The corporate titans of the entertainment industry have at long last figured out what ails America’s minority groups: old episodes of TV shows that feature mildly controversial content hitting racial and cultural tripwires.
Five episodes of South Park that feature the Prophet Muhammad have been left out of the series’s debut on HBO Max. The streaming service Hulu took down three episodes of the hospital-based comedy Scrubs that feature, among other things, main characters J.D. (a white man) and Turk (a black man) swapping their racial identities as part of a prank at a college party. An episode of the classic sitcom Golden Girls in which the main characters have facial mud masks on, momentarily convincing another character who doesn’t have her glasses that they are actually African American, has also been pulled by the same service.
What’s remarkable about this campaign is how little anyone seems to be asking for it. I can’t recall any demands from mainstream minority-rights organization that The Office edit out a scene featuring Zwarte Piet, an obscure Dutch Christmas tradition involving blackface, or for Community to take down an episode that featured Ken Jeong’s character dressing as a “dark elf” with black skin and silver hair.
I came of age in the early 2000s, and my recollection of similar censorship campaigns from those days is that they were the result of agitation by citizens — usually citizens on the religious and cultural right — or people in the government. Back then, Corporate America pushed back hard, defending, for instance, the content of violent video games and derogatory rap music.
In 2007, Illinois Democratic representative Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and a stalwart progressive, complained that the violence and degradation in rap lyrics had “reduced too many of our youngsters to automatons, those who don’t recognize life, those who don’t value life.” He suggested that the industry at least consider banning certain words from rap music. Meanwhile, Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chairman of the Warner Music Group, defended the industry. “We don’t think that banning expression is an appropriate approach,” he said, adding that tasteless language is “in the eye of the beholder.”
Thirteen years later, Corporate America has gone woke, and you don’t even need pressure campaigns or congressional hearings to bring about censorship: The industry itself is putting its content under the microscope, rapidly excising anything that anyone could consider culturally or racially insensitive.
Before I go any further, it should be noted that these companies are, of course, well within their rights to decide what they broadcast to the world. The government isn’t pulling this content from our streaming services, so there are no First Amendment issues in play. But the public’s access to important social and cultural history is still being limited in a way that could have a chilling effect on the creative industries, shifting the norms of entertainment toward greater hypersensitivity and away from a willingness to explore and discuss sensitive topics.
Taste is subjective, and most humor will by its nature offend somebody. One man’s tasteless joke is another’s cruel bullying; it’s hard to imagine that any one person could fairly and definitively draw the line for an entire society. What’s more, there is already a mechanism in place for anyone who does not want to be complicit in a piece of entertainment they find offensive. No one is forcing anyone to buy books, watch television shows, listen to music, play video games, or sit in cinemas where they are exposed to content they find beyond the pale. You are always able to vote with your time and money.
By removing content altogether, these large streaming services and entertainment conglomerates are short-circuiting that process, deciding for audiences what is offensive rather than allowing content to rise or fall based on market demand. And in the process, they may be setting back the cause of social progress they seek to serve, by problematizing content that virtually nobody found to be problematic just a few weeks earlier.
Are we really to believe, for instance, that any circumstance where a white character has darkened their skin regardless of intent or context is somehow harming the lives of nonwhite people? One film that comes under regular scrutiny and may very well fall prey to the streaming services’ purge is 2008’s Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, whose commitment to method acting pushes him to darken his skin to portray a black sergeant. Lazarus’s bizarre behavior is itself of course the joke; the character exists as an obvious satire of pretentious Hollywood actors and the extremes to which they’ll go in order to nail a performance. But at a time when voice actors are apologizing for playing cartoon characters that don’t fit their melanin content, just about everything is apparently fair game for removal.
It’s obvious that the current purge is designed to avoid offending people from ethnic minority groups. But if you look around prestige television, it is chock full of immoral content. Do you want to watch a series that treats murder and cannibalism as comedic fodder? There’s Santa Clarita Diet. If you enjoy watching someone set up a vicious drug cartel, there’s Breaking Bad and Narcos. If sexist sociopaths are your thing, you can always browse through old episodes of Mad Men.
In short, art is not always meant to be taken literally. It should be allowed to transgress our moral or political values, and even if it weren’t, the entertainment conglomerates’ self-policing would still be harmful.
I was blessed to grow up in a richly diverse environment. My social circle spanned broad cultural and socioeconomic lines. As a result, my friends and I would feel free to poke fun at one another’s backgrounds. My ethnic and religious identities — I’m Pakistani-American and Muslim — were fair game for jokes, and I usually gave as good as I got.
This humor didn’t wound me; it inoculated me. My friends and I saw each other as equals, able to trade barbs across cultural lines without worrying about bruising fragile egos. I reacted with scorn when I heard about the Scrubs episodes noted above being pulled from Hulu. As a fan of the show, I knew that J.D. and Turk are not trying to dehumanize each other in one of the offending skits — they’re best friends, and would do anything for one another. Their comfort poking fun at each other’s racial backgrounds is meant to demonstrate that they see each other as equals.
I’m hesitant to bring up examples of the same sort of dynamic in entertainment that hasn’t already been canceled — I’d hate to give Hollywood any ideas — but I think about the roles played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, a white man and a Comanche Native American, in the 2016 film Hell or High Water. Bridges and Birmingham, two police officers in West Texas, spend the entire movie ribbing each other over their respective cultural backgrounds.
“This is what they call white man’s intuition,” Bridges’s character jokes at one point, after he’s able to hunt down a pair of robbers. “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle,” Birmingham’s character retorts with a smile.
I’m sure in many white-collar environments in Los Angeles and New York City, this type of banter would quickly get you reported to H.R. But I found that it recalled the sort of good-natured verbal sparring common in multicultural friendships as I’ve actually experienced them.
Just as going to the gym builds your muscles, learning to take a joke at your own expense builds your ability to withstand emotional discomfort. Because I had many friendships like the ones described above, even when I do receive a truly hateful email or comment, I can pretty easily brush it off. If we start walling our entertainment off from even the mildest of cultural or racial humor, we may be performing the intellectual equivalent of an anti-vaccination campaign: depriving our society of the emotional immunity necessary to examine itself through humor.
By pulling episodes of South Park that poke fun at religious fundamentalism, HBO Max is not doing Muslims like me a favor. It is coddling us, depriving us of the emotional capacity most adults in our society are expected to have.
As Coleman Hughes noted in these pages back in February 2019, Bayard Rustin, a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and the architect of the March on Washington, saw a minority community’s capacity to take a joke as evidence of its growing position in society:
In certain parts of New York City 75 years ago anyone would have been beaten up on the street if he told an Irish joke because at the time the Irish in New York were considered an undesirable minority and were struggling for a kind of equality. Today, however, because the Irish are now accepted and integrated, Irish jokes are told freely with the Irish themselves laughing quite as much as anyone else.
My hope is that Muslims in America, like the Irish, can grow confident and strong enough in our social position to accept humor at our expense — and if I had to guess, I’d seriously doubt that removing edgy episodes of South Park was in the average Muslim American’s top 100 sociopolitical priorities.