The Hays Code
Wider Engagement Project
Ethnocentrism is defined as a scenario in which people evaluate other cultures based on their limited perspective which derives from their own culture, usually the one that they were born into. What transpires is a lot of judgment and fear of any type of culture that does not align with one’s own. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie covered this in her TedTalk, The Danger of a Single Story.
Adichie tells her story about how at a very young age, she loved to read. When she started writing her own stories, looking back on them, she can see that she was reading the same story over and over. The stories she was writing were all about white, British people. They were always happy when the weather was good, and she realized that she didn’t care about the weather in Kenya because it was always hot. She felt that books were stories that she could not identify with until she discovered African writing. She finally realized that stories did not have to tell a single story. She also experienced the danger of a single story when she moved to the United States. When she had a roommate at university, her roommate pitied her, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie believes that these perceptions of Africans come from American literature. When she tells the single story about Mexicans, she is basically helping us to understand that the danger of a single story comes from stereotyping groups of people, which is also an example of ethnocentrism.
When only one side of the story is told, only one side of the story can be heard. But I think we all can agree that anytime a story is told, it is coming from the lens and perspective of the storyteller. And they may have an utterly different concept and perception of the world than anyone else, especially those who are reading or hearing their story. Additionally, as the popular colloquialism goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This means that those who have influenced culture, now and in the past, are choosing things to appreciate based on their own opinions and backgrounds. That is why groups of people that live near each other form a specific culture. Each person in that area is experiencing the world through a very similar lens. They are also not immune to the psychological concept of proximity. The closer they are to one another, the more they enjoy being around those people. And thus, like-minded habits and traditions are created leading to what we know as culture. Of course, there are many more pieces to it than that, which is why is it complex and difficult to explain sometimes. The danger of telling a single story is that it perpetuates the idea that whatever culture one belongs to is the only way to live. When people don’t understand that there aren’t other ways to live, they become suspicious and afraid of anything that is different. Additionally, some people see things in black and white and don’t tell the other parts of the story because they don’t think it’s necessary.
A very popular and sad example of this is the film industry from the 1930s to the 1960s. There was a code within the filmmaking industry that was in place called the Hays Code. It was a list of rules of scenarios that could not take place in motion pictures, which took away creativity within filmmaking. Essentially, the good guys always had to win, the bad guys had to lose, sexuality was suppressed, the perfect families appeared on TV, and real life was no longer depicted on screen. It stemmed from the fear that people would imitate the behavior they were exposed to in motion pictures. The code censored Hollywood movies, especially the role of women in movies. Sexuality was no longer explored on film, and this had an effect in real life. Women started questioning themselves, wondering if they were the “perfect wife” or “perfect mom” because real life didn’t feel like what they were seeing on TV.
The movie “Baby Face” was modified to adhere to the Hays Code. The initial version of the film had the main character, Lily, engaging in sexual behaviors to make her way in the world and become successful. In the end, she ends up realizing that love matters more than money. However, because the movie was about to be released when the Hays Code was put in place, the ending had to be redone. The Hays Code forced them to re-do the ending of the movie to “teach Lily a lesson”, by losing everything she had worked for, basically touting that women had no place to use men to get what they want, and they deserve the punishment for using them to get to the top. However, the initial movie was re-released in 2004, and the world was able to see the original version of the story.
Current movie ratings, such as PG, PG-13, and R, are what took the place of the Hays Code in 1968 and changed everything in Hollywood to what we see in film ratings today. The Hays Code and Hollywood censorship is an example of the danger of a single story. When the world was told that life should look one way, and then it didn’t look that way, it frightened women. It suppressed their creativity, their sexuality, their freedom, and their ability to think that life could be anything they wanted it to be. Not to mention, it affected the actresses of the times, as actresses like Mae West had made themselves known to be rebels, and suddenly were told they must be censored. It basically put a big old pause on women’s progression. Can you think of other ways that a single story can be a bad thing? Do you think that only telling one side of every story is a form of gaslighting huge masses of people?