The Hays Code

[Spoilers for: Uncharted 3, Disney movies (The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, Atlantis, Tangled, Treasure Planet, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Princess and the Frog, The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lion King), The Big Sleep (Yep, I know it’s a little silly to include something so old and iconic as a spoiler, but… spoilers are spoilers)]

The other day I was watching my partner play Uncharted 3. Our nickname for it is “Bargain Basement Indiana Jones,” which, while a little cheeky, still pretty accurately captures the spirit of the game. It’s beautifully designed and highly story driven, so it’s very entertaining to watch, even only as a spectator. We reached the final climactic scene, wherein the main villain dies:

I chuckled and said “well, he wouldn’t be the good guy if he didn’t at least try to save her,” and boy did that kick off a discussion. My partner has completed some film studies at university, and is knowledgeable about these things, so from this villain death we got into an epic discussion about the Hays Code and the way it’s influenced the entire Western understanding of stories, how they work, and what’s in them.

As a quick and dirty explanation, the Hays Code was a set of rules and guidelines used from the 1930s until about the 1960s in Hollywood to ensure that all movies were wholesome and moral, according to the Catholic viewpoint. It prohibited depictions of sex, murder, drugs, interracial relationships, nudity, homosexuality, insult to Christianity, swearing and also placed a lot of heavy restrictions on exactly how certain other things ought to be shown.

There’s lots of interesting reading about which movies were affected by the Hays Code when it was in its prime, such as this Mental Floss article, but Uncharted 3 got me thinking about the ways in which it still affects the visual language we use in stories now, and our expectations of how stories work. So, let’s look at a few examples:

Loose hair means sexy times

A woman lets down her hair and instantly becomes a sexual being. An iconic example from the Hay’s Code days is in the Big Sleep. It’s raining outside, so the hero can’t leave. The prim and proper librarian closes the door, gets out the whiskey glasses, lets down her hair, and now she’s a seductress and  they’re totally going to do it!

Fast forward to more recent times, and letting down the hair is a known and even parodied movie trope:

Foot popping = passionate kiss

You know when you see a couple kissing, and the woman is so into it her foot just pops up into the air like this? That’s a relic of the Hays Code, which stipulated that if a man and a woman were going to start kissing, she’d better still have at least one foot on the ground, otherwise it was too risqué. So, how to show that the kiss you’re having with your guy is extra steamy and romantic? By lifting one foot in the air like you are barely meeting the code!

The baddies always get their comeuppance

And the goodies save the day. But not by killing the baddies, because killing is bad. While a lot of the Hays Code doesn’t apply any more, it still shows up clearly in “family” movies, such as Disney movies. Check out this compilations of fifteen Disney villain deaths. All of the villains die as a result of their own evil doing rather than at the hand of the hero, and often the hero tries to help them anyway, or simply escape, rather than returning the aggression. If the goodies do attack back, their attacks will not cause the final blow or sidekicks will help them so they don’t have to do the killing themselves. The only possible exception in the compilation below is perhaps Eric from the Little Mermaid, who directly kills Ursula but only to save Ariel, and the lightning and the waves carry Ursula to her death all on their own.

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