Friday, December 13, 2019

What’s so pure about entertainment?

What’s wrong with the modern American cinema? Out of the top twenty films in 2015, why were twelve rated R, six rated PG-13, and not one rated G? The reason for these depressing statistics is a simple one: films are merely rated but not censored. In other words, all obscene content is allowed as long as audiences are warned of it. Many people complain about the shocking content of nearly every film released in this country, and moral Americans dream about times in the past when they could go to the theater and see good films. Not even all senior citizens remember a time when every film was decent.
This is the opening passage from a post on a blog begun in 2016 called the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, originally written as a research paper by the blog’s creators, Tiffany and Rebekah Brannan. I first heard of the blog a few months ago, when I saw some bloggers taking part in one of the Brannans’ blogathons. The subject was the Hays Code, one about which the sisters know plenty: the bulk of their paper discusses the origins of the Code and its effects on Hollywood.

The Brannan Sisters are on a mission to not only educate their readers about the “benefits” of the Code on the American film industry, but to try to bring it back. They have a petition with which they hope to lobby modern Hollywood into making today’s movies more like those of the 1930s and 40s. To further quote them, “With films getting worse every year and the immorality in America rising to terrifying heights, something must be done to regain order. If America is going to change, Hollywood must change first.”

Friends and neighbors, I’ll be blunt. These women are severely misguided and wrong.

Here’s how.

Before the Code, movie stars like Mae West
got away with a lot of behavior in film
considered risqué for the times.
Yes, there are issues in Hollywood that need addressing: Disney is, if not a monopoly, then on the path to becoming one; online streaming is cutting into the theatrical moviegoing experience; minorities and women need more of a presence on both sides of the camera; etc. Some of these problems have harder solutions than others... but morality?

Even with this first paragraph, the Brannans have a problem with defining their terms. “Obscene” to whom? “Shocking” how? Which “morals”? And what do they mean by “decent”? I’ve looked and looked, but this doesn’t resemble an Onion-style gag site. Would that it was. The Brannans appear to be real, and serious in their goals.

What they fail to understand is this: culture evolves as times change. Just like genetic evolution, ideas best suited for their environment are the ones that stick around while the ones less suited fall out of favor and die over time. That’s how evolution works—gradually, over the long haul.

For example: with the advent of sound, the movie musical, both originals and ones adapted from the stage, became highly popular and thrived for years, but over time, as the environment (read: the movie industry) changed, originals, like Singin’ in the Rainbecame less suited for their environment and adaptations, like Les Miserables or Cats, stuck around. These days, original musicals are more likely to be animated, like the Frozen films, because animation is much more profitable than at the dawn of the sound era. Once in a while you get an outlier like La La Land, but not at the same rate as 70 or 80 years ago. The musical genre adapted to suit the times.

Post-WW2, Baby Doll got approval from the Production
Code Administration despite a vigorous Catholic boycott.
Then there’s the superhero genre. Within the wider environment, comic book superheroes were considered juvenile for decades, thus superhero films were practically non-existent. When the public perception of superheroes improved over time, the genre grew: the Superman films, beginning in 1978, then the Batman films, beginning in 1989, then the X-Men and Spider-Man films around the turn of the century, and now the Marvel and DC cinematic “universes,” and even original superhero films like Hancock and Super. The quality of the films had increased, acquiring traits best suited for its survival: writing that appealed to non-fans as well as fans, better special effects, higher quality acting. Now, a movie like, say, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, would not thrive in today’s environment. The superhero genre adapted and survived.

To suggest that ideas, memes—in the sense that big thinkers like Richard Dawkins define them; put the crazy lady yelling at the snarky cat out of your mind for a moment—such as the movie musical or the superhero genre or any genre, can evolve in reverse, as the Brannans propose, runs counter to the very concept of evolution. In 1999, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett wrote about cultural evolution and made this observation:
...The memes that proliferate will be the memes that replicate one way or another--by hook or by crook. Think of them as entering the brains of culture members, making phenotypic alterations thereupon, and then submitting themselves to the great selection tournament--not the Darwinian genetic fitness tournament (life is too short for that) but the Dawkinsian meme-fitness tournament. It is their fitness as memes that is on the line, not their host's genetic fitness. And the environments that embody the selective pressures that determine their fitness are composed in large measure of other memes. 
By the late 60s, with the Vietnam War on the nightly news,
films like The Wild Bunch upped the violence quotient.
If the meme in this case is the Hays Code, and its specific set of conditions for making movies, then history tells us over time, it proved unsuitable for its environment because other memes replicated and put pressure on the Code: foreign films and their alternate approaches, the encroachment of television, and on a wider level, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, and similar ideas that infected society at large and replicated inside the brains of filmmakers and audiences alike. These memes were fitter, better suited for survival, than the Code.

In other words, the Code had its day, but it’s done now, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect it to come back to the degree the Brannans want. Yes, great movies were made while the Code was in place, but I would argue that was in spite of the Code, not because of it.

The content of modern movies is “shocking” to the Brannans? Well, wait till they turn on the six o’clock news. Art has always reflected society: sometimes to expose an injustice, other times to laugh at the silliness of it, and good and bad are not as simple as the Brannans would have it. In this 2016 article that appears to blame Hollywood for “declining morals,” a media psychologist is quoted as saying violent antihero movies like Deadpool and Suicide Squad do not lead to copycat behavior on the part of their audiences—this was proven once again weeks ago with Joker—and she added this:
"There is a gray area between good and evil... We are having a huge amount of social conflict precisely because people are trying to make things binary. The world is messy and complex." [emphasis added]
In the early 70s, it was possible for an adult movie
like Deep Throat to go mainstream.
The Brannans provide no concrete evidence to support their claim that “many people” are up in arms about morality in films, and if their petition is any indication, their solution is vague and undefined. They propose to establish a “New Production Code Administration” headed by someone named James Brannan. Who the hell is he? Their dad? Uncle? Brother? A Google search revealed nothing related to film. Why does he need the Brannan Sisters to speak for him? What makes him qualified to run such a theoretical organization? What is his plan for overturning fifty years of progress? Does he even exist?

Tiffany and Rebekah, if you truly find modern movies offensive, well, I sympathize, but if you think turning back the clock to an earlier stage of development in American cinema is the answer, I suggest a much simpler solution: don’t watch them. Stick to Fred & Ginger and Shirley Temple and Charlie Chan. The rest of us will be over here in the 21st century, enjoying the diversity of movies being made, from Moonlight to Wonder Woman to The Irishman to Brittany Runs a Marathon and many more.

But don’t you fucking dare try to impose your values on us.


  1. I recently participated in my first blogathon on the site, and have frequently enjoyed the takes the Brannan's provide on individual films. Although I shake my head at the thought that the entertainment industry would ever seriously consider turning the clock back to the days of the Code.

    One of the things I like about the current era of entertainment is that we have access to things from the past alongside the work of the present. I am worried that the splintering of platforms will make that access I prize more difficult. However, perhaps when the dust settles it will prove the opposite.

  2. Well, please know I hold nothing against you for taking part in any of their blogathons. That’s your choice. If it weren’t for this agenda of theirs, I might’ve joined in their holiday blogathon too. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder whether someone told them this was the way to go and they believed it.

    1. I certainly didn't feel slighted. It is simply that I am always conflicted when interacting with the Brannans because I don't agree with their doomed aim. It was the holiday theme that grabbed me. I find we have some things in common beyond what I consider their strange reverence for Joseph Breen.

    2. You’re probably right. You’re certainly more charitable than me.

  3. It's a standing ovation from me, Rich.

    While reading this, I thought about an excellent documentary I saw years ago called The Celluloid Closet. It covers topics including scenes in many movies that got a lot of LGBTQ content past clueless censors during the time of the code. It's an entertaining and informative watch.

  4. Saw it during my video store years. Excellent film that taught me quite a few things about film history.

    Good to see you here again.

  5. "But don’t you fucking dare try to impose your values on us."

    sorry, I agree with much of your post, but this is absurd. Someone is always imposing their values on "Us". The Hayes Code forced movies to respect Patriotism and Religious beliefs. It didn't force them to ban Sexism or Racism (as understood today). Today its the exact opposite. In old Hollywood you could see Indians being shot down by the dozens and no one cared. Today, Quentin Tarantino shows white cowboys being shot down by the dozens and no one cares. Somebody is ALWAYS enforcing their views. Its just a matter of who.

  6. No one’s forcing you to watch Tarantino. Today you can choose to see, say, a Clint Eastwood movie instead and get a different perspective. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that says “respect patriotism.” There is something wrong with demanding every movie say “respect patriotism,” and that’s what the Brannans want.

  7. Thanks for the reply. I don't think I got my point across and that's my fault (I'll work my writing skills). But I agree, we should all watch the movies we want - and not watch those we don't. And rather than attacking people who watch the "Wrong" kind of movie - we should just accept others have differing views. Cheers. Great Blog.

  8. Your message was a bit tough to decipher, now that you mention it, but I guess I understood enough. Thanks for your thoughts. Drop by anytime.

  9. Man, I am aplauding you here, miles away. Someone needed to respond to those people. I didn't do that because I chose to ignore them, and I might get too passionate in my writing - after all, coming from a country that had two dictatorships in the last 100 years, I loathe censorship with a burning passion. As you wrote, there were many great classic films in spite of the Code, not because of it (take Billy Wilder's nearly whole body of work). Furthermore, there were almost no women or African-Americans behind the cameras in those "golden days" - they weren't golden for people like you and me if we worked in Hollywood.
    Anyway, recently in Brazil several positions in cinema and entertainment agencies have been taken by people like those Brannans, who want to make "films with Christian values" and "erase communism". Tell those Brannans they have a place here with other brainless censors. But let them know we, the Brazilian society, will put up a hell of a fight against them.

  10. Yeah, I had a feeling you’d have an Opinion on this! I briefly wondered whether this was even worth the trouble of a full post, but in the end I realized I couldn’t keep silent because they remind me too much of a certain mentality that’s been popular around here since, oh, 2016 or so...

    Obrigado, minha amiga.


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