Outdated Cultural Depictions Deserve Relevant Updates

Acknowledging the past is the best way to educate the present.

With so many classic films available on Disney+ it was inevitable that the topic of how some of those movies have, in the vernacular of the day, not aged well would eventually come up. The studio’s history is so deep and the number of movies so substantial, it’s only natural that some of these movies feature characters, stories, songs and other attributes that were a product of their time but which are no longer considered acceptable or appropriate.

It’s a common problem any studio would have to deal with if it were to put its entire catalog all in one place. Paramount would likely have to revisit the problems with movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – which features Mickey Rooney in yellowface – if it created a portal where it not only offered that and other movies it had produced over the years but was responsible for presenting it as well.

To address this very real issue, Disney has taken two approaches. Either they’ve A) kept the movie in the “vault” like it has with Song of South, realizing there’s little to no redeeming qualities to it or B) applied a note to the opening of the movie that reads thusly:

“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

While some have criticized the move because it hasn’t been consistently applied, because it’s not specific enough or because it shows some kind of kowtowing to the liberal elites, it’s a step in the right direction.

No, the disclaimer may not be perfect in various ways but it’s better than nothing. More than that, it’s exactly what’s needed to put older material in its proper historical place.

Over the years there’s been so much debate over cultural works like Huck Finn and other books, movies, shows and more that feature language, terminology, racial depictions, sexual politics and other story elements. School boards have discussed banning books, removing movies from libraries and such but removal has never been an answer that’s respectful or long-term.

It’s much more sustainable to offer education, acknowledging that mistakes were made in the past that now seem ill-advised if not utterly offensive. There can be opportunities to keep up with where society is at the moment instead of constantly trying to flush things down the Memory Hole and hoping no one brings them up. Such tactics only consign serious debates about where those cultural artifacts stand in history and how we’ve advanced to the sidelines, not allowing for people to consider them as anything above a kind of illicit smut that is usually hidden under the mattress.

Room for improvement in the disclaimer exists in a few areas:

  • Lose the ambiguity: “It may…” is too wishy washy and lets the content owner off the hook for seriously evaluating what’s on display. If they know it does, state it clearly.
  • Make it consistent: it’s a valid criticism to say that not showing the disclaimer on all applicable films, so address that immediately.
  • Offer more details: What is it specifically that’s outdated and why? Pointing people to a domain where they could get more information on what it is that’s no longer appropriate and offer resources to learn about how things have changed.

These – and other – movies shouldn’t be erased from the cultural landscape, nor should they be altered to remove elements that are offensive. The originals can be presented as they are and were, but acknowledging that some of these things are well past their sell-by date.

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