During the American Prohibition era of the 1920s, public opinion was overwhelmingly morally conservative, favoring government restriction over everything from certain types of clothing to alcohol. As the film industry blossomed and public outcry grew against what it deemed indecency, Hollywood producers worried that federal regulations would soon crack down on their movies. In 1922, producers founded the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA, later changed to MPAA), led by William H. Hays. Hays wanted Hollywood to lead the way in establishing an ethical materials code to avoid outside interference from the government, so with the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930, film directors had to start finding ways to get around the censors. In 1968, the MPAA established its ratings system that is still in use today.
From slipping coded language by the MPAA to perfecting the clever art of desensitization, the ways movies and shows avoided censorship are almost as creative as the shows and movies themselves. These risky maneuvers can sometimes backfire into movies with unexplained moments, but the times movies got away with things have only made them more interesting to viewers because of their subversive natures.
The sneaky scenes with which TV and movies beat the censors have often made for more memorable on-screen moments. Censors might be annoying, but constraints like ratings force filmmakers to be creative; it's because of censors that we get the entire film noir genre, after all. While uncensored TV shows and movies have their own appeal, sometimes filmmakers have more fun slipping things by under the radar that if they were just allowed to do whatever they wanted. That's what makes these sometimes controversial films and TV shows so much fun; with a wink and a nudge, viewers get to be in on the joke.
There are a lot of memorable moments through David Fincher’s 1999 film, Fight Club. But the sex scene between Marla and Tyler is one of the most memorable, not only for its strange cinematography, but also because Marla, upon finishing the scene, remarks, “I haven’t been f*cked like that since grade school.” While that line is eyebrow-raising in and of itself, it was put in the film to appease producer Laura Ziskin, who didn’t approve of the original line: “I want to have your abortion.” Fincher agreed to change the line with the condition that whatever he changed it to be would be the final version, without Ziskin’s oversight. She agreed, claiming nothing could be worse than that — only to find that Fincher’s substitution was indeed worse. Though she begged him to change it back, Fincher, as per their deal, left it in the film.
Just thinking of The Fonz from Happy Days likely summons up an image of a plain white t-shirt and leather jacket. That leather jacket, however, made for some interesting scenes. In the early days of the show, the studio was concerned that his leather jacket made him look like a criminal, and demanded that he only wear it when he was near his motorcycle. “Sure,” said the showrunners, and committed — the Fonz was never without his motorcycle, even when it didn’t make sense. Outdoors, indoors, it didn't matter; his motorcycle was always there. The character’s popularity eventually made the studio drop the rule, but the weird scenes remain.
Star Trek is famous for breaking some early boundaries in television, one of the most notable being that it was the first TV show to feature a kiss between two people of different races. Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, and Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, were supposed to kiss during a scene where their characters were mind controlled. But because this was the 1960s, the network was nervous about two characters of different races sharing a kiss. Originally, they were going to shoot an extra scene where the two didn’t kiss to pacify southern affiliates of the channel. Except that effort didn’t go as planned, because Shatner kept deliberately screwing up the take by looking into the camera, making faces, and crossing his eyes. After so many flubbed takes, the network just ran the seen as planned.
Film noir came about because of Hollywood censors; the genre wouldn't exist at all if it wasn’t for restrictions on showing crime, violence, and sexual content in movies through the 1960s. But The Maltese Falcon is a particularly interesting example, because both the writer of the original novel, Dashiell Hammett, and screenwriter John Huston both slipped a reference to one of the characters in the story being gay by their censors. Because the word “gunsel” — archaic slang for a submissive gay man — contains the word “gun,” the MPAA assumed it was referring to the character’s role as a gun-toting henchman. The trick worked twice, both for Hammett against his editor in the original, and against the MPPDA (the MPAA's original name) and the Hays Code for Huston.