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Show You How I Swing : The Hays Production Code

Friday, November 30, 2007

Last weekend, my son and I settled in on the couch to watch the Pop-up Edition of High School Musical 2, and it was embarrassingly awesome. The pop-ups poked some good fun at Troy’s famous Italian loafers (not Italian!), gave out tidbits of behind-the-scenes info (the dance number in the kitchen almost got left on the cutting room floor), and we learned more about pink vinyl than I would have thought necessary. It was such a good time that I’ll even forgive the  bad call from the referees in Ryan vs. Kelsey,  Battle of the Hats. But I found myself wondering . . . what would it look like if someone put together an unauthorized pop-up version of the movie, using the pop-ups to annotate the coded, culturally queer references?

Now, I’m not attributing any particular intention to HSM2 director Kenny Ortega. Once art has been let loose in the world, the artists’ intentions become moot – the interpretation and experience of the art deserves to stand on its own.  But if Ortega were in fact trying to tell us something deeper about the characters, something conventional morality wouldn’t necessarily support, there would be some historical precedence in the 1930 Hays Production Code. Wikipedia can help us out a little here:

The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a set of industry guidelines governing the production of American motion pictures. The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), which later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began effectively enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1967 in favor of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. The Production Code spelled out what was and was not considered morally acceptable in the production of motion pictures for a public audience.

Now, you’ve gotta know that telling people they can’t talk about “morally unacceptable” topics just doesn’t fly. It simply drives the conversation underground, into coded references.  He’s not a homosexual, he’s a confirmed bachelor with impeccable fashion sense. She’s not a lesbian, she just wears sensible shoes. An extensive exploration of the depictions of homosexuality in the Hays Code years can be found in the documentary, “The Celluloid Closet.”

It’s not just old-school Hollywood directors who know how to read and write between the lines. I’m thinking back on my high school days here, in the 1980s. You see, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) have become common in today’s high schools, perhaps especially on the coasts. But even back in my day, we had a club where students of all sexual orientations were welcome, same-sex couples stole kisses on club outings, and the fashion sense was well outside (nay, more sophisticated than) the mainstream. But instead of calling it a GSA, we just called it the drama club. And even if you weren’t one of us, I’ll bet you still knew who we were.

Now, it’s possible that the jocks were every bit as sexually diverse as us drama geeks. But surely we never thought of the jocks as being, well, as queer as we were. And when you’re a queer teenager, you spend a lot of time reading between the lines, looking for “people like us.”

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when I watch the HSM2 number, “I Don’t Dance,” it looks for all the world to me like a seduction, the effeminate, pink-hat-wearing Ryan enticing the pretty-boy jock Chad to learn a new dance or two.

But the Queer Pop-up Edition would be a tough job, even if we focus simply on “I Don’t Dance.”  I’ve watched the sequence quite a few times now (with and without pop-ups), and can’t quite draw a diagram of just why it sets off my gaydar. You see, the thing about coded cultural references is that they’re so deeply ingrained we can’t always tease them out on the surface. What is it about the way that Chad taunts, “You're talkin’ a lot; show me what you got?” Or is it something in his stance, the way he rocks his hips as he promises to show Ryan how he “swings?” Is it the way Ryan writhes on the pitchers’ mound, or just the aggressive, penetrating gleam in his eyes whenever he leans forward into the pitch?

Surely scholars in the field of Queer Studies could do far better in describing exactly what’s going on here, so perhaps this is my open letter to them, pleading for a little YouTube here. “Slide home, you score, swingin’ on the dance floor” . . . could somebody with the right academic creds help a girl out? Hit it outta the park!