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Call-out vs. Cancel Culture: How Streaming Services Handle Problematic Content

In light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many people in positions of power in the entertainment industry have begun to modify the content shown on a multitude of streaming platforms. With ongoing protests demanding justice for Black individuals who have suffered from systemic racism and who have lost their lives because of the color of their skin, some networks are beginning to cleanse their libraries of their racist past. Movements like the #MeToo movement called out high-profile actors and directors in Hollywood such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby who were accused and convicted of sexual misconduct. This movement has also caused many networks to modify and question their partnership with known actors and directors. With cancel culture being so new, prevalent, and influential in our society today, these streaming networks are reconstructing their libraries and calling out old problematic shows, people, and films that were once deemed appreciable and loved by society.

In an article from The Hollywood Reporter titled “ Racist, Sexist … Classic? How Hollywood Is Dealing With Its Problematic Content,” Rebecca Keegan introduces numerous ways that Hollywood is modifying, addressing, and taking accountability for its complex history and content. She writes, “For traditional studios launching new streaming services and trying to attract 2021 audiences, their libraries are precious resources, assets to draw viewers saturated with entertainment options via the powerful forces of nostalgia and brand recognition. But these decades-old archives also are minefields of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bias that were publicly acceptable in the eras in which the content originally was produced.” As we get older, we tend to want to regress to earlier memories of our childhood and often enjoy the feeling of nostalgia for its comforting, warm, familiar memories. These memories frequently revolve around movies and TV shows that we may have grown up watching. It is not until we get older where the innocence fades. We are confronted with our problematic society’s harsh realities and how these depictions of minorities, cartoons, and all other characters we’ve grown up watching are offensive in nature.

Selected episodes on classic shows such as Community, 30 Rock, The Golden Girls and even the Disney classic Dumbo were all removed from their platform because of their portrayal of blackface and stereotypes. Sweeping the issue under the rug and permanently removing the episode on all platforms does not change the fact that the network ever made the episode in the first place, nor does it alter the fact that these episodes were once deemed publicly “acceptable” in our society.

Filtering these episodes and keeping them “offline” denies people the ability to look back at the time and contextualize a moment in history. Although many streaming networks are unquestionably pulling out episodes and trying to erase them from existence, many other networks have adopted a more accountable approach towards dealing with these specific episodes.

Keegan quotes screenwriter John Ridley, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times calling for WarnerMedia to remove Gone With the Wind from its two-week old streaming service for the sentimentalization towards slavery as well as its stereotypes towards African Americans. Ridley says, “At a moment when we are all considering what more we can do to fight bigotry and intolerance, I would ask that all content providers look at their libraries and make a good-faith effort to separate programming that might be lacking in its representation from that which is blatant in its demonization.” Shortly after the article was published,  HBO Max decided to remove the film from their streaming service.

What was very influential of his op-ed in the  Los Angeles Times was that he was not  “canceling” anyone or anything. The article kindly asked these platforms to check their shows, movies, services and take a moment to consider what it means to be showcasing problematic content without addressing the issues. Instead of automatically canceling, it was more a “call out” for these networks. This op-ed was not blaming or shaming anyone or anything; rather, it asked these networks to hold themselves accountable for the content being produced and published.

Unlike other platforms that have removed their problematic content entirely, HBO Max eventually reposted Gone With The Wind without addressing the issue at face valueJacqueline Stewart, a host on TCM, was hired to briefly introduce the film for its problematic nature, sentimentalization of slavery, and racial inequality that the film depicts right before the movie begins. Christy Haubegger, WarnerMedia’s chief enterprise inclusion officer and head of marketing and communications, says, “Our approach is to confront and contextualize our history.”

The great thing about cancel culture is that it has been highly influential in calling out racism, sexism, and many other types of wrongdoings. People are often quick to disregard anything that may be problematic, even if produced when it was “acceptable.” WarnerMedia has assembled a group composed of historians and advisers from outside the company and representatives from various Warner divisions to examine its archives and continue to edit and acknowledge its problematic history and content to hold themselves accountable without erasing or sweeping anything under the rug.

Although we as a society cannot change the fact that at one point, these films were deemed acceptable and unproblematic to many people, it does not change the fact that they are wrong and that they happened. Keegan quotes Ben Mankiewicz, a TCM host, “Nobody’s canceling these movies, our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking.’ But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.” There are many things that simply cannot just be “disregarded,” instead of cleaning out and burning down these libraries and pretending it never existed or happened, meaningful conversations can come and teach future generations to come and learn what was there before them.