in Burstyn v. Wilson lifted the ban on Italian Neorealist founder, father of modern Italian Cinema, proud communist (again, ironically), and cinematic genius Roberto Rossellini’s Il miracolo, or The Miracle, the second part of his 1948 anthology film, L’Amore, which depicts a young woman getting raped while drunk who is subsequently convinced that her pregnancy is a miracle akin to the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception. Finally, the Supreme Court officially stated that “motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” thus protected to a limited extent under the First Amendment.
Eroding Conservative Barriers to Creative Expression
Progress quickly followed suit, and conservative values in film began to slowly slip away for the betterment of humankind and the sake of artistic expression. In 1957, Roth v. United States established that sexually explicit content is protected by the First Amendment so long as it carries “redeeming social importance.” This was a landmark ruling that paved the road for further artistic liberties. Soon after, adultery and the “right to cast contempt upon” the flag were protected under the First Amendment.
However, as history has showed us, progress is rarely linear. When former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, Jack Valenti (a federal government affiliate by design), became head of the MPAA in 1966, he revised the Production Code, creating the category, “SMA – Suggested for Mature Audiences” for “blatant” material. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was the first film to earn a SMA Rating by the MPAA. The MPAA would issue the nationwide, universal set of ratings that audiences are familiar with today in 1968, with the exception of the dreaded X-Rating, which became synonymous with pornography.
Although the X-Rated Midnight Cowboy won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1969, no X-Rated film has ever been a box office success. Even when the MPAA changed its X-Rating to NC-17 in an attempt to separate the classification of films that receive these ratings from pornography in the eyes of a portion of the concerned public, TV, and newspapers refused to advertise these films, some theaters refused to screen them, and extremist evangelists protest to block large video chains and retailers, such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, not to stock NC-17 titles. The NC-17 Rating is a form of censorship designed to curb distribution for a film deemed controversial so that it doesn’t reach the masses.
A Monopoly of Narrative Authority
All six major Hollywood studios (formerly seven before Fox-Disney merger) submit their films to the MPAA rating board. Films that don’t choose to do so, do not get shown in major video retail stores and movie theaters (as most are MPAA-affiliated). Films that aren’t rated by the MPAA, along with films that do submit to the board and receive the dreaded NC-17 Rating, are banned in many foreign markets. The MPAA may be voluntary, but not submitting to their rating board can be the proverbial “kiss of death” for a film’s lifecycle. Still, film is forever confined by the standards of the wildfire of the MPAA.
There remains a consistent theme of conservatism throughout this series of articles. No presidential administration has been immune to the values that have so consistently remained fundamentally unchanged since the first censorship laws were enforced in Chicago in 1907. While the MPAA has been preserving conservative values through censorship at home, government institutions, namely the C.I.A., F.B.I., and Pentagon, have been steadfastly attempting to maintain the public image of the same extension of those conservative values (especially love thy neighbor in regards to foreign policy), preserving their own, false self-images. The third and final article will discuss an issue beyond censorship: Deep state involvement in the production of film and television that happens every day while we either blindly accept it, are subconsciously manipulated by it, maintain an indifference towards it, or attempt to point out the behavior we would criticize from afar in more authoritarian-leaning countries. Stay tuned.