Monday, February 8, 2021

Censoring Classic TV

The other night I was watching an episode of Room 222 entitled “What Is a Man?”

The story opens with Alice (Karen Valentine) proposing a reading of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the way it would be performed in Shakespeare’s day, with all the parts played by men. 

 


 

Howard, a student in the fine arts program, takes on one of the female roles and reads the lines with conviction the way any talented actor would.

 

But that performance, plus the fact that he’s not a good athlete and is shy around girls leads some of his male classmates to suspect he might be gay. That generates whispers in the hallway and some jokes in poor taste, culminating in a scene where Howard and Mr. Dixon (Lloyd Haynes) leave the classroom and notice a crowd around Howard’s locker.

 

Those gathered silently part, as Howard approaches his locker and sees a word scrawled on it by an unknown vandal. What did it say? I can make a guess, but that’s all I can do because the word was blurred out by the cable network Aspire TV.

 

How do you feel about that?

 

I’m tempted to stand up on an anti-censorship soapbox and rail against this current culture and its spoiled oversensitivity, and this ridiculous expectation that artistic works from decades ago must be altered to reflect the mindset of our more “enlightened” 21st century times.

 

But taking a scissors to art is nothing new, and did not start with the generation that invented safe spaces. For decades, when theatrical films aired on network television, profanity and scenes of nudity or extreme violence were altered or cut. When a television show goes into syndication, the full episode is routinely trimmed by a few minutes to accommodate more commercials.

 

Still, what happened with this Room 222 episode seems worse. This was not censorship required by FCC broadcast standards, or the result of economics. This was someone deciding they didn’t like that word, so no one should be allowed to see it.

 

It made no difference that the scene at Howard’s locker was intended to have a specific and powerful impact on those who watched it when it first aired 50 years ago. That word was there to jolt the viewer, especially at a time when any reference to homosexuality was still rare on network television. Within the context of that moment, blurring the word was a gross disservice to the episode’s creators, and to its audience. There was no plausible reason for it to happen. But it did.

 

And if you haven’t noticed, edits like this are becoming commonplace on cable networks like Aspire and MeTV. It’s a topic I discuss in a couple of places in my book When Television Brought Us Together. Whether it’s the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard, or a comedic take on characters of varying ethnicities on Get Smart, the shows of a bygone era are no longer deemed suitable for a general audience. 

 


 

I think it’s a disturbing trend, and one that gets worse the more it is tolerated. Words and symbols that almost everyone dislikes are always first to go, and then the movement expands to those that may not be as negative, but still don’t fit the agenda of those who wield the levers of cultural power.

 

Power – that’s what is almost always at the root of censorship. And it is almost always wrong. When art offers something uncomfortable, it should inspire a teaching moment, or an opportunity for discussion. When a series as progressive and inclusive and empathetic as Room 222 is deemed too offensive, that should be a sign that perhaps there is a better way to deal with situations like this. 

 


 

My suggestion: let “What Is a Man?” play unaltered, and air a parental guidance warning before it starts that the episode contains material that may be too mature for younger or more sensitive viewers. The easily triggered can then change the channel or proceed at their own risk.

 

This way, the station is absolved from having to decide what to air and what to cut – and that is as it should be. Purchasing the rights to broadcast a series should not come with the authority to deface it. When Room 222 is picked up by other cable stations, will they each get to make their own round of corrections? In another ten years there may not be enough left to fill a 30-minute time slot.

 


 

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but that doesn’t mean the curator should be allowed to remove a few swirls from the moonlit sky, because he thinks it looks better that way.

 

Leave our TV shows alone.

18 comments:

  1. You hit the nail on the head. It is like showing films now with minorities or woman empowered in the 17th century. We wash out history to make it what the woke want. It is troubling. Not that it was good that men were in charge, but it gives a false sense of change and decreases the true power to what was done. Why can't we learn from mistakes of the past and see what was in that time accepted and see how far we have come or devo'd. To sanitize the world and allow the young to believe history was not as it was on TV but be told how awful people were seems idiotic to me. Archie Bunker was Archie Bunker. He was a brash vile mouthed person who really deep down was not that bad. He shows that change over time can be accomplished in American Society. I was watching a sinatra pic... Pal JOey and was appalled by how he treated dames. But I was able to see that since the 40 or 50's things have really changed for the better.

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  2. Nothing too vulgar was allowed on tv when that show was made. Whatever word it was should be "safe" for anyone desiring to watch now. The reason we watch older shows is because of the Trash on current TV.

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  3. Wow...if you go to the Internet Movie Database page. They have a picture from the episode...and there too, what's written on the locker...is blurred out!

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    1. I think it may have been "blurred out" in the original broadcast back in 1970 or whenever.

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    2. The word was clearly viewed in the original broadcast.

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  4. Please attempt to be more empathetic to your fellow human beings.

    Perhaps you are not a member of that group that the word targeted. To you, it's just a word used to harass someone and you wish to be able to know what it is. You think people are too "easily triggered" about words. Yet if I were to call you a homophobe or to say you are clearly lacking in empathy you would take umbrage.

    There are people who have been assaulted with words, in the course of being persecuted in every other way, all of their lives, because of who they are. They do not see this issue the same way as you. To them, it's not just a word. It's a symbol of persecution and mental torture.

    Is it that important to you that you see a word that all of us can probably guess correctly in three tries? And even then all three guesses will be just about the same thing. You would be OK with bringing pain to a fellow human being just because why? Why is it important to you, really? So we can learn from the past? We have! That's why the word is blurred!

    Your suggestion about the warning is another solution. I leave it up to others to form consensus on which approach is better, if either.

    However, be aware, as someone who is neither in a targeted class nor upset by such alterations, your essay here is mixed. It contains some valid points, and one rational alternative, but it also smacks of prejudice. You use language and phrasing that betrays a send of victimhood yourself, and of begrudging others of their pain because you personally do not share it, therefore it is not a problem. You place your own experience of having your identity erased and the pain it is causing you above the pain others feel due to their identity and it is very apparent that their issue is greater than yours in the balance. This betrays alot about your thinking whether you know it or not.

    Caring for others is more important than preserving "our" tv shows.

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    1. Thank you for that response. However, you should know that this piece has received a surprisingly strong response within several classic television social media groups, and opinions are running about 95% against altering these shows.

      It has nothing to do with being empathetic, and that is not a responsibility of a filmmaker or TV show writer or musician or author. There are any number of songs and current TV shows that I have found offensive - I would never advocate forcing them to change to assuage my sensibilities.

      Regardless of how people react to that word now, whatever it was, it was put in that episode for the specific reason of showing how hurtful it could be to another human being. It had a real purpose for being there. And it can still teach that same lesson to a younger person who happens upon that episode today.

      If you wish to defend this instance of censorship, that is your privilege. My next question would be where does it end? If you think you have a clear perspective on what is acceptable now and what is not, rest assured that where you draw that line is going to be very different from where others do. We saw this play out last year, when Confederate statues were toppled and many applauded, and then statues of America's founding fathers were also toppled and not as many people liked that, and now San Francisco has decided to remove the names of Washington and Lincoln from all of their schools, and most people thought that was ridiculous.

      Instead of trying to cater to each person's individual sensitivities, it makes more sense to me to simply warn viewers of potentially triggering content and let them take responsibility for deciding whether they wish to watch.

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    2. 40krpggm, Have you ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? If a high school American Lit class wants to assign that book, should they rewrite it first, get all the 'N Words' out? Does that make it more palatable? Does it also pretty much defeat Twain's purpose for having it in there?

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    3. leave the shows alone it seeems everone gets offeneded pecker head grow up its a show not to be changed to your own likeing get a life

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  5. Rewriting history is wrong . If you can't learn from it you are doomed to repeat it. Are we going to tear I love lucy apart? What are we going to do about all those Indians in Westerns? How are we going to take out all the violence in the detective shows? Should we take out all kissing scenes because of covid. There are so many important things to do with our time than take apart a 50 year old comedy and try to make it "woke". There are so many things to get offended at and this is way down the line.

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    1. ...and the Marx Brothers and a gazillion gender-inequality-based movies and many great old songs and lots of old children's books. I couldn't agree more. Rewriting makes no sense. Rethinking makes sense, but we can't rethink what we've erased.

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  6. I noticed this trend toward social-justice pandering on MeTV a few years ago when I saw that they blew up the image on a couple of Leave it to Beaver episodes so viewers wouldn't notice June's "mammy" cookie jar.

    Now, their censorship is even more egregious. As you noted, they either edit or blur out images or dialogue that doesn't fit modern sensibilities. Even worse, they will elect not to run certain episodes AT ALL if they are considered "problematic" ("The Prowler" from The Flintstones, "Witless" from Sledge Hammer!, and "Shorty Kellems Moves West" along with "Simon Legree Drysdale" from The Beverly Hillbillies are some examples).

    I'm wondering how long it will be before MeTV morphs into a clone of TV Land, and just dumps the "classic" shows altogther.

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  7. This is a great topic and precisely why I hate watching theatrical movies on non-premium tv. 5-6 years ago I took a pile of dvds to my sister's house with me for the holidays, one was 'Back to the Future'. I'm sitting there watching it with my (at the time) 10 year old niece, who blew a gasket the first time Doc Brown said "You're gonna see some serious shit" to Marty. My sister got mad at me for not bringing the "original" movie, the one we took our 10 year old sister to see at the theater in 1985. I said "This IS the original movie" and she insisted what we saw back then was a family film with no curse words. Wrong! We just weren’t as prudish then. What’s next, replacing Catherine Bach’s daisy-dukes with long jeans? Miniskirts on Room 222 with maxis? Dub Monroe’s voice on Too Close for Comfort with something less gay-obvious? Who knows what future generations will decide they can no longer tolerate?

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  8. Yes Confederate statues were toppled...and founding fathers were toppled and I see your point here. but those statues were built to honor great(?)people and and a walk through the park or whatever says you have to be exposed to that. You have choices in TV shows and I agree with the author.

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  9. This is freaky because I was literally thinking about the episode last night. I was going about it to post to a FB group of gay men over 40, asking when was the first time they saw a *positive* depiction of a gay person. For me, it was that episode. Watching this as a confused and closeted kid and seeing this character stood up for himself was huge. Blurring that word will not blue the memories of all the times I was called "fag." In fact (shameless plug), I've got a webseries called "Dated" that's going to premiere on Outfestnow.com in a couple of weeks and the episode I'm shooting now is called "Fag Test" and it's all about that same kind of bullying in middle school. This is basic storytelling. You can't do a story about righting a wrong without showing the wrong. Should "Law and Order" be edited so we never hear about a murder because murder is wrong? This is so misguided.

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    1. Thank you for providing your perspective on this - and best of luck with the webseries.

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  10. Mr. Hofstede, I can't say that I'm happy about the censorship of classic TV episodes by modern TV networks anymore that you are. However, people should keep in mind that both MeTV and Aspire are ad-supported networks. Eric Bischoff has said that a person in the entertainment industry has "to be sensitive not only to your audience, but you have to be sensitive to your advertisers. You have to be sensitive to your business partners." Both MeTV and Aspire are at the mercy of advertisers. Mr. Hofstede, do you think that advertisers too often seem to speak louder than TV audiences?

    The above stuff said, I'm not happy about the fact that the "Quest of the Red Skull" episode of the early-1980s animated series "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" isn't available for viewing on the Disney+ streaming service at ALL due to its depiction of Nazi imagery. "Sunfire," a now-controversial episode of said series, IS available for viewing on Disney+, but there's now a disclaimer/content warning before the episode starts. Be glad that one can still purchase "Sunfire" and "Quest of the Red Skull" as individual episodes via Amazon's Prime Video at the present time. When the 1987 feature film "Adventures in Babysitting" finally ends up on Disney+, will Elisabeth Shue's infamous f-bomb make the cut?

    By the way, Mr. Hofstede, you might want to check out the following URL:

    https://youtu.be/ILF1DpjyKtM

    Yes, Donald Trump isn't exactly the nicest man in the world. However, was he REALLY the worst president that the United States has ever had?

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  11. This is not just happening on Me-Tv. I live in Canada where we have our own retro TV channel CHCH TV. It shows many great classic series from the 60s and 70s which I love and watch every day yet there are certain episodes which are singled out for special treatment which I think is unfair and unnecessary. These episodes, which are shown in their entirety, are preceded by an on-screen disclaimer which warns that the episode is a product of its time and contains prejudice that would be unacceptable today. This wouldn't be so bad if you are talking about series like "All In The Family", "The Jeffersons", or "Maude", where prejudice and controversy is present in nearly every episode. But, in this case, I have seen the disclaimer show up before episodes of "Get Smart", "Green Acres", "Gilligan's Island", and even "The Brady Bunch"! These are shows that I have loved for many years and have long considered to be frivolous and harmless. I really think that the networks are overreacting way too much here and should just let the viewers enjoy them for what they are, great series that should be remembered for bringing joy to their many fans and not anger or prejudice. It's that kind of narrow thinking by the TV stations that should be eliminated completely before it goes too far.

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