October 18, 2018
How should we interact with media from the past that conflicts with contemporary values?
Keira Knightley, Disney, And How To Deal With Questionable Content In Our Favourite Old Movies
When she was doing the recent media rounds to promote her upcoming movie, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, actress Keira Knightley told Ellen DeGeneres that her daughter, three-year-old Edie Knightley Righton, was not allowed to watch those Disney classics The Little Mermaid and Cinderella, owing to their content clashing with the star’s feminist values.
Knightley told Ellen that both movies were banned in her house because one depicted a helpless woman waiting around for a rich man and the other revolves around a woman giving up her voice for a similar rakish smile and pair of fitted tights. Thankfully for the relationship between guest and host, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, both of which star DeGeneres, meet Ms Knightley’s principled standards and are therefore permissible. There’s also something ironic about her putting the boot into two of the House of Mouse’s most treasured gems while simultaneously promoting a Disney movie... but that’s a discussion for another day.
The outrage and solidarity, to what is after all a rather inconsequential statement, has seen the usual culture wars teams line up. The right-wingers that those of us on the moderate right don’t invite to parties have lost their minds branding Knightley a hypocrite and accusing her of indoctrinating her daughter into leftist politics. The left that I assume the cool left similarly disinvite to their gatherings have held Knightley up as a flawless goddess, rather than just an actress who revealed a bit of personal information during the promotional effort for her new film.
From where I sit, the interesting part of this story has nothing to do with the parenting choices in the Knightley Righton household. Those are entirely for the parents to make and should be respected as such; although I suspect the chances of little Edie not seeing the movies before she’s much older are quite slim, it’s not easy to avoid such well-known cultural artefacts in the modern world.
What is of interest is the discussion point that the story raises; namely; how should we interact with media from the past that conflicts with contemporary values?
In answering this question, we should be cautious of dismissing it as a trivial conversation about cartoons and kids movies. It’s more important than that. For many, films like Dumbo, complete with racist crows, Lady and The Tramp, with those cringey Siamese cats, the insensitive depiction of Native Americans in Peter Pan, are as culturally important as Citizen Kane or The Godfather... probably more so.
It’s not just Disney either, if you dig deep into the vaults of, for instance, Warner Brothers, you’ll find some highly questionable material. In particular, the home of Bugs and Daffy contains the so-called ‘Censored Eleven’; a collection of cartoons that was withheld from further broadcast in 1968 owing to their racist content. Essentially, if you go back far enough into the annals any of the long-lasting media empires, you’ll find content that is, by modern standards, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic (check Disney and WB’s WW2 propaganda films for more on that), and just generally in poor taste; and that’s without touching on what films like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty say about consent.
However, no amount of condemnation or cringe will unmake Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, or remove the uncomfortable aspects contained within them. They are part of the cultural fabric in the English speaking world and in a lot more of the world for that matter and aren’t going away. It’s great that, as a society, we’re becoming more aware of what is hurtful to particular groups and are making more of an effort to take this into consideration but that shouldn’t come at the expense of a rich cultural heritage of movies and TV shows; rather, it should be part of continuing this heritage and passing it to the next generation. If the books, movies, TV shows, music, and the rest of culture are the annotated record that we pass down to those how come after us then we owe it to them to pass it on complete and with the scribbles, highlights, underlines, and comments that we have learned to make over the years. Only then can they build on it and make their own improvements. This is not to say that the media involved should be broadcast or viewed uncritically, quite the reverse in fact, it should be studied with context and a critical eye.
After all, we can only do a forensic, ‘warts-and-all’ analysis our culture if those warts are visible in the first place. We should trust future generations to be intelligent and mature enough to deal with them. I’m not saying it would inevitably lead to a happy ever after for popular culture, but it’s for sure the only way to give one a fighting chance.
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