Theses Doctoral

Screen Cleaning: Moral Knowledge and the Politics of Cinema Censorship

Alp, Erin Elif

This dissertation asks how the structure of moral authority and media viewership in America has changed over the course of the 20th century. In order to address this question, I examine the ways in which American films are, and have been, labeled inappropriate or appropriate for public viewership. I ask how censorship, regulation and rating systems work to create and manage moral ambiguity, and what types of ramifications moral ambiguity is thought to have on viewers. I also address the types of problems associated with American cinema over time, and propose several analytical dimensions to capture and unpack the processes of censoring cinema. This framework is built on the notions of filth and moral ambiguity, moral repercussion, a process of responsibilization, and the telos for cinema, all of which influences how an organization interacts with movies and morality. In lapses of symmetry between on- and off-screen worlds, moral ambiguity arises in ways that responsibilize either content controllers or audiences themselves. I show the links between these articulations and how the moral repercussions of exposure to cinema are defined. I also argue that where in the past moral ambiguity was commonly perceived as a dangerous aspect of cinema, especially by censors and Hollywood film production regulators, contemporary movie raters present a film’s moral ambiguity as a resource to the viewer. Moral ambiguity, if probed the right way, can lead to greater awareness of one’s moral boundaries, enabling viewers to effectively censor their viewership practices themselves. Greater responsibility of the viewer is also linked with more transparency and less rigid definitions of filth, moral repercussion, and the overall purpose of media consumption. Censoring cinema was a way in which state censors attempted to shape a “good” civil society, but the notion of how such a society might be achieved through media shifted over the 20th century. By examining the work of Hollywood’s Production Code Authority, New York State censors, pioneering sociologists and educators of the 1930s, the Film Estimate Board of National Organization’s monthly film classification decisions, and contemporary movie ratings at Common Sense Media, I develop several sub-arguments that support the larger argument that moral ambiguity has become a resource as opposed to a danger. In doing so, I expose the connections between the efforts of earlier censors and industry regulators to contemporary constructions of moral authenticity in movie reviews, and highlight in particular the responsibilization of parental audiences. To date, parents are charged not only with monitoring what their children watch, but also with instilling critical viewing skills among their children. This contrasts with previous content control techniques, wherein parents were responsibilized to make decisions for their children but were not expected to foster any specific values or skills in them, and earlier techniques, wherein parents were not responsibilized at all. I end by noting that the contemporary approach to pollution management relies on two conflicting discourses, which have influenced strategies to managing media morality throughout the 20th century. The first focuses on media research and its alleged effects on social behavior, the second on free and intelligent choices by children consumers themselves – but as this dissertation also exemplifies, both registers have echoes in earlier sites and examples of cinematic censorship and efforts to clean the screen.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 29, 2015