Oscar Wilde

Wilde vs. Public Morality

We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.
—Oscar Wilde (1907)

My dear boy, people who love once in their lives are really shallow people. What they call their loyalty and their fidelity is either the lethargy of custom or lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life is what constance is to the intellectual life, simply a confession of failure.
—Oscar Wilde (1890)

Oscar Wilde was a witty, prolific, and very successful literary figure who suffered imprisonment for refusing to deny his gay behavior. However, when one's livelihood requires popularity and acceptance, revolution is a stance that should require thoughtful consideration of its risks. Thus, his story is a conspicuous example where the rules of society, which reflect a society's conception of moral behavior and its conception (or misconception) of humanity, dictated that a person of enormous talent and intellect must be disguised, marginalized, and/or extinguished. Besides the fact that from the outset of publication he dealt with critical assertions of plagiarism or "presumed unoriginality" (Bristow & Mitchell, 2016), Oscar Wilde also found that some of his work fell under the yoke of censorship. Despite his enormous international fame, it has taken over a century for his symbolic and aesthetic works to achieve full recognition, e.g.,

Revised after it was condemned in the British press over 130 years ago as 'vulgar', 'unclean', 'poisonous' and 'discreditable,' an uncensored version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray has finally been published (Flood, 2011).

Wilde's intelligence, creativity, and razor-sharp wit is clearly demonstrated in the many literary works that made him famous. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he wrote in 1890 is familiar to many, as are his social comedies, notably, "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1892), "A Woman of No Importance" (1893), "An Ideal Husband" (1895), and "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895).

To his fame, in 1878 Edward, Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII after Queen Victoria’s death) "asked to meet Wilde, observing epigrammatically: 'I do not know Mr. Wilde, and not to know Mr. Wilde is not to be known' " (Claudia, 2007).

Born in 1854 to prominent Dublin intellectuals—his father a physician and true "Renaissance man" (Walsh, 2014) and his mother a writer, Wilde was educated at Trinity College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, who gave birth to their two sons in 1885 and 1886, respectively.

In 1895, despite his popularity and visible contribution to society, he lost his battle in public court when he sued John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry (a title in the Peerage of Scotland), for defamation of character. The court process turned the tables and indicted Wilde for "gross indecency with men," a British law enacted to prosecute gay men when acts of sodomy could not be proven.

It is interesting to note that the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) was convicted under the same law and sentenced to chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing, responsible for the software concept of modern computing, has been featured in movies such as The Imitation Game (2014), The Code Breakers (1996), and Enigma (2001)—our movie of December 2011.

Oscar Wilde, while serving two years' imprisonment in Reading, England,  wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and a letter to Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) expressing his anguish, which was later published and entitled "De Profundis" (Latin: "from the depths"). Released from prison in 1897, he moved to Paris and died in obscurity in 1900.

Was Wilde living at the wrong time?

One could certainly make a case for the notion that Wilde was born at the wrong time. If he were living today, I think he might be very welcome in any number of places, most certainly in the cast of Saturday Night Live because of his wit! And, Like Elton John, he might be publicly celebrated for his art rather than condemned for refusing to mask his infidelity to heterosexual norms. ... or maybe not. As we focused on The Bird Cage last year, I posted an article speculating about how a survey of filmmaking since the beginning of the cinema might allow us to assess our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement, and pondered where films about same-sex relationships would come in.

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner

Regarding heteronormative conflicts, the recent public disclosure of the former Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Marie Jenner, has brought attention to the concerns of the transgendered community, and not all positive I am certain. In fact, very recently I even found myself startled a bit at the notion of uncensored realism while watching episodes of Amazon's Transparent. Not that I consider the series' content tasteless by any means, but I was simply thinking about unmonitored children who might be watching, and noting that complete frontal nudity, along with realistic depictions of sexual intercourse, is now acceptable for public viewing on film period, no matter its transmission source. (Well, on television, it *is* cable, of course.) It hasn't been all that long since George Carlin's "7 words" challenged what is permissible for broadcast—and, they were just words after all. No pictures.

Regarding what constitutes obscene, indecent and profane in broadcasting, these concepts are very difficult to define since strongly related to different cultures and standards. Even so, there are rules in the U.S. regarding time of day (See: FCC ).

It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time or indecent programming or profane language from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Congress has given the FCC the responsibility for administratively enforcing these laws. The FCC may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture or issue a warning if a station airs obscene, indecent or profane material.

The courts hold that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. FCC rules prohibit indecent speech on broadcast radio and television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

How and when to legislate for public morality

Thus, the concern for how and when to legislate for public morality remains as pertinent as it was in Wilde's time, and his arguments against censorship highlight the relationship between artist and public that is a central concern in censorship debates today (Wood, 2002). Think about what we have learned about the climate for gays in Russia (Paulson & Kishkosky, 2015).

But, where is the outcry in the U.S. about sexual content in the movies, one might ask, in view of our history of film censorship (Archer, 2007)? It turns out, films with gay and lesbian characters and actors have been produced in the industry since its inception. But, it was never the gay community that was particularly at odds. Those community members simply hid in the closet while the Catholic Church and similarly-focused organizations railed against the display of other cultural taboos.

Most people really did fear, condemn, and stay away from whatever forms of eroticism they learned were abnormal. The adventurous—Oscar Wilde, Marquis de Sade, Margaret Sanger, Hester Prynne—were punished.

Much of this was about controlling procreation. Some of it was about ignorance toward female pleasure, and hostility toward female enthusiasm. Some of it was about dividing the body into clean and dirty areas, hence clean and dirty activities. Some of it was about managing virginity, which was valuable family property.

Beyond all this, a key reason religion and repressive government have always wanted to control sexuality is because it's a place where people can experience profound autonomy. Since the beginning of time, even the poorest, least intelligent, least attractive people have been able to feel powerful during sex. Even when you have absolutely no power over the important circumstances of your life, you can, if not instructed against it, do and imagine whatever you want in bed. What powerful social institution would NOT want to control this bottomless well of personal power (Klein, 2013)?

In earlier days, what the major Hollywood studios released to the public in the movies was controlled by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the studios' self-appointed and self-governing agency. Because of major disruption in the 1920s caused by the outcry of the Roman Catholic Church, the MPAA created the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, to regulate what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. Compliance with the code was required for most movies released in the "Golden Age" from 1930 to 1968.

Next month, we will continue discussing this topic and will focus on some of the important gay and lesbian contributors to the film industry.

GLOSSARY

The Motion Picture Association of America

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is an American trade association that represents the six major Hollywood studios: Warner Bros. (1923), Universal (1912), Walt Disney (1923), Columbia (1924), 20th Century Fox (1935), and Paramount (1912). Former majors included: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924–1986); United Artists (1919–1982); RKO Pictures (1928–1960). The MPAA changed its name from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1945.

Motion Picture Production Code

Also called the Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code was a set of industry moral guidelines defining what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures released for public viewing in the United States. The MPPDA adopted the code in 1930 and began enforcing it in 1934, requiring compliance for most US motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968.

MPAA Film Rating System

MPAA's film-rating system is used to rate the content of a film with respect to its suitability for certain audiences in the US and its territories. The film-rating system, designed and implemented under the leadership of Jack Valenti, replaced the Hays Code in 1968.

REFERENCES

Archer, M. (2007). You may be surrounded by Philistines. Retrieved from https://archives.evergreen.edu/webpages/curricular/2006-2007/ageofirony/aoizine/michael.html

Bristow, J. & Mitchell, R. N. (2016, Jan 13). On Oscar Wilde and plagiarism. The Public Domain Review. Retrieved from https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/01/13/on-oscar-wilde-and-plagiarism/

Claudia (2007, Jun 20). Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910). Oscar Wilde - Standing Ovations. Retrieved from https://www.mr-oscar-wilde.de/about/e/edward.htm

Flood, A. (2011, Apr 27). Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray published. London: The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/27/dorian-gray-oscar-wilde-uncensored

History of homosexuality in American film (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_homosexuality_in_American_film

Klein, M. (2013, April). The End of Normal Sex. Sexual Intelligence (Issue #158). Retrieved from https://www.sexualintelligence.org/newsletters/issue158.html#one

Paulson, M. & Kishkosky, S. (2015, Jun 22). Gay-themed play about Oscar Wilde hits a Kremlin roadblock. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/theater/gay-themed-play-about-oscar-wilde-hits-a-kremlin-roadblock.html

Stokes, J. (2015 ). Salomé: symbolism, decadence and censorship. British Library: Discovering literature - Romantics and Victorians. Retrieved from https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/salome

Walshe, E. (2014). The Diary of Mary Travers. Ireland: Somerville Press. (See: https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/books-oscar-wildes-father-was-also-a-scandal-30460310.html).

Wilde, O. (1907). The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Epigrams, phrases and philosophies for the use of the young. London: A. R. Keller & Co.

Wilde, O. (1890, Jul). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Philadelphia: Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (46/p. 25) .

Wood, Julia. (2002, Jan-Feb). Oscar Wilde, Censorship and the moral art of living. Blesok. (24). Retrieved from https://www.blesok.com.mk/

Pam
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Pam Hassebroek is founder and editor-in-chief at Movies on Chatham. A passionate researcher in the field of communication, her broad focus is information security, countering cybercrime and terrorism, to which she contributes by studying communication in film. She earned MS and PhD degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology. Past positions include petroleum reservoir engineering and teaching.