Michel Foucault intended the method he called “genealogy” to challenge the linear and rationalizing impulses of historical design. Genealogy was meant to embrace the marginal, accidental, and failed as constitutive of what “was” and “is.” Perhaps it is fitting, then, that a genealogy would explore a subfield fairly obsessed with the value of what is lost, cut, missing, or strays from the path: that of media regulation.

The earliest studies of film censorship were exposés or how-to manuals, including Hollywood's Movie Commandments (1937), written by Hollywood self-regulator Joseph Breen's secretary, Olga Martin.1 First-generation academic studies of film regulation broadly accounted for censorship laws, providing telling examples of enforcement. Neville Hunnings's Film Censors and the Law (1967), for example, divides into chapters by country, and Garth Jowett's Film: The Democratic Art (1976) places state and local censorship and industry self-censorship in the context of the film industry's growth and development.2 This first-wave work, bent as it was on establishing the institutions and baseline practices of censorship, showed little attention to gender, nor did it generally problematize the construction of sexuality in censors’ discourse, unless that sexuality became the subject of legal contestation.

A major breakthrough in the study of American film regulation came in the late 1980s when the files of the Production Code Administration (PCA), the internal censorship body commonly known as the Hays Office, became publicly available. Lea Jacobs's book The Wages of Sin (1991) drastically shifted the ground of censorship research in its nuanced readings of Code files with reference to the films themselves and its clearheaded unmasking of the internal apparatus of self-regulation and the personalities of its chief bureaucrats, namely Jason Joy, James Wingate, and Joseph Breen.3 Jacobs's book examines not only self-censors’ rulings but more importantly what textual effects self-censorship produced. This culturally contextualized reading of the fallen woman genre (from literature to film) shows its evolution in the context of Jason Joy's more lax (but still considerable) Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and leading to Joseph Breen's PCA's sanction-backed mandates. As her textual readings show, Joy's SRC made room for the fallen woman's glamour and sophistication, implicitly allowing greater grounds for identification, while Breen's style of regulation visually and narratively shrouded the same figure in frumpiness, shame, tragedy, or acts of penitence. Jacobs's emphasis on self-censorship's effects on narrative and mise-en-scène paved a new approach to regulation that eschewed legalism for textual, visual, and cultural evidence.

Proximate to the release of Jacobs's book came some of the earliest work on the regulation of queer representation in media. Not strictly “about” regulation, Chris Straayer's “Redressing the ‘Natural’” (1992) nonetheless reveals how classical Hollywood's taboo against showing homosexuality bred an encoded representation that appeased “the basic contradictions through a common fantasy of lover-throwing gender constructions without challenging sexual difference”: the temporary transvestite film.4 Especially when this is placed in dialogue with Chon Noriega's paratext-driven “‘Something's Missing Here!’” (1990), we can see the early responses in film studies to the emerging discourse on queer theory and queer historiography (specifically Judith Butler's notion of sexuality as performed rather than biologically constituted).5 David Lugowski's “Queering the (New) Deal” (1999) explores the fear of a feminized nation that informed the developing censorship of queer representation in the classical Hollywood period.6 

Other works of this era pioneered in contextualizing film censorship, specifically exploring the regulation of whiteness and Blackness on-screen. Janet Staiger's Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (1995), like Straayer's and Jacobs's work, holds in tension the social taboo and the spectatorial pleasures of women out of bounds.7 Staiger's book etches the regulatory ambiance of early cinema, tracing Victorian-influenced discourses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then moves to a discussion of the era's female character types—the vamp, the white slave, and the butterfly. Charlene Regester's “Black Films, White Censors” (1996) was perhaps the earliest scholarship to document the existence of Black censors on municipal censorship boards (like Chicago's) and engage in text-based comparative government censorship research.8 Marshaling an array of archival sources, Regester focuses on Oscar Micheaux's films, which focused on Black middle-class characters but still had a difficult time passing “respectability” muster in Chicago. Somewhat marginalized from mainstream media studies discourse, but valuable, is Jesse Rhines's rigorous Black Film, White Money (1996), which reveals Hollywood's system of distribution as an extension of its regulatory regime, exploring the barriers Black cinematic storytellers faced in white-dominated systems of distribution throughout the twentieth century.9 Rhines devotes a whole chapter to Black women. Ramona Curry's Too Much of a Good Thing (1996) focuses on the intertextual figuration and camp reappropriations of Mae West's intermedial body of work.10 Curry attends to the language and effects of PCA interventions and to the operations of race in West's films, examining both the conversion of interracial desire into interracial musical sequences and how West's seeming camaraderie with her on-screen Black maids visually reinforced a color-bound hierarchy.

Women were state and local film censors and network censors for radio and television, but men alone governed classical Hollywood self-regulation. Charles Lyons's The New Censors (1997) points to 1980s and 1990s film controversies where feminists, people of color, and gays and lesbians acted as activist-censors, reappropriating the discourse from its moralizing and masculine framework.11 Lyons, like Francis Couvares in “The Good Censors” (1994), raises the central civil libertarian question: Is antiracist or anti-homophobic censorship more acceptable?12 In radio studies, Barbara Savage's Broadcasting Freedom (1999) shows how the Office of War Information required a less stereotyped Black image but also avoided calling for racial reforms. Savage shows how this image of inclusion, without government promises of solid civil rights, failed to be a solid improvement.13 

The late 1990s saw several more important breakthroughs in Production Code history. Patricia White's Uninvited (1999) explores lesbian “representability” within a self-regulatory framework explicitly prohibiting direct lesbian representation. Using reviews, mise-en-scène, and detailed analysis of character relationships, White finds in the matronly governess, or Ethel Waters's Black female sidekick, or various sisterly characters, a cache of “deniable” representations available to both contemporary and historical lesbian viewers.14 Ruth Vasey's The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939 (1997) coins the term “industry policy” to describe a set of shifting regulations outside of the Production Code that the industry enforced—sometimes as or more fervently than they enforced the Code itself. Hollywood self-censors also, she finds, enacted the “principle of deniability,” prescribing that taboo subjects could be presented only if they were ambiguous enough to be denied. She also articulates, perhaps without precedent, that screen restraint could be pleasurable for “knowing audiences” who could fill in the images missing from films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933).15 

Several studies of the early 2000s pushed earlier limits in showing the elaborate effects of censorship on texts. Homay King's Lost in Translation (2010) traces textual indexes of repression, looking beyond costume and makeup to the Orientalist milieu that stood ornately as inscrutable Eastern enigma in classical Hollywood.16 Gaylyn Studlar, in “Oh ‘Doll Divine’: Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze” (2001), explores the sexual impulse in the gaze that studios directed toward childlike Mary Pickford, one that used both literal masquerade and the cultural acceptance of innocent appearance to hide sexual desire for the child-woman in plain sight.17 

The last decade and a half has produced important shifts in archival methodology and new work on race and regulation. As attuned to the place of the movie house as to the regulatory discourses that haunted both it and the film text, Shelley Stamp's Movie-Struck Girls (2000) pioneered a document-driven archival methodology as faithful to the social context as it was to the films of the 1910s desire-ridden white slave cycle.18 Like Jacobs's earlier work, Stamp reminds us of the importance of the forces governing not only women's image but women's pleasure in the discourse on film censorship. Lee Grieveson's Policing Cinema (2004) shows the entwining of early-century white masculine fears surrounding Jack Johnson's on-screen image in his self-produced fight films and the concurrent white slavery film scare.19 Susan Courtney, in a similar vein in Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation (2005), reaches beyond a binary Black-white divide to look at the triangulation of the Black male, white male, and white female figures that animated fears about miscegenation.20 In Cinema Civil Rights (2015) I attempt to expand the framework of regulation history by systematically exploring classical Hollywood repression and “representability” of civil rights issues, following the model of Patricia White's work. Like White, I seek to analyze deliberately strange and unresolved classical Hollywood images of the taboo (in this case, Black struggle for civil rights) as products of the production, censorship, and reception discourses that informed both their censorship and their formation.21 Delia Konzett's new work Hollywood's Hawaii (2017) demonstrates the mainstreaming of Code studies into work on Hollywood's ethnic representations.22 

In sum, feminist interventions have prompted a re-interrogation of the marginalized, femme, vamp, queer, or otherwise ambiguous in the regulated or censored text. Feminist scholarship deserves much of the credit for moving the study of censorship beyond the macro level and the legal to account for censorship's textual and audience affects. Perhaps because of its preference for daring, tramontane methodologies, it has embraced the media text's throbbing, vital connection to the human and institutional bodies that produce, cut, and receive it. Feminist scholarship also has pioneered in reading against the grain, demonstrating unintended user-generated effects of the censorship-bound text. Building on feminist strongholds in the study of spectatorship and identification, this scholarship has challenged the axiom that censorship and regulation are always injurious, venturing to probe the strange things it has produced. At its best, this scholarship has examined power hierarchies and patterns of oppression that animate the logic of each distinct instance of censorship and has consistently looked at the intersections between theory and history through the lens of the marginalized.

Several areas in media regulation studies could stand feminist re-interrogation. One is film noir: Charles Maland suggests that film gris, a leftist subset of film noir in which the crime exposé is a front for a critique of capitalism, often replaced the cold femme fatale with a female figure as class victimized as the male protagonist.23 It follows on the revelations of Sheri Chinen Biesen's work in complicating the role of sexual violence in film noir and the struggles over its censorship.24 As Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated suggests, further work is needed on the ratings system and its role in reinforcing gender, sexual, and racial norms. International regulation, especially analysis of the evolving constraints in Asian, Caribbean, and African countries (many of whose censorship decisions influenced Hollywood self-regulation) deserve closer, gender-attuned study, especially around representations of rape and pregnancy, which were taboo on American screens. Finally, we need scholarly pioneers seeking to understand television censorship, both historical and contemporary. Apart from Robert Pondillo's America's First Network TV Censor (2010), little use has yet been made of the Wisconsin Historical Society's significant holdings documenting NBC's internal censorship of its own radio and television programs.25 During the radio years, this censorship office was headed up by a woman. From Mae West's decades-long exclusion from the airwaves starting in 1937, to the contemporary FCC battles about (female) wardrobe malfunctions, to cable and broadcast network self-regulation of male versus female nudity, the discussion about how censorship restrains and then embellishes the female figure is an enduringly rich one.


Olga Martin, Hollywood's Movie Commandments: A Handbook for Motion Picture Writers and Reviewers (New York: Arno, 1937).
Neville Hunnings, Film Censors and the Law (London: Allen and Unwin, 1967); Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976).
Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928–1942 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Chris Straayer, “Redressing the ‘Natural’: The Temporary Transvestite Film,” Wide Angle 14, no. 1 (1992): 36–55.
Chon Noriega, “‘Something's Missing Here!’: Homosexuality and Film Reviews during the Production Code Era, 1934–1962,” Cinema Journal 30, no. 1 (1990): 20–41; Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–31.
David Lugowski, “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood's Production Code,” Cinema Journal 38, no. 2 (1999): 3–35.
Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
Charlene Regester, “Black Films, White Censors: Oscar Micheaux Confronts Censorship in New York, Virginia and Chicago,” in Movie Censorship and American Culture, ed. Francis Couvares (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1996), 159–86. Matthew Bernstein provides a similar methodology in “A Tale of Three Cities: The Banning of Scarlet Street,” in Controlling Hollywood, ed. Matthew Bernstein (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 157–85.
Jesse Rhines, Black Film, White Money (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).
Ramona Curry, Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1996).
Charles Lyons, The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997).
Francis Couvares, “The Good Censors,” Yale Journal of Criticism 7, no. 1 (1994): 233–51.
Barbara Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
Ruth Vasey, The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). The film, based on William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931), was subject to a name change to distance itself from a book some saw as salacious but also to remove references to rape, especially the scene in which the gangster, Popeye, rapes Temple with a corncob. The press images, which show a frightened Temple lying on a pile of corncobs, indicate the studio's studied avoidance of the actual incident and simultaneous desire to reference it.
Homay King, Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema and the Enigmatic Signifier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
Gaylyn Studlar, “Oh ‘Doll Divine’: Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze,” Camera Obscura 16, no. 3 (2001): 197–226.
Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Lee Grieveson, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).
Susan Courtney, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Ellen C. Scott, Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
Delia Konzett, Hollywood's Hawaii: Race, Nation, and War (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
Charles Maland, “Film Gris: Crime, Critique and Cold War Culture,” Film Criticism 26, no. 3 (2002): 1–30.
Sheri Chinen Beisen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
Robert Pondillo, America's First Network TV Censor: The Work of NBC's Stockton Helffrich (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).