Breakthrough Movies and TV Shows That Changed Hollywood and Defied Censors


Like any artistic medium, film and television push the boundaries. Young audiences hungry for something new and different seek out topics their parents considered taboo, only to grow up to see their own children do the same to them. Taboos and how they were broken have helped define the history of both mediums, often spawning much controversy along the way. Below is a brief list of some of the most notable – presented in chronological order – along with a description of the convention they helped break.

Ecstasy (1933): first female orgasm

A number of the films on this list were from Europe, which had far fewer taboos around sex that often presented American censors with content they considered objectionable. One of the first was Ecstasy, a 1933 Czech romantic melodrama about a young woman who abandoned her older husband for an affair with a man closer to her age. It was also the first mainstream film to depict a female orgasm on screen, as well as a racy shot of star Hedy LaMarr swimming naked. In 1935, it became the first film in United States history to be forbidden to enter the country due to its perceived liveliness. The Hays censorship code had been in effect for several years and a internal note of the censorship committee at the time called the film “dangerously indecent”. An edited version was submitted and received approval in 1936.

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Glen or Glenda (1953): first transgender character

Schlock director Ed Wood is best known for Plan 9 from outer space, often cited as the worst movie ever made. Before that, however, he made history with Glen or Glenda, a hastily corrected retelling of Christine Jorgensen’s 1953 story. Jorgensen had become the first American to undergo gender confirmation surgery a year earlier. Based on the biography of Gary D. Rhodes Lugosi, Jorgensen refused to give the filmmakers the rights to his story. However, Wood successfully argued that he should direct the film due to his “transvestite” status and got the job.

Confusing the transition with cross-dressing is just one of the film’s many problems, but its exploitative status allowed it to hit screens without Hays’ approval. This made it the first film of any kind to tackle the subject in the United States, and the prestigious Monthly Film Bulletin proclaimed it a radical work after its re-release in 1982.

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I Love Lucy (1953): first depiction of pregnancy

Despite the patriarchal commitment to nuclear families in the 1950s, the sexual realities of married life were strictly prohibited. It changed with i love lucy, the groundbreaking sitcom that shaped the face of television. Its two stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, got married in real life and found out they were having a baby at the start of the show’s second season. As the Huffington Post tells, they assumed the show would be canceled. Instead — despite objections from the CBS network and the show’s sponsors — they decided to work Ball’s pregnancy into the show’s storyline.

It had a cost. The first episode was to be thinned out with a priest, minister, and rabbi, and the term “pregnant” was not to be used onscreen. Despite the furor, the move turned into a cultural success, culminating in Lucy’s delivery in season 2, episode 16, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital”. Although filmed a few weeks earlier, the episode aired less than twelve hours after the real Ball gave birth to the couple’s second child.

Psycho (1960): First depiction of a toilet


Robert Bloch’s novel psychology carried strong taboo vibes in its reimagining of Ed Gein’s infamous serial murders. According to to an article in Medium, Alfred Hitchcock did everything he could to keep the subject matter of the film from leaking to the press while it was filming – and for good reason. He tackled a number of live cultural threads, including opening shots of scantily-clad stars Janet Leigh and John Gavin in bed together and the infamous shower scene in which Anthony Perkins-crazed Norman Bates stabs to death Marion Crane of Leigh. Despite all this, the grading committee passed it on the second try.

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Hitchcock was ready for them, and his use of the shower for Crane’s murder cleverly concealed another broken taboo. Just before taking her fateful shower, she does financial calculations on a piece of paper then tears it up and flushes it down the toilet. One piece sticks, providing a vital clue later. Between the narrative necessity of the shot and the host of other issues the censors were wrestling with, he was allowed to stay, which makes psychology the first American film to show toilets on screen.

Peeping Tom (1960): First use of nudity

It says a lot that the first non-pornographic film to depict nudity in the United States did so with a female character about to be murdered. 1960s Voyeur depicts a victim’s bare breast: part of a larger effort to expose the toxicity of the male gaze, as noted by film scholar Laura Mulvey in an essay for Criterion. Critics criticized it, citing its voyeuristic content and unpleasant serial killer storyline. Director Michael Powell claimed it nearly destroyed his career. It was released in the United States on the operating circuit in 1962 and was bombed terribly. Later study significantly revised its reputation, and today it is often ranked alongside psychology as one of the greatest thrillers of all time.

Bonnie & Clyde (1967): First use of graphic violence

Hollywood directors worked under the Hays Code for many decades, which strictly defined what could and could not be shown on screen. The Code perished from neglect more than anything else, as movies throughout the 1960s continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable – and audiences responded. As mentioned in an article by Weekly entertainment honoring 50 years of the filmand birthday, arthur penn Bonnie and Clyde symbolically hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Hays Code by featuring freewheeling bloodshed and a deliberately ambiguous moral tone that flew against Hollywood convention.

The film’s violence was deliberately uncomfortable, culminating in a montage of law enforcement officers gunning down the couple in their car in perhaps the most gruesome scene ever filmed at the time. Early critics trashed it, but it found champions like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebertwhich helped it to become a cultural milestone. Bonnie and ClydeThe success of marked the end of the old studio era, followed by an avalanche of films with previously banned content.

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Star Trek (1968): First Interracial Kiss

star trekThe reputation of being the first on this front is somewhat unfounded. Previous examples of interracial kissing on TV were more common than they seemed, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who kissed regularly on i love lucy. But none pissed off censors like Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner did on the original. StarTrek.

Season 3, Episode 10, “Plato’s Stepchildren” includes a scene in which Captain Kirk is telekinetically forced to kiss Lt. Uhura. The taboo of a white man kissing a black woman was too much for NBC, who wanted the scene cut. As Nichols reveals in his autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, they compromised by shooting two versions of the controversial sequence: one where they kiss and one where they don’t. She and Shatner deliberately missed every take without kissing, forcing the network to air the episode with the taboo shot. Fan response has been almost entirely positive, and Nichols has cited it as one of his favorite episodes of the series.

Saturday Night Live (1981): first TV curse word

The late-night sketch comedy was known for pushing the envelope in its early days, but in 1981, Saturday Night Live became the first American television show to deliberately drop a swear word. According to EW, bandleader Paul Shafer had inadvertently dropped the f-word during a sketch in 1980, but it was played as a bad delivery (the word in question was “flogging”.). The following season saw a dramatic change behind the scenes, as producer Lorne Michaels and the rest “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” left the show. They were replaced by an all-new cast and showrunner Jean Doumanian, who notoriously sent it down a steep descent. The final blow came on February 21, 1981, when actor Charles Rocket dropped the f-bomb during the onstage farewell just before the credits rolled. Doumanian and the entire cast except Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo were fired, and producer Dick Ebersol was brought in to repair the damage the following season.

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