In the bad old, good old days, writers had to contend with outright censorship in the form of the Hays Office. Married people had to sleep in separate beds. Criminals were always punished. Kisses had to be short and dry. But at least the lines of demarcation were clear.
Nowadays censorship doesn’t exist, technically. Now it’s called pressure. And it’s imposed on writers from all directions, and two in particular–the right and the left. On TV there are broadcast standards and the threat of advertiser boycotts. In film, the NC-17 rating is dangled above the writer’s head.
“There’s a special-interest group today for anything that is now or ever was alive,” says Michael Moye, staff writer for “Married…With Children.” Moye is not speaking in hyperbole. Joe Eszterhas was sued by a Polish-American group because of jokes at their expense in the film “Flashdance.”
And, “Home Improvement” writer Billy Riback received a complaint from the Sugar Council about a bit indicating that the stuff might give people a buzz. But he took it with a spoonful. “It just made me want to run out and write a cereal joke,” laughs Riback. “You have to have targets in comedy.” And conflict in drama–at which someone or other is likely to take offense.
“There’s at least one pressure group for every movie,” says a Columbia Pictures exec. Some are legitimate–maybe 10 percent, the exec reckons. Others use the publicity to help raise donations. Studios sometimes make donations themselves, which is usually enough to get most of them to go away.
But, say members of various so-called pressure groups, their real function is to educate and give counsel, not to censor. One organization, the Environmental Media Association, was created by the industry, says its president, Andy Spahn. “We’re not a pressure group but we do stay in their (the industry’s) faces to provide information and research (about environmental questions).”
Michael Hudson of People for the American Way contends that his group’s primary concern is that talk on valid subjects–whether one takes the view of the extreme right or the extreme left–be unlimited.
Hudson takes exception to the term “politically correct,” which, he says, has been turned around as a pejorative against anyone who is sensitive or critical about how various groups or topics are portrayed.
Writer reactions run the gamut from welcoming outside input to seeing it as a necessary evil to outright annoyance.
Screen scribe J.F. Lawton aroused the ire of women’s groups with his script for “Pretty Woman.” They said it glorified prostitution. And a more recent script, “Red Sneakers,” was criticized by the Gay and Lesbian Media organization GLAAD.
“It’s an honest script about a woman who’s bisexual and in the end goes off with a man,” says Lawton. The story is autobiographical, but GLAAD found it offensive nonetheless, because the woman leaves her female lover for a man. He asserts they were “trying to replace one stereotype with another.”
Avoids judgement calls
But GLAAD executive director David Smith says the organization tries to steer clear of judgement calls in the creative process, and simply provides information on how the gay and lesbian community is perceived and to point out innacuracies.
“Stereotypes perpetuate misconceptions,” says Smith. “If writers have First Amendment rights to makethem, we also have our First Amendment right to speak out.”
Eszterhas is another writer about whom GLAAD was not glad. His “Basic Instinct” script and the subsequent film–also dealing with female bisexuality–gen-erated beaucoup protests. In his opinion they overreacted, but it was better than no reaction at all, he says. At the same time he defends their actions. “The right to protest is important. That right is one of the wonderful things about democracy.”
While most writers agree in principle, some are more ambivalent about outside interference in creative matters. “Driving Miss Daisy” creator Alfred Uhry says outside pressure is both dangerous and necessary. The potential for writers to second-guess themselves is always there. But the real problem of perpetuating narrow viewpoints is there, too.
Barry Sandler (“Crimes of Passion,””Making Love”) admits “our thoughts and images impact on how people think, but once you’re at the mercy of pressure groups, the question of censorship comes into play.”
The character of China Blue (a prostitute) in “Crimes” was hailed by some women as progressive because she was a sexual outlaw, and by others as pornographic and exploitative.
“It got anger and applause,” he says. “Anytime you engender that kind of response, you’ve hit a nerve.”
Films have ratings systems and audiences can choose to attend or not. In broadcast television the picture is more complex.
Moye recalls with dread “Rakolta-gate,” a protest from Terry Rakolta, a Midwestern housewife who took on the content of “Married…with Children.” The initial reaction was for writers to pre-censor themselves. “I felt we were deserted by those who should have been there to help us,” he says. But those feelings passed when the show’s ratings soared and mail “was 90 percent in our favor.”
Potential censorship is compounded in TV, which has to contend not only with public sentiment but network and advertiser sensitivity. When she was writing the TV movie “A Child Lost Forever,” in which a young boy’s natural mother investigates his death at the hand of an adopted mother, Stephanie Liss received notes from the network’s broadcast standards department to take care not to cast a bad light on women who adopt.
While Liss agrees that all characters should be presented in as three-dimensional a manner as possible, such suggestions sometimes make her feel “claustrophobic. There are so many threats of lawsuits, so many things you can’t say. You have to back everything up with two or three sources. It can ultimately hurt the work,” she says.
Sensitivity can sometime result in overreaction, contends Frank Pierson, whose recent HBO film “Citizen Cohn,” about the life of Roy Cohn, aroused discomfort on two fronts: Cohn’s homophobia and his anti-Semitism–he was both gay and Jewish.
“We sensitively sought to portray the truth about Cohn,” says Pierson. Nonetheless, he was told he would have trouble with gay groups on the question of Cohn’s homosexuality and his battle with AIDS–but only from people who weren’t gay. And similarly, he was warned about anti-Semitism–from non-Jews. Gay and Jewish organizations praised the film, he says.
When Moye was a writer on the long-running sitcom “The Jeffersons,” the series came under fire for presenting African-Americans in an unfavorable manner.
As an African-American himself, he was cast unwillingly as a spokesman. “‘The Jeffersons’ was a sitcom and that’s all it should have been,” he says. “There’s little you can do in comedy without offending someone.” Rather than tear one show down, Moye says the answer was to create other shows with different African-American characters, to present balance. “People need to lighten up on this. It’s TV. It’s not real. All I want to do is entertain.”
“A Different World” writer Susan Fales says her show has an adviser to ensure that minority groups are treated with respect. “But if you have to be correct there is no room for humor,” she says.
Uhry’s attempt to transfer “Driving Miss Daisy” to the small screen was met with some vocal criticism. The series debuted shortly after the L.A. riots. ” It was the wrong moment for a white writer to be writing about the black struggle.” And, he admits, “I didn’t have a flair for sitcom.”
Possible advertiser boycotts also nag the networks, and writer Jonathan Estrin understands their dilemma. “After all, you’re not going to do a film about the ‘twinkie defense’ and then expect the network to sell time on it to a snack-food manufacturer,” he says. “Unless you meet a subject like abortion head on, they prefer you don’t take on controversies within the context of stories (as a subplot, for instance).”
As a writer, however, Estrin contends, “that all of us desire to push the envelope, to explore restrictions, both politically and artistically.” And creatively speaking, writers can introduce such subjects through subtrefuge, satisfying those ambitions.
“I’d rather work an issue like gun control into a movie than make a whole movie about it. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. The message in TV is not what’s hanging on the wall, but the wall itself.”
Input from outside groups or one’s employers can actually help and not hinder a writer’s creativity. When writers Timothy Wurtz and Glenn Benest were writing a movie for Fox, the studio asked them to take out a joke about a homeless person. It forced them to come up with a more clever and, ultimately, more satisfying bit of humor.
“The challenge is not to go for the most obvious and cheap jokes,” says Fales. And writers themselves should ultimately be the judges of their own and their peers’ work, says Fales. “We can critique one another without knocking each other.”
It is ultimately the writer who should be his own harshest judge in the quest for balance, asking questions such as, “Am I using a caricature or a stereotype?” Such self-examination is the real key to minimizing outside pressure, say Wurtz and Benest. “Writers need to dig deeper, to find more shades of gray.”