Degenerate Women: Hollywood and Sexism
Originally published by The IB Tauris Blog, March 2013.
"Responding to the Mae West film, She Done Him Wrong, Daniel Lord, the Catholic writer who in 1930 drafted the infamous Production Code, the censorship doctrine that would fundamentally shape Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, called it a picture about ‘degenerate’ women. In a quite explicit merger of American patriotism and Catholic morality, Lord called for Hollywood to make films about ‘business, industry and commerce’ instead. Not yet having the mighty Production Code Administration, or PCA (that would arrive in 1934 under the weighty leadership of the Catholic and anti-Semitic Joseph Breen) to call upon, Lord instructed American Catholics to boycott the film.
In 1933, at the Bishops Annual Conference in Washington DC, Lord listed 133 films, released in a six-month period that contained, so he argued, 26 episodes built on illicit love (sex out of wedlock), 13 where seductions had been accomplished, 12 where they had been planned and attempted, two depictions of rape, one of incest, 18 characters living in adultery, seven characters planning to commit the sin, three prostitutes as central characters and 25 films that presented ‘scenes and situations and dances and dialogues of indecent or obscene or anti-moral character’. Lord did not provide any insight into the manner of his research and the collation of this evidence and so it remains unknown whether these numbers were prepared for him by a team of ecclesiastical cinema ‘sexperts’ or by himself, presumably after innumerable hours of attending private vestry screenings. Nevertheless, the result is clear: in the year before the creation of the PCA (and its partner, the Catholic Church’s film review entity the Legion of Decency) Hollywood broadly seemed content to produce films in which sexuality and sensuality were central themes. Perhaps Hollywood was at that time part of a vanguard determined to provide women with sexual equality? Maybe Hollywood was holding a mirror to society’s sexual imprisonment of women? Or sex might simply have sold. In any event by the end of the 1930s, Catholic agencies had reshaped Hollywood’s content creating a dominant paradigm in which women were either subservient or faced both temporal and divine punishment.
Indeed, in 1932, Breen had lambasted America’s hitherto secular cultural producers stating in no uncertain terms that, ‘They’d put fucking in Macy’s window, if you gave them half a chance, and they’d argue till they were blue in the face that it was art.’ However, in practice Breen, the PCA and the Legion did not entirely forbid the representation of ‘degenerate’ women. The depiction of adulterers and illicit sex was useful to the American Catholic Church in its kulturkampf against the forces of modernity. It provided them with exemplars of immoral behaviour and led to the creation of Breen’s ‘compensating moral values’ paradigm. In other words, so long as the immoral, wanton female was suitably punished, the dramatic use of sexuality and sensuality would serve a significant educational purpose for other women to follow. Breen made this quite clear in his appraisal of the 1934 film,Ecstasy. ‘It is a story of illicit love and frustrated sex, treated in detail and without sufficient compensating moral values, the portrayal of the mare in heat, and of a rearing stallion, the actual scene in the cabin when the woman’s face registers the varying emotions of the sexual act – all are designed to stimulate the lower and baser elements and are suggestive, lustful and obscene.’ In the Legion of Decency’s review catalogue several pictures with varying themes of sexuality and sensuality were refused an A-1 or A-2 classification for the stated reason that the film ‘does not include any compensating moral value’, includingChinese Den (1940), Lady in Distress (1941), and Girl from Maxim (1941). To ensure the thorough implementation of these compensating moral values, Breen’s PCA office would critique the proposed film’s script before it went into production and then the Legion’s reviewers, known as ‘Looram’s Ladies’, would engage in an intensive appraisal of the final product. In its first year, 1934, Breen’s staff offered over 27,000 ‘opinions’ regarding the content of any given film and its employment of compensating moral values.
Moreover, women were employed to add legitimacy to the Catholic paternity under which Hollywood was toiling. To become one of Looram’s Ladies a potential employee had to be a Catholic woman in her 20s. The candidate was then tutored for six months by a veteran reviewer. One of the examinations a candidate was required to take involved reviewing a film and then offering an opinion to justify the Legion’s rating taken in isolation from her colleagues. It was, in its purest form, American Catholic culture school. To ensure the sanctity and consistency of the review process and to protect the youthful female reviewers from themselves being seduced and corrupted by the films they were subjected to, the reviewer would be compelled to read sobering literature such as the American Catholic review manuals, How to Judge the Morality of Motion Pictures and A Popular Guide to Right Standards in Motion Picture Entertainment. Its pages warned readers that as women they were the ‘weaker sex’ and were more likely to be stirred by the emotions of a film. On the topic of screen representations of partial nudity the text read that, ‘The Legion recognises the serious moral danger to those seeing it exposed… under attractive circumstances.’ The document also instructed reviewers how to Catholically appraise the screen’s depiction of emotional sympathy for moral sins. The text presented readers with two opposing film plots, Picture A and Picture B. The former was described as a ‘love triangle’:
It is entirely devoid of salacious details but it proposes the doc- trine that when a man’s wife is selfish and unsympathetic, he is entirely justified in turning to another woman for love and hap- piness. In short, the film condones and justifies adultery. It does this not by ethical arguments but by emotional appeal. Deeply stirred by the picture, many of those witnessing it are apt to sympathise with the hero, approve his conduct and thus change their former convictions. Thus may we be led to believe that under certain circumstances adultery is excusable. This is a false moral standard, wholly at variance with traditional belief.
Picture B centred on a ‘young romance’. ‘Because of some circum- stances,’ the guide wrote, perhaps ‘parental objections, let us say, or lack of money – the hero and heroine are forced to postpone marriage indefinitely.’ The guide continues:
They are young and persuaded that they cannot live without each other, they refuse to await marriage. Here is a film which by its sympathetic treatment presents most speciously the doc- trine that sex experience is but the culmination of true love. It preaches that true lovers would be fools to defer it until marriage, and that pre-marital relations in such cases are pardonable. Because the hero’s attractive and the heroine beautiful, the audience is inclined to sympathise with them and even approve what they do. It may be persuaded that deep and tender love excuses sin. Here, again, is a false moral standard, wholly at variance with traditional morality.
So armed with Breen’s compensating moral values and bolstered by the well-schooled Looram’s Ladies, the American Catholic Church set about shaping Hollywood cultural product so as to present exemplars of pro-Catholic sexual virtues, who would be rewarded, and models of the American Catholic Church’s interpretation of sinfulness (particularly sexual sinfulness), who would be suitably punished. A good example was the film Baby Face(1934) in which the heroine used her sexual wiles to climb the social ladder. The heroine, Lilly, begins the film as a basement speakeasy barmaid. She uses her beauty and feminine charms to climb each floor of the social ladder, using a series of decent men each more economically successful, until she reaches the penthouse apartment of her latest lover, situated at the top of a New York skyscraper. However, in the final scene she is compelled to abandon her wanton life and loses her wealth and reputation in one fell swoop. Baby Face’s compensating moral value was that a sexually aggressive gold-digger must be punished by the men she has abused. Indeed, the PCA and the Legion considered this unfettered humiliation of a desperate woman to be a ‘happy ending’. Screen women of the 1930s were often punished with mortification and death if they attempted an independent life. This was evidently pointed out in the film’s tag-line which read, ‘She climbed the ladder of success: wrong by wrong!’
During the 1930s, whilst some gender-specific themes such as prostitution and abortion were forbidden from screen representation, the concept of female sexual liberation was permitted but only for the exclusive purpose of illustrating the damnation of the sinner. What today we might label as the ‘modern woman’, or perhaps, in the future, simply as a woman, was, in the eyes of Breen and the Legion of Decency, a fallen, Lilith figure; harbinger of corruption, whose ‘liberty’ or independence was a corrosive influence capable of melting so-called traditional morality.