The Digital Erasure Culture

The-Digital-Erasure-Culture

Technology can be amazing right?  Whether it is watching our favourite movies or TV shows at the touch of a button or marvel at the wonders of production tools in creating ‘something out of nothing’, tech has created an inseparable symbiotic connection.

It’s not always perfect – just look at Game of Thrones S8 and their Starbucks Coffee mishap. But in the production world, incidents such as that can happen.  We easily laugh because we’re on the other side of that window, but as a former employee who used to work in content management and distribution, responding to fixes was an evolving part of the job.  Depending on the nature of the problem (and how good your encoder system was), replacing files for an online platform could take a couple of hours to a full day, leaving the audience near-oblivious as if the process itself was magic.

Audio drop-outs, missing subtitles, credit fixes, distorted video or digitally removing a coffee cup from an HBO fantasy drama – they were small-time fixes in comparison to the latest story that filtered through the news.  Affecting both the 4K blu-rays and digital streams, Disney has quietly removed the controversial, ‘casting couch’ scene from Toy Story 2.

First things first – the decision is entirely understandable.  Operating as the colossal box office behemoth with powers that would rival Thanos and the infinity stones, Disney is well within their rights to remove inappropriate content that doesn’t fit their family-friendly brand.  After all, we’re in a moral climate of heightened social movements that give weight to that decision.  It’s also worth pointing out that any changes (however large or small) are not made lightly, but they do come with significant financial and labour implications.  As much as fans can claim ‘people power’ got Paramount to re-do the Sonic the Hedgehog design (which was nightmarishly horrible), the harsh reality for productions and stakeholders is an inflated budget (which they may never recover at the box office), increased overtime for staff and designers to fix it (which contractually, they may not be compensated), and a delayed release date.  Trust me – no one wins in this scenario.

But back on point – Disney’s decision did spark a conversation about the preservation of art, and whether the decision creates more harm than good.

Disney is no stranger to such circumstances.  Back in 2012 when the first Avengers film was released, I was at the cinema alongside my brother enjoying every fist-pumped and fan-pleasing moment.  But as every MCU fan will know, the pivotal scene is *spoiler alert* Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) *death*, stabbed in the back by a mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  But as if everyone was suffering from a hyper-collective bout of amnesia, the scene was altered on its UK DVD and blu-ray release where the protruding spear blade was digitally removed (the US release was unaffected by the change – you can see the scene comparison at Bleeding Cool).

Should I’ve cared about a moment that barely lasted ten seconds on screen?  Probably not, especially when the creative decision could have been intentionally censored or (most likely) a downplay retcon to justifiably fit Coulson’s resurrection in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  But I did care enough that by sheer coincidence, I happened to be in New York around the time of the blu-ray release, and guess what, I picked up the US copy!

They’re not the only example.  Famously, Steven Spielberg regretted altering that iconic scene from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial where agents went from holding guns to walkie-talkies.  Also, lest we forget (in case you need further evidence), just ask any Star Wars fan about how they really feel about Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Greedo (Paul Blake) contentiously shooting at the same time in A New Hope or Darth Vader yelling “Nooo!” in Return of the Jedi.

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The advancement of technology has made these digital practices easier to ‘course correct’ narratives.  But in regards to the ‘casting couch’ scene, however contentious that was, removing it doesn’t solve the problem.

I’ve always taken the scene as a darkly perverse adult joke.  In it, Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) coerces twin Barbie dolls for a coveted role in Toy Story 3, with a lusty, sexual advancement.  It is surprising to this day that a scene like that made it to the final cut (or post-credit blooper in this case), but it has become intentionally self-aware as time moved on.  Since the film’s debut in 1999, we’ve had the revelations against prominent industry figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Bill Cosby and even former Pixar employee John Lasseter.  It’s easy to journey down the rabbit hole of ‘whataboutism’ where we can try to compartmentalise every multi-stranded debate about ‘separating art from reality’ with other mediums.  Ultimately, the decision rests with the individual and their personal threshold of acceptability.  Whether you believe the joke is still funny after twenty years, keeping the focus, it’s about the educative purposes that we can still learn from it now.

It was a truth hiding in plain sight, illustrating the standardised manipulation of a deeply systemic and embedded Hollywood culture. While male and female careers have been made or destroyed by these practices, the abusers have historically accumulated the benefits of that power without threat or judgement to their professional career.  Whether you were in the know or not, the stories were more than just ‘passing knowledge’.  At the time, they were accepted and normalised – in the same fashion as to how we all laughed and joked with it back in the day.  But for a subject matter that is still unresolved, removing becomes counter-productive.

We get it – studios have skeletons in their closets, and Disney are not the only ones immune to it.  As a black female critic, wrestling with the representations that featured prominently in Gone with the Wind, DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer (1927), Songs of the South (which won’t feature on Disney’s new streaming service) or the original Dumbo (which will remove the crow scene for Disney+) is an uncomfortable reminder of America’s prejudicial past.  Those systemic attitudes shaped narratives where black and ethnic contributions, self-worth and identity were reduced to criminalisation, stereotypes or caricature jokes which only served to be a magnified reinforcement in society (see Ava DuVernay’s brilliant series When They See Us and how the prosecution and media used language such as ‘wildlings’ and ‘animals’ to describe the Central Park Five).  As much as I would love to borrow Doc Brown’s time machine, with a heavy heart, they are products of their time.  They captured the unacceptable pain and injustice of the black experience, and today’s struggle is the continued fight for representation and cultural accuracy to reverse them.

History is an invaluable tool, helping us to learn collectively from those examples, and the same should be negotiated with the ‘casting couch’ scene. #MeToo is not a new occurrence, but given how long it took to reach that crisis point of revelations, people deserve to understand the historical relevance.

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You can’t change the past, and the scene is too heavy-handed for a child to wrestle with nowadays, but pretending it doesn’t exist with a quiet deletion and non-admission, doesn’t do anyone any favours.  It only serves up the argument where history can be re-written and sanitised as if there was no problem to begin with.  Where shows such as Chernobyl and When They See Us demonstrated the resonating power of truth and its uncompromising ability to confront it (especially in a post-truth wave where there are climate change deniers, racial injustice deniers, anti-vaxxers or a flat Earth society with members around the globe), the importance in maintaining that time stamp record allows us the chance to do better with our creative output and to never repeat those mistakes again in the future.

Disney, despite this issue, is doing that to a certain extent.  Cynical as you may feel about its necessity and lack of originality, but the live-action remakes of their animated classics are a conscious vehicle to find new acceptance with problematic storytelling from the originals.  Beauty and the Beast (2017) for example ‘doubled down’ on the Stockholm syndrome argument between Belle (Emma Watson) and Beast (Dan Stevens), giving both characters equal responsibility in their developing relationship.

Nevertheless, this has become a ‘hearts and minds’ battle.  Spielberg said it best when interviewed on why he reversed the changes on E.T.:

“For myself, I tried [changing a film] once and lived to regret it. Not because of fan outrage, but because I was disappointed in myself. I got overly sensitive to [some of the reaction] to E.T., and I thought if technology evolved, [I might go in and change some things]…it was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. […].”

‘Memories’ is the operative word.  We are in that generational bracket that will remember what that scene was.  The new generation of ‘Disney-fied’ kids won’t.  But it also shows the downside fallacy around technology and content ownership.  We are all digital subscribers, but we don’t own the content, and therefore in the lucrative world of streaming, that content can be taken away.

Inspiration could have drawn upon from Warner Bros. and how they dealt with uncomfortable aspects of their history – they hired Whoopi Goldberg!  By presenting the features unedited and unfiltered, her intros were educative disclaimers on prejudice attitudes that featured in the Looney Tunes catalogue.  Of course, they’re not a reflection of the current practices and opinions, but their admission is at least taking responsibility for their material.

It is a complex subject, and already I can hear the comments of ‘but it was just toys’ or ‘this is a kids movie’ and had no business being in it.  They’re valid comments but think of the alternative.  Erasure doesn’t confront the immense pain of the victims affected.  It doesn’t erase the predatory culture that facilitated those experiences.  Most importantly, it doesn’t erase our culpability in letting that be the direct or indirect norm for such a long time.

Recognition and moving forward is a challenging journey, but ignoring the cultural impact means we’ve learnt nothing at all.

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Kelechi Ehenulo is the creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind, an analytical film and TV blog. As a freelance film critic, her work can be found on Set The Tape - an independent pop culture website, VultureHound Magazine and podcasts such as The X-Cast, Close Encounters of the Film Kind, The Movie Palace Pod and The Tales We Tell podcast. She thinks Batman: The Animated Series is the best cartoon ever (and that is not up for debate) and loves science-fiction, LEGO and Tottenham Hotspur.

4 thoughts

  1. This is a fascinating article – very well written, and brings up issues that I’ve been pondering myself. Should we cut potentially offensive material out of old films to correct the past, or should it be left in as a sobering reminder of the mistakes of the past, hopefully enforcing the idea that people need to do better?

    I think where I land on the issue is, if it’s a product for children, then definitely cut out the offensive material. The material can be saved elsewhere for historians and film students to study. Or can be used to provide commentary on mistakes from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article! I personally don’t think there are easy answers to this. As difficult it is, I’m more inclined to keep it in. Not because I would be personally happy with it but because of the value of learning from the environment those films were constructed. I don’t expect Disney to suddenly bust down every door and confiscating every old copy of Toy Story 2 etc, but at the same time they have to acknowledge their own cultural environment and create steps to change it. Deleting it quietly as if no one would notice, is not a great move.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be fair, Disney are well within their rights to do what they did. But I think education is the best way of tackling it (both internally and externally) to show that progress has been made. That’s why I liked what WB did with Whoopi Goldberg. It’s honest and frank but acknowledges its past.

        Liked by 1 person

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