In 2020, the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” announced its new rules to win the Oscar of “Best motion picture”. Starting in 2024, movies hoping for the ultimate consecration will have to meet a series of diversity requirements. For example, the three following rules were defined:
• At least one of the leads, or at least one of the significant supporting actors, has to come from a “minority”;
• At least 30% of the actors in secondary and minor roles have to come from a pre-defined list of “minorities”;
• Or the plot has to be centered on a group that is currently underrepresented (women, LGBTQ+, disabled people, racial or ethnic group).
The definition of standards based on race, biological sex and sexual orientation logically triggered a lot of reactions, both against or in support of the initiative.
In reality, the emergence of these standards does not come out of the blue. Instead, I would like to argue that this is the final result of a long historical process that started in the 30’s.
In 1930, the biggest American movie-making studios agreed on the definition of a censorship code for the production of new movies. The code was painstakingly respected during the 1934-1966 period. It is now commonly referred to as the “Hays Code”, from the name of its creator: Will H. Hays, senator and president of the “Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association”.
Decided by the movie studios, the code’s birth followed a series of sexual scandals that took place in Hollywood. The most famous and important one was the Roscoe Arbuckle case, when a then famous actor and producer, Rosco Arbuckle, was accused of committing rape and of molesting the young actress Virgina Rappe — eventually leading to the death of his victim.
These scandals proved to be extremely shocking for the general American public. Afraid of losing audience and money, the movie studios preventively reacted by the creation of the “Hays code”, hoping to avoid any public backlash.
Another motivation for the code’s creation was that studios were constantly confronted with censorship scrutiny taking place at a national level, and not at the federal-state level. Inconsistent censorship rules meant that a movie could receive the green light to be produced and then forbidden in different states — a risk of censorship that the series of sex scandals could have aggravated.
The “Hays code” thus established a series of “laws” such as “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The main objective being to not take any chance of hurting the values and the morality of the audience.
Described as hypocritical and bourgeois, the code was finally abandoned in 1966. A series of movies act as milestones on the road to the code’s full disappearance. Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and The Graduate (1967). Even though “Rebel Without a Cause” still respected the code’s framework, it was the first massively popular movie to twist the code’s rules and portray the hero as a tortured young boy that cannot find its place in society – something that has now become a cliché.
The three other movies (Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate) are important landmarks for the birth of what would later be called the “New Hollywood”. Suddenly, movies started to project realities that were, until then, banned from the big screens: strong woman in charge of their sexuality, people taking drugs, authorities as a source of injustice and characters going against the arbitrary and unfair rules-of the American society.
These movies took their legitimacy from their criticism against the old code. However, they already planted the seeds that would later give birth to a new form of censorship.
All these movies not only depict their main characters as heroes fighting against oppression and the traditional society. These works, each in its particular way, also portray this fight as a desperate one. The society, until the end, hunt the heroes down and end-up winning (“The Graduate” being half an exception to this rule). This is especially true for “Easy Rider” where the main characters get beaten-up and killed by very caricatural representations of the American Redneck. The message was clear: the fight for liberty could not win unless society as a whole could be profoundly redefined.
This paranoid vision of the Counterculture paints its tenants as being surrounded by dangerous foes. This vision is the core of what will eventually lead to the rebirth of a new code that, from now on, I will, refer to as the “Miller Code” — from the name of the producer of “Mad Max” (2015).
“Mad Max” was probably the first successful blockbuster overtly and abundantly advertised as feminist. And the feminist message it carries is indeed made very clear through a series of strong symbolic choices. For example, a group of women freedom fighter epitomizes the fight against the patriarchy that is represented through a series of goofy and incredibly caricatural male characters. It is also worth noticing that all the evil guys are all males while all females are portrayed as either victims, heroes or forced by fear to follow men.
Mad Max marks the birth of the “Woke Cinema”, a genre that followed with works such as “A quiet place” (2018), “Birds of Prey” (2020), “Terminator Dark Fate” (2019) or even “Star Wars 8” (2017). These movies share a series of features established by Miller. For instance, they insist on reversing gender roles and shedding a positive light on women while men are, mostly, portrayed as negative characters. This is especially the case for “In a Quiet Place” where the movie starts with a fake optimistic description of the traditional family to better highlight that this family structure is the problem. The death of the overly protective husband is the key for the sudden empowerment of the female cast that, equipped of its newly gained self-confidence, is able to solve all the movies’ plots in a twinkle of an eye.
Similarly, to the “Hays Code”, the “Miller Code” appeared in the wake of series of scandals. Created in 2007, the #Metoo movement was rejuvenated and started to gain in both influence and popularity following the Weinstein scandal in 2017. The following revelations revealed the full extent of Hollywood’s moral bankruptcy. #Metoo was however not the first time that such criticisms were made against the movie industry. After all, the #oscarsowhite — which criticized Oscars for being overly “white” — started in 2015. However, it was the #mettoo movement that managed to exert a decisive influence over the movie industry.
As for the code created in 1930, the new censorship code, finally made official in 2020, originates in a decision taken by Hollywood executives. Once again, the code was primarily created to avoid a backlash and lose audience/money. Conveniently, the code also allowed movie stars to switch the blame to the entire society, thus perfectly hiding their own responsibility.
Time have changed, and the new code is not a set of clear laws listing what can be done or not. Instead, the “Miller code” follows the “Soft Law” model. The new censorship code incentivizes but does not officially forbid. However, the expected impact that is hoped for is exactly the same. Furthermore, some historical events and periods, such as Waterloo or the battle of Verdun, will be complicated to shoot if one hopes to win an Oscar.
History stutters but does not repeat itself. The new code directly descent from the counterculture paranoid premises that were born in the 60’s. Based on the idea that the representative of the “system” will never stop to track them down, the counterculture is the bedrock on which these rules are built. Considered as unconscious carriers of the systemic oppression and domination, white males, to name them clearly, are no longer individual actors playing a role, but oppressive symbols to be erased.
Instead of a genuine mea culpa that is still required from the Hollywood studios, this new set of hypocritical and damaging rules unjustly constraint creativity. Meanwhile, the movie studios can avoid to make any serious change and continue with “business as usual”.
It is a well-known strategy: attributing one’s own mischiefs to someone else to avoid any self-scrutiny. In psychology, it is called a “projection”.
In plain English, it is called being a phony.