As a film student, I have read about the Hays Code before, and learned about its implications on film, what was allowed and not allowed, and how the filmmakers tried to work around it. However, I never learned what it really did for the representation of women specifically, and what the long-lasting affects and consequences of the code did for our society… As I have come to understand now, The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a self-regulative moral censorship over the movie industry, in place for over 30 years, that contributed to the creation of the stereotypical views of family, women and femininity we still have today.
Before the Hays code, women and their femininity was represented in film by standards not unlike those we see today – there was variation among them and they had interesting storylines. Women on the screen worked; they were portrayed as sexual; they could be married, divorced, having affairs; they could be powerful and smart; they could be villains, heroines, good mothers, bad mothers; they weren’t always heterosexual nor always dressed in women’s clothing, and there was no moral objective or slut shaming them. In contrast to this, after the Hays Code came in place, the representation of women and femininity became much more tame. If they strayed from being the perfect wife and mother, happy housewife, non-sexual, non-working woman, taking care of the family and the house, they were immoral and shown being punished for it. These new ideals, and the reason behind the Hays Code, came from Hollywood itself. After releasing some very risqué movies, and after some real life scandals involving movie stars, they thought it would be better to be self-regulated than having the government intervene, since movies were not protected under free speech.
Post WWII, women were almost exclusively portrayed as a white happy housewife, a stay-at-home mother, caring for the house and the family, consisting of a working father and (often two) children. This representation was not accurate, in fact, it was highly idealistic. After WWII, more women than ever worked outside of their homes, and divorce rates came to new highs as well. But these divorced working women had no place in the idealistic worlds of the movies and family-oriented television shows. The constant exposure to these images that portray women and families in this manner influenced the way we still imagine the “ideal” life is supposed to be; American Dream!
The first major action to challenge and critique the representation of women in media was the No More Miss America Protest in 1968, the same year that the Hays Code came to an end. In this protest, demonstrators filled the Atlantic City broad walk, with banners and signs, and with the freedom trashcan where objects of femininity that repressed women -were symbolically thrown away. Sadly however, the media focus and attention on this protest was on the unladylike demonstrators, instead on the demonstration itself, and also from this action, the idea of feminism and bra-burning was established and continues to be a negative act and stereotype associated with feminism to degrade it. I like the idea behind this protest, because not only did they bring attention to the problem, but they did it in public and with humor, but I also feel that protests like this doesn’t really do much for change, especially since the media focused on the wrong things to spread around. I liked the idea behind the Ladies Home Journal much better, because it actually forced a change. It might be more drastic and more unconventional, but it did cause a change and gained media attention in the way! The sit in caused the journal to reform its content and editorial staff to be more modern, and offer new interesting topics to its audience that were more in line with women’s actual life in the 60’s, and not pretending that women still lived in this idealistic 50’s life it usually portrayed.
In advertising, we still can see this old archetype of the woman as in charge of the household and taking care of the children, for example, when advertising for cleaning supplies it is usually being used by a woman, and when there are children involved, they are more often seen together with their mother than their father, regardless of the kids gender. Furthermore, in television and movies, women have fared a bit better, but the main archetypes that I have noticed are these three: the married woman, the single woman and the teenager just discovering her sexuality. All of these have one thing in common; men! The married woman is either living in a relatively happy marriage, and her struggles are concerned with balancing family and work. The single woman strives to get a man, either just for sex, or someone to marry and settle down with, but ultimately, she is lonely and wants a man in her life for one reason or another. The teenage girl is naive and insecure, has problems in school, at home (her mother might be one of those struggling married women mentioned above), with her friends (who can sometimes be like her, or more of the “slutty” single-type), but usually her main problem has something to do with a boy; getting him to notice her, keeping him, loosing her virginity to him, going to prom with him etc… Of course, this is just the way I see it, but as someone who does not fall into either type, they stick out all the more clear to me, since I often feel that I cannot to them; their problems are not my problems! These images are not accurate or inclusive, they leave many other types of women out. We do see other types (lesbians, women who don’t want children, independent women, women who puts their career first etc..) on screen, but not in the same capacity as these other “main” types, and when we do see them, they stand out and seem “abnormal” compared to the rest, and therefore, don’t seem as “good” or accepted – it’s only an exception from the norm… These images and themes regarding women still say that what women care most about in life is relationships with men, and that a woman’s life isn’t fulfilled or complete until she gets a man, and then her struggle continues because she now has to work to keep him. Now, I’m not saying that these aren’t real problems or that they don’t matter, taking about boys is basically all what my straight roommate does, all she wants is to find a man, get married, have children and settle down in a big nice house – but, if she got these ideas from the herself or from the constant exposure in the media that this is what she is supposed to do – that’s another question! Those who gain from this representation is the mainstream media and the industries out to make profit from women and girls who believe in and wants this ideal life, like the wedding industry, beauty and cosmetics companies, the health industry, and basically any company that sells products intended for women to become more attractive and thus, be able to get a man faster, or something that will make him stay longer.
I think that today, protests would do best in the viral world; using the media itself. Getting a video or an article viral, shared and linked and liked on the internet can reach an tremendous big audience, and create conversations with people everywhere. The mainstream media is important and still very powerful in spreading news and stories like this, but now with social media, the everyday person can do the same, and at the same time bypassing the media gatekeepers. Protests launched of sites like Facebook for example can spread to the outside world as well, you can rally forces by inviting people online and then meet up and hold a physical protest or demonstration if the cause is big enough. The media can be a friend or a foe, but in cases like this, it can be very useful to spread a message and get support and gain allies. After learning about culture jamming, ad busting, vidding and remixing in the last weeks, I also think that these kinds of methods can be effective, they are protesting in a way by highlight the fault in the mainstream media – but then again, you would need the media to spread theses new media creations, because what is a protest without anyone noticing it?
(Originally posted on 2014/11/10 for Melanie Klein’s class blog “Women and Popular Culture”)