Historical Context: Why it's important not to censor art, but to educate, discuss, and to learn
When I was a kid I loved the Looney Tunes and I loved Tom & Jerry. I used to watch them whenever I could, I had videos of collections of the cartoons. I’ve never been all that into animation in terms of the technical side, although it is really impressive, and I have myself dabbled in it in the past. Rather it was the slapstick comedy. I found it hilarious then, and I still find it funny now. The absurd and slightly surreal antics of the characters that existed in this cartoon world have always been something that I enjoyed. So, when Warner Brothers released DVD box sets of both Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, I rushed out to grab myself a copy.
First, I hadn’t watched them in years and was excited to relive the magic. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I knew that I would be able to share the experience of watching and laughing, with my kids. At this point, I had already purchased the complete Muppet Show, and all their films, for the same reason, and this had gone down a storm. Here was something else that could bring me closer to my kids. That’s one of the many powerful things, I believe, about cinema. It’s something that can be shared at the time of viewing. The experiences are a collective one, and although everyone will undoubtedly bring their unique perspective to the piece, we can all bring our unique perspectives together.
This must have been around 2015, shortly after the birth of my son. My daughter would have been around four, and so it was with her that I first sat down to enjoy these cartoons from my childhood.
I popped the disc in the player and settled in, past the usual legalities and studio icons that appear at the top of physical media. I was excited to be doing this, and finally re-watching these things that had been such a joyous watch for me as a child. I was excited to be introducing my daughter to these characters. And then a disclaimer appeared on the screen.
“The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
I read it, and as I did my daughter asked me what it said. I found myself in a position I had never found myself in before; I could lie, and avoid a difficult conversation, or I could tell the truth, and explain to her, in terms she at four years old would be likely to understand, just what it all meant. I chose the latter, paused the cartoon, and had the conversation.
Of course, it was difficult, but I did my best, and I think she understood. But, perhaps the most telling part of this entire anecdote is the fact that it’s a conversation it would have likely never occurred to me to have with my daughter about these cartoons. My memories of them as a child had no inappropriate depictions in them, and although I would have most likely seen it when re-watching them and then explained it to her then, the disclaimer forced me into a position to consider the historical context of these things and to have that conversation with her anyway.
And I’m glad it was there to do that. We were able to enjoy the cartoons while understanding that context, and it meant that my daughter was educated, and I was educated, in the history of these cartoons and their place within the wider history of humanity. It began my daughter on a journey that she is still on now and opened my eyes to something that I was perhaps not entirely aware of previously. It has also done the same for my son, now that he is old enough to begin to understand these things.
Disclaimers are smart, and the context is good. HBO Max’s decision to pull Gone with the Wind from their streaming service until they can produce a discussion around the film and its place within the depictions of black and ethnic minorities in cinema, is also good. Much like the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry disclaimers pointed out above, it will force people to consider these things.
I think I have learned more from art and the contextualisation of art within history than I have any history lesson, although that is likely down to my interests being predominantly around film and TV.
There is another approach to problematic art, though. And, frankly, it is one of which I am not a fan. The “sweeping under the carpet” approach of the likes of Disney (who have kept the grossly offensive Song of the South locked away in their vault for years) does just what that Warner's disclaimer states their studio does not want to do. The BBC’s recent clear out of their more outdated and inappropriate shows is another example of this.
We already do this with books, placing a forward or some sort of contextualisation of the time and the situation before older, problematic works. And moving statues of slave traders from public display into museums that are there to educate rather than celebrate is another way in which we can improve and move forward, together.
Erasing, censoring, or ignoring these things are all part of the wider problem. Discussing, educating, and presenting these things through the lens of historical context and understanding is how we can learn and do better moving forward. We shouldn’t shy away from our history, however horrible it may be. We need to acknowledge these things happened, and we need to understand them to understand how not to make similar mistakes in the future.