Reframing Hollywood: The Moral Superiority Of Finding Everything Problematic

The ignoble desire to find every old movie offensive and dangerous is the classic sign of the censorial belief that you know better than everyone else.

If there is one thing that is certain, it’s that what was acceptable yesterday will not be acceptable today. Cultures change, taboos evolve. Once upon a time, saying ‘fuck’ on TV caused front-page headlines and howls of outrage, while having a white character blacked up was seen as wholesome entertainment; now, the reverse is true.

We’re currently undergoing what feels like mass hysteria about the content of old movies, with few – if any – lines drawn between outrageous slant-eyed, buck-toothed crude Oriental caricatures and movies that might have the odd tasteless joke or negative portrayal. Certainly, there are films from the past that even we might take a deep breath while watching, but equally, we are aware that many older works are either a product of their time or were actually trying to make what we might call progressive points – just not in the way that is currently sanctioned. There is a movement right now – a movement with considerable power and influence – that seems to want to remove the entire past, right up to the 2000s, declaring everything from Gone with the Wind to Friends as ‘problematic’. We’re now seeing an unprecedented amount of material either pulled from circulation, edited or plastered with warnings, regardless of the context that the offensive content appears in – hence Fawlty Towers was pulled from BritBox (before public outcry forced a rare reversal) because of racist language – yet the whole point of the words used was to show that the Major was a bigoted old duffer. Like Alf Garnett – also now removed from circulation – we were supposed to laugh at him, not with him. Of course, satirising unpleasant ideas has always risked being approved of by bigots who don’t get the joke. Now it is condemned by liberals who also don’t get it. This doesn’t seem like a step forward, somehow.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Turner Classic Movies has programmed a season of movies under the banner Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror. At first glance, this seems to be an admirable reversal of the cancellation process, accepting that older movies will often have content that might offend or upset the particularly delicate – it’s perhaps similar to the now-standard warning on Talking Pictures TV that “the following programme contains outdated attitudes”, a disclaimer that ought to be unnecessary (obviously a film from the 1950s isn’t usually going to score many Woke points) but sadly is – the channel has had enough complaints by the professionally offended to make it feel very cautious, I imagine.

The Reframed season, therefore, seems, on the surface, to be a chance to let people watch these films and make their own minds up – an acceptance that yes, the past is a different country, but not one that we are not allowed to visit; that these films still have value despite their dated ideas. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. If anything, TCM seems to want to have its cake and eat it – appealing to film fans appalled by cancel culture, while then lecturing them on how to think and how to view the films. To quote the press release:

Several hosts will take turns holding roundtable introductions before the start of each movie where they will discuss the history and cultural context of the movie. They will also provide trigger warnings about depictions of racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues.

The film listing helpfully tells us what we should find concerning in each film. Here it is.

  • Gone With the Wind – Romanticized portrayal of antebellum life before the Civil War and portrayal of slaves as happy and content
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Sexism controversy over plot of the film of kidnapping women and forcibly confining them to marry
  • Rope – Portrayal of two queer characters who have just committed a murder
  • The Four Feathers – Racist views including the term Fuzzy Wuzzies to denote Arabs and take on British imperialism in Arabia
  • Woman of the Year – Sexism and the idea that a woman can only be successful in the workplace if she lacks femininity
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Aspects of black actor Sidney Poitier’s films that are oriented primarily to white audiences
  • Gunga Din – White actor Sam Jaffe playing the title role of Gunga Din, who is an Indian character
  • Sinbad, the Sailor – White actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr playing the Arab role of Sinbad and portrayal of Arabs
  • The Jazz Singer – Al Jolson’s blackface routine
  • The Searchers – White actor Henry Braydon playing Native American character and abuse of Native American woman by white character.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s – White actor Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Japanese character Mr Yunioshi
  • Swing Time – Fred Astaire’s blackface routine
  • Stagecoach – Portrayal of Native Americans and their being seen as a threat
  • Tarzan, the Ape Man – Portrayal of Africans including one attack by ‘a tribe of aggressive dwarfs’
  • My Fair Lady – Sexism and Henry Higgins’ physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle
  • The Children’s Hour – Portrayal of LGBTQ issues when two female teachers are accused of sinful, sexual knowledge of each other;
  • Psycho – Transgender identity and the implications of equating and dressing in women

There are a couple of things that strike me here. First is the whole idea that we, the general thicko public, need to have these films contextualised by people who are cleverer than us, lest we don’t spot the dodgy representations. This whole argument has always been about more than people being offended – there is a sense of fretting over the wrong people seeing these films and not understanding why they are bad. Showing them with a serious finger-wagging beforehand is an insult to the viewer, but it sums up the attitude of many who want to tell us what we can or cannot watch. Censors of all kinds are essentially patriarchal snobs who think that they are smarter than the rest of us.

The other thing that raised my eyebrows were some of the films. Now, many of the choices are obvious in why they would cause modern viewers with no sense of the past to have the heebeejeebees. But others…

I watched Psycho again recently, and let’s say this right away: Norman Bates is not a transvestite. The film explicitly says so, at the end when the psychiatrist is laying out the back story. It’s entirely unambiguous – Norman is a split personality who becomes his mother and so dresses as her; there is no Trans aspect to him. To say otherwise suggests that someone simply hasn’t watched the film properly; maybe the long explanation at the end was a bit wordy and so they started looking at their phone or something. Similarly, Rope does indeed have two men as the murderers, both played by secretly gay actors. But the film doesn’t make any reference to their sexuality, as you might expect from a Fifties film where homosexuality was something that no polite person ever spoke of. It certainly doesn’t state that they have killed because they are gay. The TCM claims seem to be a stretch, possibly confusing the film with the stage play that it was based on or the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case that inspired it.

Most astonishing in this list is The Children’s Hour, a daring 1961 film with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as two teachers accused of being lesbians by a malicious child. This is a film about witch hunts and repressed desire, and its condemnation is of a society that would demonise these two women because of their sexuality, imagined or otherwise. To somehow suggest that this is a homophobic movie is nonsense – it takes the bigotry of the time (be that 1961 or the 1934 setting of the original play) and shows it for how vile it is. Yet here we are in 2021, and TCM is referring to lesbianism as “sinful, sexual knowledge”. Problematic indeed.

If we have to make a choice between these films being thrown onto the bonfire or having to listen to some condescending explanation of why we should be appalled before being allowed to watch them, then I’ll take the latter obviously. But we should be trusted to make our own judgements on these films and to see them as a historical record of a time long gone. To suggest that they are inherently dangerous if seen without warning is to become just another moralising censor, wringing your hands at the thought of people being depraved and corrupted by films that – unlike you – they cannot possibly understand or contextualise, while somehow managing to miss the entire point of the film, so caught up are you in the need to find offence.


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  1. The ignoble desire to find every old movie offensive and dangerous is the classic sign of the censorial belief that you know better than everyone else.
    I could have not say it better. It’s the social media attitude, unfortunately.

  2. A lot of what’s going on here is just bad scholarship and lazy hot-take criticism from younger critics eager to make a name for themselves by taking down a movie from the canon.This leads to both an overeagerness to find offense where there isn’t any or magnify an offense that’s trivial, and to give yourself unwarranted credit for being the first to notice said offense when, if you’d bothered to read source material from the time of the movie’s release, you’d be forced to acknowledge that a lot of what we find problematic now was also considered to be problematic at the time, but by voices whom not enough people bothered to take seriously.

  3. What the writer views as being condescending I see as an attempt to encourage more discussion on classic films. No one is telling anyone what to think, and if you don’t like the discussion you do have the option to skip it (censor it, one might say). In saying that, the dismissive attitude towards those raising questions or offering modern points of view relating to problematic/offensive representations in classic movies strikes me as condescending. We only move forward as a culture by relentlessly casting a critical eye on the past. It’s not about “telling people what to think” or denying access to these films – but to simply ask questions and at the very least consider other points of view.

    1. „We only move forward as a culture by relentlessly casting a critical eye on the past.“ Everyone who says that, should also have a critical eye on earlier forms of so called criticism. In stalinist Russia or maoist China, for example, art-, film- and music-criticism was used in much the same way it is used by some today: As a way to in fact censor. Not as in banish, but as in to suppress free thinking and free speech. I agree with some of the films being „problematic“. But, to put a panel of „critics“ before a film, who point out what is, in their view, „wrong“ with it it, and how, in their opinion, to contextualize it and „correctly“ (one might say modernly) view it, how is that not telling people what to think, to infantilize your audience? Which is the opposite of what art is to do and yes, very condescending.

      1. I’m quite familiar with 20th century history. The Maoist/Bolshevik comparison is a false analogy. At least I don’t think there’s Committee of Washington bureaucrats putting the stamp of approval on every single film and documentary that’s made in the USA. But those TCM “critical” panels are terrifying!!!!! True enemies of the people! Lenin’s got nothing on them!!! In all seriousness, TCM is simply providing historical context to their audiences. It’s been part of film culture for some time. Discussing art IS an integral part of art – and that includes historical context.

  4. This is a long, huffy piece and I’m not sure what it’s complaining about. For it to make any sense, it has to pretend that there is a genuine, organised movement of people trying to get films banned when what there really is is a genuine feeling amongst broadcasters and rights-holders that if a film is going to feature language or portrayals of minority groups which could be upsetting, then it’s only fair to warn them.

    The problem is that all of these articles are written by cis white men, who have never actually experienced what it feels like to turn on the TV in front of their children and find themselves cast in such a demeaning way.

    The Fawlty Towers incident was to do with the broadcaster screening the wrong version – The offensive part had been removed over a decade ago, with John Cleese’s blessing. The Alf Garnett shows were not pulled, they just weren’t made available – like hundreds of sitcoms from the 70s. Other shows have been temporarily removed whilst broadcasters assess them and the need to provide contextual warnings or material to accompany them. What’s wrong with that? People throw the word ‘censorship’ around with equal moral superiority to that they accuse the ‘censors’ of exercising.

    At its core, the notion of ‘political correctness’ is just a call for kindness and politeness and consideration of the feelings of others.

    On balance, what’s worse? That a family of colour sit down to watch a comedy show and unexpectedly find themselves and their culture held up for ridicule or that a white man has to sit through a ten second warning on the front of that show?

    So what if there’s a warning before the thing starts? And so what if people want to make contextual material available alongside it? You can skip both. How is that an insult to the viewer? It’s not insulting anyone’s intelligence, it’s just perhaps making them feel uneasy because they translate it as their affinity/love for that movie somehow being challenged.

    The irony is that David Flint and all of his stodgy cohorts are complaining about how offensive to them this all is WAY more than the ethereal movement they have concocted to rail against.

  5. How interesting that you rail against censorship yet choose to delete comments which respectfully and thoughtfully disagree with your opinion.

    1. Funnily enough Jon, we don’t spend all day looking at the comments board – which we moderate for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand -waiting to see if you have shared your opinions or not.

  6. I’m a historian. I’m never going to agree with not showing stuff. Here’s some counterpoints that I think are needed for clarity though:

    – Individual companies take it upon themselves to provide warnings before old movies, and to withdraw old movies from circulation. People talk about this stuff as though there’s an actual “PC police”, when this is just a case of individuals making decisions. Companies care about the integrity of their brands, and they generally are going to get in a flap when people complain on social media.

    – It’s possible that old racist/sexist/homophobic films were always offensive to someone. They just weren’t offensive to you. Gone with the Wind didn’t suddenly become “problematic”, it was always shitty to black audiences (see bell hooks on ‘black looks’ c. 1991 – not a new thing).

    – I’m becoming suspicious of using generalisations like “young people are such-and-such” or “people are too sensitive these days”. Aside from the fact that uncritical straw man takes are generally just an excuse to get angry about something that is more complex than it first appears (and definitely not worthy of academic types) I think this is an oncoming sign of the fuddy conservatism that can sometimes accompany ageing. I’m hypervigilant about it. I don’t want it to happen to me. I see it being kind of like the academic version of buying a red sports car, or taking an impulse holiday to Greece and having it off with a young cocktail waiter, only obviously MUCH less fun. No thanks.

    On the point about censors being moralising elitists, I’m not sure if censor is being used here in a legal sense. The film censorship body we actually have in the UK is the BBFC, and this exists for a good reason (and if it didn’t we’d all suffer for it). But it’s never actually been prescriptive – local authorities have the final say on certification.

    An Academic Wanker.

    1. ‘Censor’, in this instance, is being used to describe anyone who believes that they have the right to decide what others can or cannot see. Some with legal status, some with social authority.

      I will boringly point out that the BBFC have the final say (only say, in fact) on what we see on home video, which is where most films have been exclusively released, until the advent of digital services, since the start of the 1980s. And they’ve already banned one film this year.

  7. I loved this article. As a historian, MA in American History, I offered my services to TCM but have yet to hear back bc what they were doing on my opinion WAS/IS moral superiority and misrepresenting some films just as the author pointed out. The truth is some of these films are shitty to different populations and that is the point. The are a form of art. They are meant to be interpreted by the viewer. What one sees or does not see is not problematic. It is what one is not allowed to see, or told what to see that is the problem. I see nothing wrong with discussing different points of view. All are valid to that person until one can can counter it with discussion but to say one is point of view is superior should not be what is happening. When someone makes far reaching conclusions without evidence they are heard but dismissed in the academic community. Most give creditable consideration to a direct link and that is what the author broke down. Nothing more. I say bravo. Have the conversation. Don’t play people off as ignorant.

  8. I think that one of the writer’s concerns — namely, that we shouldn’t discard old movies (and, by extension, old novels, plays, and other cultural works) simply because they include, or even feature, ideas and portrayals that are no longer acceptable — is perfectly valid. However, I think he goes too far (presumably to make a point that even he probably doesn’t totally believe in, but to attract like-minded readers) when he exaggerates or willingly distorts what is actually happening.

    What *is* actually happening? Critics, teachers, journalists, and moviegoers are looking at old movies through new lenses and pointing out — accurately and fairly, for the most part — the various attitudes, portrayals, and themes that were products of their time and are no longer acceptable. These people (myself included, when I teach my students about old films, TV shows, advertisements, etc.) create a space in which we all can look critically at cultural texts from an earlier time, discuss their enduring values and their non-enduring attitudes/portrayals/prejudices, and place their pros and cons in historical and current-day contexts. That’s called teaching (and critical thinking).

    What is *not* actually happening (despite the writer’s hyperbolic claims)? Some or all of the following:
    – Calls for censoring or making these films unavailable.
    – Equating critical discussion with censorship.
    – Offering critique as if from a place of superiority to one’s listeners, students, or fellow discussants.
    – “Mass hysteria” (one of the author’s many hyperbolic characterizations) about older cultural texts, including films.
    – An effort to “remove the entire past.” Indeed, the author himself contradicts his own point when he provides the list of movies that TCM is screening and the reasons that TCM finds these movies outdated/ offensive/etc. TCM isn’t removing these movies — just the opposite. TCM is showcasing them — *and* explaining why its producers find the movies problematic. Viewers are free to disagree with TCM’s explanations. But they have to actually be able to watch the movies in order to develop their own judgments, and TCM is making them easily accessible.

    In short, while I agree that *some* people (including, God knows, some of my own colleagues in academia, and some of my students) do indeed have a knee-jerk, non-nuanced, and, arguably, unthoughtful response to all cultural texts (old and new) that contain offensive and outdated elements, it’s quite an exaggeration to claim that there is “mass hysteria” around “removing” these texts.

    But, hey — it gets clicks.

  9. One of my biggest issues is the idea that a queer or gay character can only be portrayed as either a victim or a good hearted saviour. But never the anatgonist! Leaving all the really juicy roles to straight white men. I know many LGBTQI actors that would relish the idea of playing a murderer or serial killer or just downright nasty piece of work. Its not a damning indictment on an entire sub culture if a gay character is the murderer!

  10. The problem with the pseudo-liberal left is the dumbification of education. You cannot have a healthy liberal left without quality education. Freedom means responsibility, and the education necessary to wield that power.
    I am saddened to read that the cancel culture is now after works like ‘PSYCHO’ because of Transgender identity and the implications of cross-dressing. That is just plain stupid and I’ll tell you why.
    Norman Bates was not trans. He was clearly a heterosexual cis male. He did not cross dress. He impersonated his highly dominating, oedipal, mother, and killed as her. It was a case of dissociative identity disorder, not transgenderism. If they actually watched the film and understood it, they would know.
    This global ignorance and cancel culture is a symptom of the dark, unenlightened age that was ushered by the murder of the intellectual. There is nothing woke about cancel culture. It’s just good old-fashioned censorship, and doing it retroactively with all sorts of media, is no different from the 1933 book-burnings of Berlin. The pseudo-left is a shadow of the far-right.

  11. ” Showing them with a serious finger-wagging beforehand is an insult to the viewer…”

    Yeah, I do my own finger-wagging back. I use my middle finger.

  12. What a waste of virtual ink. Honestly, everything is right in criticizing any past art form using the morality of today. Let’s also be honest about the classic films of the past that were made exclusively for white audiences who were complicit and in agreement with casual racism and exclusion in the films they made. It was acceptable back then, but it’s not acceptable now. These films will also just fade away because what was considered endearing, sophisticated and funny is no longer endearing, sophisticated and funny. Eventually, these films become boring and somewhat laughable. Tastes change. Terrible article.

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