Film can heavily influence the acceptance or demonization of people in society. It was the fear of this influence that lead several religious groups to lobby behind Will Hays’ Hollywood Production Code of 1930, also known as the Hays Code. The code consisted of 36 rules for filmmakers intended to limit characters and behaviors considered by religious groups to be 'unsavory' or 'morally corrupt'. This referred to any behavior deviating from the perceived natural order of romance, sex, and gender.
Prior to the implementation of the Production Code , LGBTQ+ characters were somewhat prevalent. The 1920s, a time of shifting societal norms and expanded artistic experimentation, set the stage for Wings. Directed by William A. Wellman in 1927, Wings featured what is considered the first gay kiss in an American film. (See Post: A History of Queer Representation in Film pt. 1)
Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack and Dave, who compete for the affections of a beautiful girl before discovering the true love they feel for each other. While the relationship is referred to repeatedly as a friendship, the acting and directing of the film make it obvious that the men’s feelings were romantic. The storyline ends when one of the men is fatally injured and dies in his lover’s arms after a passionate kiss. Despite the condemnation of gay men in society as a whole at this time period, the film is surprisingly respectful of love between the two characters.
Reception of LGBTQ+ characters varied widely; some viewed gay and transgender characters as comical, others viewed these characters as deadly serious. Religious groups and other moral traditionalists began aggressively campaigning for the government to regulate what could and could not be shown on the big screen. They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards. (Sound familiar? lol)
These groups found a ringleader in Republican politician William Hays. In 1922, Hays left his role in Congress to become the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association or MPPDA. Rather than pushing for government censorship, Hays created his own production code that was technically optional for film companies. In practice, however, production companies were forced to abide by the code or risk mass boycotts. However, Hays and his followers quickly learned that there were loopholes within their precious production code.
Rather than presenting LGBTQ+ characters as realistic and three-dimensional, filmmakers relied on stereotypes to communicate the identities of their characters. They were styled to be gender non-conforming in their presentation and typically acted in a manner associated with the binary opposite gender.
Across various genres in film, recurring archetypes for LGBTQ+ characters began to form. These archetypes began to bleed out of the cinematic world into society. Many of the most pervasive homophobic and transphobic stereotypes can be traced back to this period in cinematic history. Filmmakers also relied on visual cues to signal a character’s identity to the audience. These cues were often derogatory or sexual. One of the most infamous examples of such visual cues and stereotypes is the 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon. (See Post: A History of Queer Representation in Film pt. 3)
The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, is a classic detective story following a private investigator. In a movie that is often hyper-masculine, the villain, Cairo, is extremely feminine in his voice, appearance, and body language. To any audience member paying attention, it would be obvious what Huston was hinting at with his depiction of Cairo. To avoid any subsequent backlash from supporters of the Hays Code, Cairo is explicitly villainized and shown as morally bankrupt.
While nudity and violence were quickly utilized in films following the ending of the Production Code in 1968, LGBTQ+ characters remained taboo. For decades after, LGBTQ+ characters were allowed to appear in films, but their sexuality and gender was shrouded in innuendos and subtle visual cues. If a character was openly attracted to someone of the same gender or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupt. Even today, almost 60 years after the Hays Code, LGBTQ+ characters are only sometimes allowed to exist freely and enjoy a non-tragic ending in mainstream media.