Code, Read: Hollywood’s Hays Code and the Queer Stereotypes of the Silver Screen

Code, Read
Exhibit dates: 
Thursday, February 5, 2015 to Friday, March 13, 2015
Reception date & time: 
N/A [Screening schedule below]
Description: 
From the first appearance of subversive same-sex interaction on film, in William K.L. Dickson’s motion picture The Dickson Experimental Sound Film/The Gay Brothers (1895), the representation of LGBTQ characters and themes in popular cinema has been largely stereotypical.
 
The flamboyant, effeminate, and often comedic caricature of the “sissy” became prominent in early silent cinema, wherein theatricality was necessary to convey a film’s plot. The sissy transitioned easily from silent cinema into talkies, where his unconventional voice and mannerisms secured his role as a comedic staple.
 
As films of the 1920s and 30s grew more sophisticated, and as Depression-era audiences dwindled, there was increasing demand for more controversial characters. The hitherto harmless sissy was offset both by more complex queer figures and by more scandalous stereotypes. Debates subsequently arose about the negative effect that Hollywood cinema, and its questionable morals, might have upon society as a whole.
 
In response, the Motion Picture Production Code, or “Hays Code”, put in place a series of censorship guidelines by which the production of indecent or immoral filmic content would be restricted. The institution of the Hayes Code heralded the end of the sissy –and his more complex counterparts– in popular cinema, and the beginning of more reserved queer characters whose true nature was necessarily buried by subtext and innuendo. Between 1930 and 1968, a span that encompassed Hollywood’s Golden Age of film production, queer characters were either obscured through ambiguity or else written out entirely from Hollywood films. Alternatively, since the Hays Code was willing to allow “sexual perversion” if depicted in a negative light, queer characters who remained in the picture were presented as a series of unflattering stereotypes: murderous villains, suicidal misfits, farcical fairies, or sexual rebels in need of reform.
 
120 years after The Gay Brothers, it is debatable whether the depiction of queer characters in popular cinema is any more nuanced than it once was. What is clear is the effect that artistic censorship had, and continues to have, on depictions of LGBTQ culture in North American film. Code, Read invites the viewer to revisit a selection of lesser-seen pre-Code pictures and Golden Age cinematic classics, decoding their dialogue, plot development, characters and themes from a queer perspective. In the process, it asks viewers to consider how films both reflect and shape social attitudes towards non-normative gender roles and sexualities.    
 
Recommended Viewing
 
A chronological listing of select pre-Code and Code-era Hollywood films that incorporate queer characters, themes, plotlines, actors and directors, and queer subtexts.
 

 

National Portrait Collection