As part of the publicity cycle for Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg copped to a mistake. He admitted that digitally altering the guns held by law enforcement officials during a key moment of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial when the movie was released on DVD in 2002 was a bad idea. Those guns were changed into walkie-talkies because, he said at the time, he was newly uncomfortable with the idea of adults pointing guns at kids.
In a way, that decision was part of a bigger conversation we have every few years around whether or not we should still value elements of our cultural past even if, as the kids say, the messages contained therein haven’t exactly aged well. We see writ large whenever a middle school library somewhere attempts to remove all copies of “Huckleberry Finn” or “Catcher in the Rye.” Or when Netflix adds “Friends” and we all remember how the show frequently got big laughs from gay panic jokes.
Often when these conversations emerge there are only two options offered:
- Let’s remember that the attitudes conveyed were appropriate and acceptable for the time and need to be viewed as such, even if we can all agree that kind of thinking doesn’t fly today.
- Everything that doesn’t conform to our new enlightened worldview needs to be shunned as horribly inappropriate. Maybe we shouldn’t drop it down the memory hole, but we should definitely remove it from sight and judge anyone who still enjoys it.
There is a third, way, though, one that isn’t as extreme as the two above and which is available because of the flexibility of digital distribution.
When Netflix debuted its original show “13 Reasons Why” last year it received decent praise. It also came under a fair amount of criticism for the way it treated teen suicide – a serious topic and a national epidemic, especially because of the cyber-bullying kids are now subject to regularly – as a mere plot point. The company, which is heavily investing in original programming, could have written this one off and tucked it down in the catalog, hoping everyone forgot about it to avoid coming under continued fire.
Instead, it recently announced it would add warning videos with information on suicide to the beginnings of those videos.
It’s that third way that I hope more and more content owners and distributors latch on to and embrace. Instead of seeing removal from the historical record as a viable option, consider how to add current context to the material to cast it in a current light and explain that what we’re seeing is sometimes a time capsule from a different era.
Digital media provides the ability to add that context. These aren’t trigger warnings, these are explanations and discussion points for the audience to consider. If the stats change or new information comes to light, they’re easily updated so that viewers today see the most current data.
Take Netflix’s pre-show additions a step farther and imagine something like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We would know the original film was unaltered because its veracity has been authenticated through blockchain technology showing the original hash. Before the movie starts we’re presented with a message saying the film contains an instance of a white actor playing an Asian character, something that was common and uncontroversial – or at least acceptable – at the time. As the movie plays and scenes of Mickey Rooney in yellowface come up, a pop-up box appears asking if you’d like to learn more about this later. You click “Yes” and when the movie is over a set of links are sent to your device of choice that let you learn more about they studio made this decision, what Rooney said about it over the years and more.
I’m not naive enough to not be aware of the potential issues here. Again, the authenticity of the original film, book or show would have to be verifiable in some way. Ideally the supporting data points and links are provided by the community in a bias-free environment like what’s found on Wikipedia. Lacking either safeguard means media companies could scrub their corporate reputation of decades-old sins with relative impunity, changing the cultural record before our eyes.
That record is important. It’s vital. Who we were isn’t always pleasant to look at or examine, but it’s important to see both our sins and our virtues. Being honest about the lack of minority representation in film, for example, should drive us to do better in the future, but the first step is admitting there were problems. We can have a healthy debate about whether “Catcher in the Rye” or “Catch-22” are still relevant for teens as part of a curriculum, but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand simply because the subject matter or approach is one we would no longer deem palatable.
There’s potential for digital media, then to offer the best of all worlds, preserving the unaltered text of the original work so it can be judged on its merits and serve as fodder for a healthy cultural debate while also providing the supporting material to put it in the appropriate context and further, not stifle, that debate and discussion.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.