Thanks to the rise of streaming platforms, old movies and TV shows have been given a second life with a new generation of viewers. Series like “The Office”, “Friends”, and “Breaking Bad” are very popular with young people, despite premiering before some of their fans were even born. However, the use of offensive and stereotypical jokes is much more frequent in older media and can hurt viewers whose identities are turned into punchlines. Comedy at the expense of historically marginalized groups was wrong then and is wrong now. This begs the question: If these jokes wouldn’t be included in a movie or show made today, should they still be available on streaming services? Some creators of these movies and shows choose to remove offensive episodes or scenes while others utilize disclaimers to acknowledge the harm caused.
Many popular sitcoms of the past have episodes that feature blackface. “Community” and “30 Rock” have both pulled entire episodes from streaming services because of their use of blackface. The creators of “The Office” opted to edit out the blackface scene in their Season 9 Christmas episode titled “Dwight Christmas” while leaving the rest of the episode available on streaming services. Although the hit show was attempting to use blackface to satirize a racist European tradition, showrunner Greg Daniels said that, “blackface is unacceptable and making the point so graphically is hurtful and wrong.” While creators of these shows claim that they are trying to minimize pain caused, removing these episodes from streaming platforms also absolves them of responsibility. New viewers who didn’t see the episode air originally will never know about its use of blackface. Over all else, editing racism out of old media helps the creators save face.
Disney has a long history of derogatory and stereotypical portrayals of different ethnic groups. In the 1953 childhood classic “Peter Pan”, a group of indigenous people, referred to as “savages” capture the lost boys. They are depicted with red skin and they sing a song called “What Made Red Man Red”. Instead of editing this scene out of the film, Disney Plus added an unskippable disclaimer at the beginning of “Peter Pan” as well as other films such as “The Aristocats” and “Aladdin”. The disclaimer warns that the following program “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures…Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation.”
Disney is not trying to hide their past racism in the way that other TV shows and movies, such as “The Office”, are. And while the disclaimer was probably made to protect Disney’s image as a corporation, it does the job in taking accountability in addition to communicating that their racist caricatures were not acceptable. This is especially important for kids’ content like “Peter Pan” because children are easily influenced by the media they consume. Although children may not understand these disclaimers, they can give rise to conversations between parents and children about these negative depictions.
Actions like these have been taken to remedy the pain inflicted by negative stereotypes in movies and TV. Even so, these disclaimers and edits are only applied to egregious instances of racism. The truth is that many mainstream TV shows and movies that include racism, homophobia, and misogyny are able to fly under the radar because the bigotry is more subtle.
The 2000s TV show “Gilmore Girls” has an almost exclusively white cast. The show is centered around Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, a white mother-daughter duo. Rory and Lorelai are self-proclaimed “best friends” and their relationship seems almost perfect at times. Rory’s best friend Lane Kim is Korean and one of the very few people of color in the show. Her mother, Mrs. Kim, is an exaggerated stereotype of a “tiger mom”. The “tiger mom” stereotype consists of parents who are very strict and push their children to achieve academic success and is often associated with Asian mothers. Mrs. Kim doesn’t allow Lane to listen to or play music, only lets her date Korean boys, and forces her to attend a religious college.
This overdramatized representation of Asian mothers reinforces stereotypes and can cause discomfort for viewers, especially those who are Asian. However, this stereotypical characterization is less blatant than those in the previously mentioned shows and movies. Some viewers may not even notice how this is harmful. Subtle use of stereotypes like this is commonplace in the media. Even if it’s not as overt, it still needs to be addressed because it can lead to microaggressions in real life as well as implicit bias.
Depending on how optimistic you are, you might believe that these companies and showrunners are well intentioned in trying to amend their past actions or you might believe that they’re only trying to improve their image. Either way, removing racist scenes and pretending like they never happened is less constructive than acknowledging them and attempting to learn from them. Disclaimers, like those employed by Disney Plus, need to be added to countless old movies and TV shows if they are to be available on streaming services.