Maybe Hollywood Needs a New Production Code to Protect Women
The exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual crimes last year was, in effect, the kicking over of a rock that brought all sorts of ugly things to light. Screen icons—men many of us had looked up to and admired and enjoyed all our lives—were revealed to be predators. Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Ben Affleck, and others in Hollywood have now been accused of abuse and misconduct as well. No matter how often we reminded ourselves that actors and characters are not the same people, that we never really knew these guys who had seemed so much a part of our lives: it’s painful.
Just when it felt like things couldn’t get more depressing, Ally Sheedy weighed in.
The star’s essay, published in Vulture, gets at the very heart of how women are viewed by the Hollywood powers-that-be. It’s not pretty. From her earliest days as an actress, Sheedy was made to understand that her body was not a director’s ideal, and that this was all that mattered about her.
So I dieted all. The. Time. I learned that whatever I might contribute to a role through talent would be instantly marginalized by my physical appearance. I learned that my success would be dependent on what the men in charge thought about my face and my body.
And even when she did start to find success, the dehumanization didn’t stop:
When I managed to land my first part in a big movie, I was given a ThighMaster as a welcome present and told to squeeze it between my legs at least a hundred times a day. A director of photography told me he couldn’t shoot me “looking like that” when I walked on set one day. . . . I was too wide, I guess, in the skirt they had given me to wear.
How did exploitation become the price that young women have to pay for using a God-given gift?These days Sheedy is teaching teenage actresses—teens who already have horrific stories of getting cast solely on physical appearance, being encouraged to take their clothes off and to diet down to unrealistic sizes, and knowing that succeeding in their chosen field will mean years of playing “thin and overly sexualized characters.” Teenagers.
For all those who were feeling some faint tinges of hope about the possibility of change in Hollywood, Sheedy’s raw honesty about the situation—her essay title literally stated that “Hollywood Sexism . . . Will Never Change”—was a bucket of ice water in the face. This isn’t just about powerful men abusing their power or taking advantage of the innocent. This is a question of how powerful men see girls and women. As one of her students told her, there’s no law that can change that: “People think it’s being fixed. . . . It’s not fixed. It can’t be fixed.” It’s a problem of the heart and the mind, a deficiency in the vision and the understanding.
Where does that leave talented young women? Additionally, where does it leave Christians who want to be responsible consumers of culture? Fellow Christ and Pop Culture members that I talked to were feeling pretty pessimistic about the whole thing. “This is honestly why I don’t even want my kids involved in theater,” Amanda Scoggins says. Vance Freeman expresses concern about his young daughter’s “passion” for musical theater and what might happen if she pursued it. Rachael Horner Starke asks, “How do these parents not see what they are enabling with their daughters?”
When people who read and write for a publication called Christ and Pop Culture are so disgusted that they’re turning against pop culture, you know things are bad.
I felt a lot of those feelings, too. But part of me was just angry. How did we manage to create an entertainment culture so deeply corrupt and hedonistic that responsible parents quail at the mere thought of their daughters getting into it? How did this become the price that young women have to pay for using a God-given gift? How can we accept that this is the way things are?
But what else is there to do? The entertainment industry is not going away. People of good will are not going to stop participating in it. And the stark truth is, if they did, it would be in far worse shape than it already is, and even more young women would be victimized.
Thinking about all this, I couldn’t help but remember the much-maligned Production Code that regulated Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. To this day, the Code, which dictated what could and couldn’t be shown on screen and was enforced by the Hays Office (later known as the Breen Office) under pressure from religious groups, is treated by many movie buffs as one of the most reprehensible systems ever created, just slightly below the gulag. I exaggerate, but only barely. Conversation with classic movie fans (I’ve participated in many) is often filled with admiration for the relatively racy “pre-code” films and contempt for the 1934 crackdown that cleaned up the movies. A typical article on the Turner Classic movies website laments the way “the era of censorship” ended a “racy and uninhibited period” of “sassy and taboo films.” Human nature does not love restraint.
It’s true that the Code was far from perfect. Its strictures sometimes bordered on the ludicrous, altering and even distorting the way stories were told. (A favorite example of mine is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, which was forced to change the murder around which the story revolves into an accidental killing.) And yet I’ve long felt that restraint in this case added something, as opposed to just taking something away.
For about three decades in the American film industry, there was little to no chance of a woman being ordered to strip down onscreen against her will or even to wear extra-skimpy clothing. Women were still sexualized sometimes, but there were balancing forces at work. More women were portrayed as working their way to the top in the sense of actually working their way to the top. The pre-Code depictions of women climbing the ladder one man at a time might give viewers a naughty little thrill, but they were also pretty limiting, often seeming to suggest that this was all there was for a truly ambitious woman.
And those fond nostalgic discussions of the pre-Code films don’t often seem to bring up what it must have been like for actresses to have to use their sexuality onscreen to get ahead, in a time that, in most respects, was stricter than our own. Or what kind of messages some of those films were sending about the worth and value of women.
Now we have stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Molly Ringwald talking about how uncomfortable these requirements and messages have made them, but we never seem to look back and apply those lessons to the first women who had to go through it.
I’m not saying that Hollywood after the Code came in was a paradise for young women; it wasn’t. Many women were still relentlessly exploited and victimized behind the scenes, because men in power still saw them as objects to be used, not people to be respected. One need look only at the tragic stories of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe to realize that—and those are only the best-known of many, many stories.
We might compare the Code to the Old Testament law that regulated behavior but could not by itself, as Paul tells us, bring hearts to repentance. Yet as Paul also tells us, the law has its uses. In this case, it allowed an industry full of corrupt and powerful insiders to nonetheless enable the telling of great stories that didn’t require women to starve themselves or bare their bodies. In public, at least, it offered those women a little protection.
These days, as #MeToo gains momentum, our culture is bent on demonstrating that our understanding of women’s dignity and worth has grown since those days. I wonder what might happen if we combined the old desire to restrain immorality onscreen with that new understanding—if, that is, we came up with a new version of a code. How exactly this would work, I’m not sure. As Ben Fort suggests in that CAPC discussion, “If it’s the pervasive top-to-bottom problem it seems like, every part of the process is in need of redemption. . . . We need people in each specific area working to redeem that work, with both existing structures and offering new models and spaces.” And Christians in the film industry would need to be actively involved in making it all happen.
Make no mistake, even the most minimal code would be enormously difficult to implement and even more difficult to enforce, now that we’ve enjoyed more than half a century of freedom to depict pretty much anything we want. And yet, as we’ve established, that freedom came with a price, and that price is being paid by girls as young as 15, and even younger. Are we willing to keep making them pay it? If not, we need to be willing to think creatively about how to protect their dignity and self-respect. And sometimes, as what’s now known as Hollywood’s Golden Age shows us, creativity actually flourishes where there’s a little restraint.
Note: All CAPC members were quoted with permission.