Racist, sexist ... classic? How Hollywood is dealing with problematic content

“We’ve had some very raw conversations on those Zooms,” says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, who sits on Disney’s advisory council, part of its Stories Matter Initiative, alongside representatives from groups like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as well as representatives from various departments at Disney, including programming, public policy and diversity and inclusion. Disney asks Robertson and his colleagues to watch content that may contain stereotypes or insensitive imagery and offer their perspectives. Some shows and films, like certain episodes of The Muppet Show that Disney added to its streaming platform Feb. 19, have ended up with disclaimers cautioning viewers about “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” a kind of pop culture equivalent of a surgeon general’s warning. “They want to make up for any offensive messaging they may have been a part of,” Robertson says. “It feels sincere, and it’s also good business.”

For traditional studios launching new streaming services and trying to attract 2021 audiences, their libraries are precious resources, assets to draw viewers saturated with entertainment options via the powerful forces of nostalgia and brand recognition. But these decades-old archives also are minefields of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bias that were publicly acceptable in the eras in which the content originally was produced. Studios are taking a range of approaches to grappling with that part of their legacies, from adding content warnings to removing shows or films entirely to creating new content that contextualizes older programming, as WarnerMedia’s classic TV network, TCM, is doing with a new series called Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, which begins March 4.