Hays Code and Genre Fiction

Posted: February 15, 2023 in On Writing
Tags: , , ,

This week (honestly, it has predated this week, but this week is when it bubbled to the surface of The Discourse, so here we are) has seen a few people calling for the return of the Hays’ Code. For those not in the know, the Hays’ Code was a (somewhat) voluntary self-imposed guideline that predated the current MPAA Rating System, and that prohibited certain things from showing up in movies. What things? Well, any explicit reference to sex, no miscegenation, no queers, and so on and so forth. Seriously, kisses couldn’t last more than three seconds. Can’t cast a Chinese actress if her male lead is a white guy in yellow face. Can’t have the youth of America be corrupted, now can we?

Anyway, the Code died a much needed death at the end of the ‘60s, but its presence still casts a long shadow in US (and by extension global) cinema. Why do people want to go back to it? It’s slightly complicated – but it amounts to certain people feeling uncomfortable with fictional(!) displays of sex and violence and using the cover of “but the Code meant people had to be more creative than they are today” as a way of forcing their puritanical views on the general public.

You can read more about why the code was bad and why a return to it is A Very Bad Idea here.

Anyway, this ties into something I’ve been thinking about in other contexts, namely guidelines I keep seeing in genre magazines (fantasy/sci-fi/spec fic in particular). Frequently you will see guidelines that stories that have sexual content are out (okay – so is a kiss okay, but missionary out? Is the main character stripping down to fight the bad guy sexual or does that depend on the gender of the mc? Do I trust the editor to understand that if I include a queer character, that it doesn’t make it explicitly sexual or not?) , or explicit language is verboten, but hey, throw in all the violence you want.

I’ve had stories of mine where I needed to edit out an f-bomb or it wouldn’t be published (something something about not wanting to get flagged on the ‘zon for explicit content). I tend not to include sexual contact in my stories anyway but if it made sense in the context of the story, why wouldn’t it be included? Look, some of my characters would sooner stab a body than look at them, and you want to tell me they’d be concerned about their language being uncouth? I’m not saying that every story need to sound like a bad rip off of a Tarantino script, but maybe, just maybe, the self-censorship isn’t needed and might be holding the genre back some.

And I know this is at least somewhat predicated on the genre and audience you are writing for, but every time I see another call for fantasy fiction that then deliberately cuts off part of the human experience I have to sit there and scratch my head and wonder “Why?”

  1. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but my take is fuck censorship, even voluntary, self-imposed censorship.

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