Neither Joe Breen nor Will Hays killed Jean Harlow’s career. That was, alas, probably uremic poisoning; she died tragically young. However, had she lived, it seems unlikely her career would have continued on its trajectory. Jean Harlow didn’t just play bombshells. She played women in full control of their sexualities who didn’t have a problem using that sexuality to get what they wanted, if that was the easiest way to do it. She was extraordinarily popular with audiences—the most popular female star of the ’30s—but the studio was putting in heavy efforts to separate her from her onscreen persona in order to keep her from simply being banned from the screen.
One of the failings of the Motion Picture Production Code was its assumption that all movies had to be acceptable to all audiences. This meant that there were plots that were considered unacceptable on their face. Oh, sure, this is left from state and local censorship boards that had the same basic restriction, but it was still a serious problem. Not the only one. Not the worst one. But because all movies were supposed to be acceptable to all audiences, portrayals of large amounts of adult life were deemed unacceptable for presentation as a motion picture.
I can think of no men whose careers were damaged by the Code. By the time the Code was controlling Hollywood, the fallout of the coming of sound was over. People who weren’t able to act in the age of talkies were no longer in Hollywood. However, starting in 1934, there were women whose careers slipped. And that’s not all sexpots. I love Joan Blondell, but she went from leading to supporting, because the strong, independent leading roles she got before the Code went away, and you can’t call her a sexpot.
Worse, I feel as though the American movie industry has never really recovered from those lost decades. Because so many “acceptable” movies had women who were predominantly passive, audiences grew accustomed to seeing women in passive roles. Movies with important female characters were often dubbed “women’s pictures” and exclusively marketed to women. They were acceptable to men—how not, since men set the standards? But that didn’t mean that men were expected to actually be interested in them. This reinforced the idea that things about women are for women and things about men are universal.
When Hollywood started to break free of the Code, it was predominantly because men could afford to go up against it. They were gambling with their career, but it was easier for Otto Preminger to do it than, say, Ida Lupino. It was rare enough for her to get hired to direct at all; she didn’t have the cultural weight to stand up to the Code. The New Hollywood was primarily young men. They had, most of them, gone through film school, and what film school showed them was film as it had been made under the Code—film with limited opportunities from and perspectives of women.
Of course, there’s also a strong undercurrent of misogyny in the New Hollywood. No movement with such hatred of and disdain for women was going to restore the strong, dynamic women of the pre-Code era. There are exceptions, but by and large, the women of the New Hollywood era were passive or shrewish. They weren’t in control of their sexuality; if they had sexuality, they were defined by it. We have improved from those days, but not enough.
In those long-ago days before the home video market, movies routinely got rereleased into theatres. The problem with the coming of the Code became what movies were acceptable to rerelease. In recent years, many of these movies have been assembled into collections of DVDs—and it’s worth noting that most of the movies are about women. Yes, okay, there are also some crime movies. But with those, all you really had to do was throw an ending on showing that Crime Does Not Pay, and you could usually get it past the censors. Women’s stories where women were in control of their own lives were irredeemable.
To a certain extent, these roles made the shift to television. Characters such as Mary Richards were not as intense as a lot of those older characters, but Mary was an independent, intelligent woman who may have discreetly had sex, and the Code would not going to let that stand. Really, the characters who bear the most resemblance to certain Jean Harlow characters are the assorted women of Sex and the City. Television became casual on a number of subjects before movies did; in many ways, television was a way to break away from the limitations of the Code despite its own censorship.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that women are not the only group to have suffered under the Code. You don’t need me to tell you that its repercussions are being felt to this day in how other populations are presented as well. If the portrayal of straight, white, abled women suffered, how much so did women who weren’t all those things? It’s worth noting, however, that the portrayals of women went backwards. Movies had been made showing women as three-dimensional characters with at least as much agency as the men in those movies . . . and then they weren’t. And still aren’t.
What’s more, it went beyond the idea that men are the default and women are the exception. Even in the later so-called “women’s pictures,” women were being preached to that the ideal woman was passive. She was sexually repressed and would release all that sexual tension by pleasing her husband. She kept her household flawless—with or without the help of a maid. She was young. Her problems were not as important as those of her family. She almost never held a job; if she did, she would almost certainly give it up for a man. A depressing number of those things are still taken for granted in modern movies.
The Code didn’t invent this concept. Certainly you can find many, many women who fit this mold even in the silent era, much less the pre-Code years. What it did was limit women’s stories from breaking that mold and solidified it into what is expected even now. Regardless of any other factor about the woman, regardless of whatever other categories she fits into, she is also constrained by what men ninety years ago thought women should be like.