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– it’s perhaps similar to the now-standard warning on Talking Pictures TV that “the following programme contains outdated attitudes”, a disclaimer that ought to be unnecessary (obviously a film from the 1950s isn’t usually going to score many Woke points) but sadly is – the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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