The American Dream in Practice


The Hays code or the production code was a kind of censorship that film directors and producers began to follow in the 30’s. Some of the hard limits that were enforced included “pointed profanity, nudity, sex.” While suggestions of vulgarity were frowned upon, they were often let go. Because let’s be real, considering the extensive list of don’ts that the production code covered, there might not have been any film that was safe. Powdermaker refers to this production code as another form of “active control” in her book Hollywood: the Dream Factory. Where higher up’s, such as the State Department were given the freedom to place certain demands on films.

“(1) No member of their group must be portrayed in an unflattering manner, or as the “heavy.” (2) No movie should emphasize drinking, delinquency, divorce, or immorality (on the premise that movies are the cause of these social ills, or at least of their frequency). The State Department has added its critical notes: (1) No picture should show in an unflattering light the members of institutions of a foreign country with which we have cordial relations. (2) Pictures designed for export abroad should “sell” the American way of life.”(36)

This active control influences the way a screenplay is written, even before a single word had been put down on paper. So what happens when you have films that follow these ‘rules’? Well, they begin to have a certain theme, one that promotes the American dream.

I, myself have been influenced by the films that were intended to “sell the American way of life.” Having not grown up in America, I was expecting a very specific way of life when I first came here for college. I was sold on the American dream, that if I tried hard enough, the social mobility I was promised would be found here in the land of opportunity. And why shouldn’t that be the case, every movie I had seen, every advertisement that came over from the west, sold me on America and the ‘right way’ of doing things.

Not to say that I was completely misguided, but perhaps ill-informed? Going back to Powdermaker’s work, she continues to talk about the type of contracts people working in Hollywood are signed into. Where a worker is signed to a company for seven years, while a company is only signed to a worker for 6 months at a stretch. She compares the relationship “between master and serf” (35). While at the same time people in the same industry are being paid some of the highest salaries in the world.

This inequality was not the America that I was told about. I realised that the movies I was seeing, and the dream I was being sold was only the tip of the iceberg. The media I absorbed conveniently left out how precarious and unfair the ladder can be until you reach the top. As it still continues to churn out the image of the American dream.

Powdermaker, Hortense. Hollywood, the Dream Factory; an Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-makers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950. Print.

Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry. New York: New York UP, 2002. Print.


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