Although often silently so, film censorship has been an important part of the history of American culture and more specifically of American cultural production. Most of the time, we view censorship as negative thing—and perhaps we should. Censors have removed material from many socially important texts (and sometimes banned them altogether) and often for no better reason than to preserve the status quo. However, Foucault’s repressive hypothesis reminds us that censorship is not only a repressive but a productive force. Using American film as an exemplar, this course explores the role of censorship in the history of American culture and its effects on our cultural imagination of not only sex and violence (the two themes that censorship is most widely associated with) (but also and more on the depictions of social problems and social groups) broadly, race, gender and sexuality. Although primarily a history course, this course will also challenge students to build their visual and aural analysis skills.
Although we will continue refining our definition of censorship throughout the course, early parts of the course will focus on developing student’s conceptual understandings of film censorship (linking it to concepts like morality, repression, protectionism) as well as their historical knowledge of the topic. In doing so we will touch on defining moments such as the 1908 New Years Eve theatre closings, the Mutual Decision (which opened the door for movie censorship deeming the movies “a business pure and simple”), the development of state and local censor boards, the Payne Fund Studies, the Miracle decision (which struck the first blow against movie censorship), the development of the MPAA Rating System, as well as more recent debates about representations of race and sexuality in the Year of the Dragon and Basic Instinct. I will also ask students to explore a variety of forms of film censorship, engaging the various practices that lead to repression.
Later parts of the course will focus on key film texts (among them Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Scarlet Street, Scarface, It Happened One Night, She Done Him Wrong, The Burning Cross, The Well and Bonnie and Clyde) that both provoked censors and sometimes legally challenged film censorship. In addition to focusing on those films which have incurred censorship, we will also spend time considering the cumulative effects of film censorship on the process of film production and, by extension, on cinematic texts. How did the threat of censorship become instituted into the system of production? And how, if at all did censorship push film texts to new meanings and forms of articulation?
Crucial as well to the success of this course is linking the process of censorship to the broader historical era in which censorship occurs. Although film censorship originated in the early years of the century and hailed from progressive era moral fears, by the 1950s it became entwined with McCarthyism. In the interim, in the 1940s with an increased expressive liberalism brought about by the atmosphere of war, a number of social problem films emerged that challenged censor boards and Hollywood’s Production Code. We will ask: how did the motivation for censorship shift with changes in national and local politics and ideology? These historical concerns will become an active part of our understanding of censorship.
Choosing from an exciting blend of historically important films and a unique collection of scholarly works hailing from history, cinema studies, and legal studies, we will explore the value of film censorship for understanding American expressive history, the history of American consciousness, and the history of American culture.
Class participation will form an important part of student’s grade. Written assignments for the course will include two papers and a mid-term exam.