July 5, 2019
On The Odd Decision to Censor Oneself
In December 2001, Disney began releasing its original cartoon classics as part of its Walt Disney Treasures series, and for the next few years, consumers were able to get such collections as Mickey Mouse in Color or The Complete Goofy. The cartoons contained on the sets were presented in chronological order, and whenever one contained what might be considered questionable content by today’s standards, Leonard Maltin would appear to give us what might pass today as an early spoiler alert – only instead of telling us key plot details, he simply warned us that some people might be offended by what followed.
And sometimes what followed was as innocuous as Pluto sticking his head in a furnace and coming out covered with black soot. He then got down on one knee and belted out, “Mammie!” Film aficionados, both then and now, got the refeence instantly, and I can imagine them chuckling a bit at the animated rib of Al Jolson. Whether they took offense to it or not, I cannot say. However, the reaction to blackface has always depended on the audience watching it. It is certainly possible that White audiences laughed, while African-Americans sat silently, a look of resignation or shock on their faces. They would have been fully aware of the historical use of blackface to dehumanize and ridicule African-Americans and that it had its origins during the horrific days of slavery. Sadly, it continued as “entertainment” far longer than we’d like to admit.
So, perhaps modern audiences needed Maltin’s warning of possibly objectionable content. The same could probably be said of viewers who have discovered these cartoons or others like them in the years since. One can only speculate what today’s young people would make of Heckle and Jeckle or the Asian-looking cat that plays the piano with chopsticks in The Aristocats. However, Maltin’s words of warning were only the first part of his introduction. Following it were words that I agreed with then and am in complete agreement with today: It is better to see these images for ourselves and talk about them than it is to sweep them under the rug and pretend they never existed.
It’s better that we can see Al Jolson putting on blackface. It better that we can Tom (the cat) wearing a cymbal as if it were a traditional Chinese hat. It’s better that we can see John Wayne swaggering his way through his performance as Genghis Khan, the obviously White actors wearing blackface in The Birth of a Nation, Buster Keaton appearing as every member of a black minstrel show, and Mickey Rooney banging his head on a lantern every time he awakens in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s better that we remember what was as it truly was and not as we’d like it to have been.
What does it mean, then, that Disney has begun removing “questionable content” from their films? Gone is the crow’s musical number from Dumbo, cast into permanent exile is Song of the South, and, discovered just this week, mysteriously deleted is Stinky Pete’s inappropriate flirtatious offer to get a pair of identical twins into the next Toy Story movie. Apparently, Disney no longer sees controversial moments as teachable moments. Or perhaps it’s something even more disturbing. Maybe it believes that the internet generation is unable to see offensive content without flying into a rage. Whatever the reason, Disney’s decision is akin to throwing in the towel, and it casts their decision to remake their animated classics as live-action films in a new light. After all, doing so allows these classic tales to be told in a way that takes into account “modern sentiments,” a term that in too many people’s eyes has come to mean sans controversy.
I remember seeing Toy Story 2 in theaters. I remember the laughter that followed Stinky Pete’s indecent proposal. Everyone knew what he was referring to, and it was fun to see him caught in the act. Of course, that was before Me Too and Times Up, before stories of violent assaults perpetrated by powerful players in Hollywood made headlines almost daily, before Bill Cosby was found guilty of sexual assault. Can we laugh the same way today, or do we suddenly fall into stunned silence, shocked that a cartoon has made light of something so vile?
Of course, to do so would be to judge the film through much clearer eyes than we had back in 1999, a time when Harvey Weinstein was being praised for successfully promoting foreign and independent films and the women whose careers he secretly ruined were being promoted as “difficult.” Years later, a website would begin publishing articles with titles that began “Why Hollywood Won’t Hire…” Never did they list that a Hollywood starlet couldn’t get a decent role because she had fought back.
There is a conversation to be had about how or even if to watch movies that are made controversial by modern sentiments or their association with a figure that is now despised, However, this is a conversation that we should be able to have, and if we make the decision to watch them, we should be able to. Disney’s decision denies us this choice and robs us of what it once recognized as a teachable moment. What’s more, it reinforces a terrible stereotype – a misnomer about the fragility of this generation. But let’s says, for argument’s sake, that the word has indeed turned hypersensitive and can no longer handle the mere suggestion or sight of something repugnant. The answer is still not to delete it from public record. The answer, as it’s always been, is to inform people of it and then to let them make their own decisions. Disney used to understand this.