Sensitivity Readers and the Reemergence of the Code Era

As I hear more and more about “sensitivity readers”—editors who are charged with screening books in advance of publication to ensure that the content does not result in ignorant or offensive portrayals of minority groups—I am reminded of classic American cinema from the 1930s through the 1960s and of the analogue to sensitivity readers that they had in the form of the Motion Picture Production Code.

Many people see movies from this era as quaint and old-fashioned and picture the quintessential image of the married couple sleeping in separate beds so as not to give even the illusion of sex. What most of them do not know is that such an image was artificially induced due to a minority of the population having editorial control over movie production. From 1934 to 1968, all movies had to comply with an editorial code known as the Hays Code, which forbade profanity (including religious blasphemy), interracial relationships, suggestive nudity, sexual perversion, illicit drugs, etc. Movies prior to the Code era were racy, and, in the well-documented opinion of film critic Mick LaSalle, way more subversive than contemporary films.

When people think of censorship, they think of government, but censorship can occur privately too, as it did with the Hays Code. After a series of scandals and sensational films, Hollywood was facing substantial pressure to reform. Catholics mobilized against the industry and organized a substantial boycott of theaters that resulted in a significant reduction in sales, much like how progressives mobilize today to pressure companies into deplatforming ideas they do not like. At the same time, governments were beginning to propose bills to regulate the film industry. In order to bypass these threats, the film studios banded together to create a private trade association that would regulate the industry. For thirty-four years, filmmakers had to submit their films to private censors who would force them to change any material deemed inappropriate, which often included rewriting story lines to make them more morally righteous in line with Catholic dogma.

As LaSalle observed in his book Complicated Women, the effect of the Code was very regressive, particularly for women. Movies in the early 1930s focused often on women’s stories, and these stories featured emancipated women who had their own careers and ambitions, who pursued sexual conquests outside of marriage, who bucked moral conventions, and who were not content to be reduced to housewives. Once the Code was enforced, these stories could no longer be told, or, to the extent that they were told, the female characters had to be severely punished for their transgressions to teach women across the country that it does not pay to be liberated. LaSalle argued in his book that even after the end of the Code era, women’s roles in film have never recovered the subversiveness they originally exalted in during the pre-Code era of the 1930s.

In addition to the effects on women, black people were virtually erased from film after the Code was enforced. Film companies had to make sure not to give blacks too prominent a role in predominately white films or to portray them as equal to whites. Blacks were relegated to subservient roles. Even a movie about a light-skinned black woman who passed for white was played by a white actress to avoid any actual miscegenation. As a result, we are left with a large body of films from the first half of the 20th century in which black people are almost non-existent to cater to the racist whims of a portion of the population (which, to be fair, was not limited to Catholics). All of this censorship resulted in a distorted view of reality while obscuring the forces at work that actively created that distortion.

Consequently, for almost 40 years, the movie industry was captured by the Catholic contingent of the population. Every movie that came out of Hollywood had to reflect a Catholic perspective. For almost half a century, a religious minority had a stranglehold on the film industry, and the entire population of the country, regardless of religion, was subjected to Catholic morality in their entertainment. During this era, a generation of screenwriters and directors had to shape, limit, and sometimes silence their own voices to gain the approval of the censors.

We inherited many amazing movies from this era in spite of this external and internal censorship. In some ways, we may have gotten better movies because of the censorship, with screenwriters having to resort to more wit and nuance to get their messages across without attracting the ire of the censors. But as LaSalle noted, we lost a lot too in the form of perspectives, stories, and voices that we still have yet to recover. Cinematic history has been changed forever because of the censorship, and the future is still being impacted by the residual effects of the years of conditioning the American public to see the world through Catholic and racialized lenses. It should be noted that, though the Code is dead, the enforcers of the Code still live on as the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA.

The rise of sensitivity readers appears to me to be a step back to the Code days, albeit with a different minority controlling the messaging. Trying to ensure fair representation of minorities in media is a laudable goal, but this trend could allow an elite, homogeneous minority to impose their worldview on society just as Catholics did with the movie Code.

Racial and other groups are not monolithic, and its members do not all think the same way. Sensitivity is in the eye of the beholder. Having seen what some people today deem offensive enough to censor, I shudder to think about what characters, stories, and ideas I will miss out on because someone more sensitive than me finds it offensive. Sometimes in trying to walk the impossible tightrope of sensitivity to all, the end result is content that is bland, muted, and safe.

Certainly there have been many movies, television shows, and books that relied on lazy, racial caricatures that could have benefited from adding more nuance and complexity to their minority characters, but I am skeptical that sensitivity readers are an ideal way to accomplish that. We may gain improvements in diversity representation (some of which will be debateable), but, as with the Code, we will suffer collateral damage in the loss of diversity of expression overall, making media output increasingly bland and homogeneous.

But more than that, by creating an artificial veneer of “sensitivity,” we are losing insight into the very times that we live in just as the movies censors did by forcing all films to have a veneer of virtuousness. Censorship, even willing self-censorship, ultimately shrinks the marketplace of ideas and diminishes the ability to discuss certain topics with nuance or at all. And the people who ultimately will be the victims (or beneficiaries, depending on how you look at it) of this censorship will have no voice in these matters and will have to again passively accept being fed someone else’s dogma.

It just goes to show that progress does not always mean moving forward.