CUP Undergraduate Research


For Mature Audiences Only: Self-Regulated Censorship in American Film

Date of Award

Spring 5-7-2009

Document Type

Restricted Access Thesis


College of Theology, Arts, & Sciences



Degree Name

History, BA

First Advisor

Dr. Gerd Horten


Film has continually been a medium with as great a propensity to entertain and inform as a propensity to shock and repel. This is the result of film’s roots in “lewd” Vaudevillian entertainment and the neo-Victorian disdain it received from moral reformers of the Progressive Era. Rather than lead boycotts or displays of public outcry against moving pictures after their completion, the reformers sought a novel way to enforce their censorial disposition – pre-exhibition censorship of all obscene content before mass public consumption and, subsequently, a moral decay of society.

This work examines the history of efforts inside and outside the film industry to censor and ban American motion pictures that contained controversial and objectionable material. While there have been many groups that have stubbornly charged that Hollywood must curb artistic liberties to honor an unspoken social contract between the film medium and its viewers, the most ardent of these groups has been none other than moguls within the industry enforcing a bureaucratic Rating Board. The majority of this analysis critically examines the era of Jack Valenti, the Washington lobbyist brought to Hollywood in the 1960s to reform the industry’s perceived immorality through more thoroughly-established codes of self-regulation.

“For Mature Audiences Only” also argues that constrained boundaries of self-regulation have made it nearly impossible for respectable adult fare to be produced and marketed successfully. Finally, this work argues that film’s central divide, between art and commerce, will dictate the way American motion pictures are made, distributed, and scrutinized through the relative permissibility of their content.

Honors: Thesis with Distinction Award

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