Disney+: Content Warnings Are a Step in the Right Direction
Disney+ launched last fall with the slogan, “the best stories in one place.” As wholesome and beloved as the studio’s library of content is, classic Disney films aren’t free of controversy. With a catalog that includes the overtly racist Song of the South, not to mention decades of more casually problematic characters, industry watchers and new subscribers alike wondered what would make it onto the platform. Then, months into the new streaming service’s existence, racial justice protests unlike anything America’s seen since the ’60s had a marked affect on the discourse around Black representation in media. Brands scrapped their offensive logos, HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind and Disney had no choice but to deal with its insensitive past.
Now and going forward, 12-second long, unskippable content warnings will air before subscribers can view selected films and cartoons. The language of the warnings reads, “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of peoples or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” The viewer is then directed to a new website under the banner of The Walt Disney Company called “Stories Matter” that discusses such issues in more detail. Any media that follows the new content warnings will be presented unaltered.
Some of the affected titles include Dumbo, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp. So far, these content warnings are mostly attached to older films in which the instances of racism cannot reasonably be denied. Though the decision surely had as much to do with public-relations concerns as it did cultural awareness, Disney should be commended for adding the disclaimers and taking this particular artistic position.
Debate rages on about the merits and purpose of monuments and statues, but the legacy of art is a different matter altogether. Dumbo’s crows might be hurtful to some viewers, but Disney is right that erasing them from the record would be more insidious. Art — regardless of quality and intent — should remain in its original form so it can speak for itself, even if what it has to say doesn’t age well.
It’s also commendable that, in putting together an advisory board, Disney sought guidance from reputable organizations like GLAAD, RespectAbility and IllumiNative. Historically, Disney’s inclusivity efforts have been pretty abhorrent. It took until 2009 for one of the studio’s animated films to have a Black lead character (The Princess and the Frog) and until 2013 for a woman to co-direct an animated picture (Frozen). In retrospect, it’s no surprise so many of the studio’s films failed to avoid obvious stereotyping when the professionals making the movies were such a homogenous group for so long. Recent efforts like Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time and the upcoming Soul, which showcase diversity among cast and crew, are another step in the right direction. But the company has many steps left to go if it wants to prove it’s walking the walk and not just talking the talk with “Stories Matter.”
The larger problem is, Disney is applying this new standard unevenly. There’s no hard line between offensive and not, and some depictions (especially in the case of villains) that viewers find culturally insensitive remain unexamined. An even more glaring hypocrisy is the fact that quite a bit of the content on Disney+ has been edited. From Splash to Toy Story 2 to Adventures in Babysitting and more, the studio has seen fit to remove language and references that it deems inappropriate.
A better strategy with more artistic integrity would be to include content warnings for topics beyond the scope of race. Disney has among the most loyal customer bases on the planet. In addition to owning up to its past mistakes, properly contextualizing them and doing better in the future, the company needs to trust those customers to consume content and draw conclusions on their own. Subscribers who are disinterested in political correctness will probably find the new context annoying, whether it’s about anti-Asian sentiment or partial nudity. Still, the studio should embrace the practice as a responsible option that steers clear of censorship, and an opportunity to help viewers consume content responsibly.