Call For Comments: Post-Release Censorship and Revisionism

From Mav: There was an article a few weeks ago that I wanted to address with a show… and then the world went to hell and we had to deal with other things (racism, sadly, is always topical). So now I want to get back to it… and sort of expand it with some other thoughts that are relevant to our current cultural moment. Anyway, in the midst of the worldwide pandemic and people doing some mass binging of streaming services to keep themselves entertained, someone noticed that Disney+ had decided to “censor cleavage” on their old kid’s sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place. There was the mild little bit of Internet outrage and then the world got too busy and forgot about it (I first read the article the day before the George Floyd murder). Anyway, when I first saw the headline, I assumed that the censorship would have something to do with someone deciding that Selena Gomez, who starred on the show back when she was 15, was just “a little too sexy” for their current sensibilities or something. Turns out that wasn’t it. What actually happened was that the censors had “blurred out the cleavage” of Maria Canals-Barrera, the then 41-year-old actress who played her mom. What was more troubling was that it wasn’t even a scandalous shot. It was nothing that you’d assume “censoring cleavage” meant if you heard that phrase. She wasn’t naked or even wearing lingerie or a bikini. This wasn’t a “hide the nipples” or anything like that. This was literally “censoring cleavage” — that is, the area of negative space between the flesh of the breasts of an adult human female. She wasn’t overtly sexually dressed. She was wearing a perfectly conservative and work appropriate V-neck top. There was of course Internet outrage… for a minute, but again… the world got really busy the next few days and people forgot about it.

It’s actually a little fortuitous that this one had some time to cool off. After the original story was posted, some fans of Wizards of Waverly Place posted screenshots from the original airings of the show back in 2009 to reveal that this is not a new change. Disney had ALWAYS blurred the cleavage on the show. This is weird in and of itself. As I said, the outfit isn’t exactly scandalous. And the blur isn’t in the right place to cover a nipple or anything like that. What’s even weirder is that the outfit was shown in its entirety moments before. And a couple scenes later, the actress is still wearing that top, now without a jacket and with full cleavage view. None of those are censored. The only thing I can think of is that maybe a hint of her bra was showing in the earlier scene or something, and they wanted that obscured? But even that is weird because even at a TV-G rating, it’s not like children don’t know that women wear bras? And the blur certainly calls more attention to it than just letting a peak of bra show would.

It’s not surprising that people thought it was new censoring though. Disney has had a habit of doing this since the launch of Disney+. Most notably, probably, is Daryl Hannah’s butt in the 1984 PG rated Splash. In the film, Hannah’s character Madison is a mermaid who is magically transforms into a tastefully nude human who meets Tom Hanks. The character always had super long hair that could be used to obscure anything the filmmakers didn’t want shown. But apparently covering just her asscrack wasn’t enough for the modern Disney+ censors. There was too much cheek! So they covered it up with COMICALLY bad CGI hair. Which again, makes me pay way more attention to her butt than I otherwise would have. It’s especially weird because in other parts of the film they have opted to recrop, trim, or re-edit scenes to avoid nudity in a more tasteful way… and in a couple places where that would have been impossible, they just said “fuck it, you’re going to see her nipples here for two seconds… oh well.” And that just makes the CGI hair butt really stand out even more.

Disney+ is sort of easy to pick on here. They can afford it. But there’s actually a long history of modifications to films after their release. Disney has modified several cartoons to take out hidden sexy easter eggs.. but those mostly don’t affect the experience of watching it. But then we have Stephen Spielberg modifying E.T. to remove guns (a change he regrets). We have 47 different cuts of the original Blade Runner, and George Lucas constant fucks with Star Wars movies decades later for some maclunkey reason. It’s totally a thing and more often than not, probably dumb. On the other hand is it really any different than the proliferation of Director’s cuts that people clamor for? Sure, sometimes those newer cuts are better (again, Blade Runner). But like in the 90s, there were a ton of “unrated cuts” of teensploitation movies like American Pie that were basically “hey, we tossed in 30 more seconds of boob.” Is adding stuff like that to turn on horny 14 -year-olds really any different than cutting it out to please their church going moms? And we’ve had this happening for FCC reasons on broadcast television forever. Yippie-ki-yay Mr. Falcon.

But aside from the modification of films in technical ways like this, we’re now suddenly in an era where content is being restricted for sociocultural sensitivity reasons. The one that has had the most press is Gone With the Wind, which HBO removed from HBOMax to much conservative complaint (including from the Whitehouse Press Secretary). Granted, the removal isn’t permanent. They’ve already said they intend to put it back once they’ve added a short preamble bumper which explains its cultural context. That hasn’t made people shut up about it… apparently because no one wants a ten-minute school lesson interrupting their racism. Because you know, that ten minutes would be a long time, especially when they weren’t really going to watch the four hour fucking movie anyway… They just wanted to complain that they can’t … for now… you know… unless they go to one of the other streaming services that didn’t bother to pull it. Also, as of the morning I’m posting this blog… it’s back already… and no one who complained is going to bother to watch it.

On the other hand, the producers of recent classic TV shows Scrubs and 30 Rock have both announced that they are pulling multiple episodes from the syndication and streaming packages because of their focus on blackface as humor as late as the last decade. This is a little different because this effectively does change the narrative of the show. They are doing what they can to erase their problematic history. Would it be better to maintain them with explanation like with Gone With the Wind or should these be removed and stuck in a vault to rot, like Song of the South?

We want to know what you think. When is censoring good or bad? Does it matter how long something has been out? Does it matter who does it? Does it matter what the intent was? Is it sometimes bad because it draws more attention to the issue or is that attention warranted if it somehow corrects the future behavior? Does it affect the future behavior? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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