[Content warning: mentions of sexual assault]
As we develop over time as a society, our values and norms change. What was seen as
acceptable in the 50s is definitely not the same as what is seen as acceptable in the 21 st
century. You can see the development and progression of acceptable norms and values
through different forms of art and media. A lot of work has not stood the test of time,
especially with movements such as #MeToo drawing attention to problematic practices
within the film industry. This has led to more scrutiny of artistic works and a greater critique about the messages and behaviours that some of them contain.
The main problem with over-scrutinising different pieces of art is generalisation. The
imposition of our norms and values on the past simply doesn’t work because modern
society and the values and beliefs that we have now are very different to what they were in the past. A work of art or media created in the past is never going to hold up to our modern standards, it’s always going to be problematic in some ways. This is because life often informs art, and so in past art we see the reflection of past values. Classics are classics mainly for this reason. Even a seemingly progressive classic like Jane Eyre contains racism and promotes an imperialistic viewpoint. No piece of work is going to be completely without flaws, and so shouldn’t be held to a perfect standard.
We should not censor something that was created in the past just because it is promoting a set of ideals and norms that no longer have a place in the society that we live in.
Whitewashing our history is dangerous because it does not give us an opportunity to learn and rotate our views. We can’t pick and choose what happened in the past. It does not do to simply change history to suit a narrative or save face, it just means that we are more likely to fall back into those practices. If we do not have a concrete example of what is wrong, how can future generations be able to tell what was right?
My favourite book is Gone With the Wind, and whilst it is a beautiful story, there are
passages that are inherently racist, and the book depicts a rather romanticised vision of the antebellum south. In one of my favourite musicals, Phantom of the Opera an older man gaslights an aspiring opera singer and poses as the ghost of her father in order to try and seduce her. Both of these are inherently problematic in themselves, but just because I enjoy them doesn’t mean that I then automatically subscribe to these ideas or excuse them, and that goes for just about everybody. We should be able to appreciate a great work of art or film or music without having to then associate that work or a person who enjoys them with an outdated opinion.
Viewing or reading some works may be uncomfortable, but maybe that’s the point. If we’re not uncomfortable in the face of problematic behaviour, it suggests that we somehow condone it. That’s how we learn from it, and it’s necessary to have examples in fiction so that we can then teach future generations to improve upon the way we conduct ourselves. Saying that we should censor everything that promotes an outdated point of view can be equated to a hypersensitivity that is usually associated with the current generations. I’m not saying that being insensitive or engaging in problematic behaviour is ok. It’s not. But there’s a difference between reading Of Mice and Men (in which Steinbeck uses the n word) an enjoying the book, and using that word yourself in real life. There’s no comparison; one is a lot worse than the other.
There is a debate over the necessity of including problematic scenes, especially in regard to women. Movies or TV shows that include sexual assault, domestic abuse, and slurs are often debated after it airs. One of the most recent occurrence of this is in the Game of Thrones episode, when Sansa Stark is raped by Ramsay Bolton on their wedding night. Now, this was a horrifying scene to watch, and of course there was a public outcry. This scene was not in the books and the main question outraged audiences asked was whether it was at all necessary. The argument for ‘artistic license’ was made because ultimately it is the discretion of the director if something should be included or not, but this only goes so far. I would say that a scene in a film or TV show should only be included if it adds anything to the overall story or messaging. A lot of the time this is not the case; such scenes are only added for ‘shock factor,’ which is a poor justification and also very insensitive. That, however, is a separate debate.
This is a very complicated issue, mainly because there is no good side of the argument to be on. On one side, you are potentially saying that problematic behaviour in film is acceptable as long as it doesn’t filter into reality, but on the other you are supporting censorship. Everyone should decide for themselves, but as I’ve said before, censoring something because it doesn’t agree with your set of values is counterproductive, because there is no way to learn from it in the future. Endorsing censorship, even if it is to protect a group of people, is a very slippery slope – especially if it is undertaken by the government. Not to get political, but freedom of expression is the foundation of every democracy and even selective censorship goes against that. It’s better to have an example to learn from in a historical sense, so that we can move forward as a society without risking our right to unlimited creativity.
[Katerina Partolina Schwartz – she/her]