When Tina Fey announced that “30 Rock” would remove four episodes featuring blackface (or what she called “race-changing makeup”) from streaming services, she said that it was because she wanted to “do the work and do better in regards to race in America.” Soon thereafter, episodes featuring approximations of blackface from “Community,” “Scrubs,” and “The Golden Girls” were pulled offline and a scene from “The Office” was cut from Netflix, all ostensibly in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement currently making seismic waves throughout the world.
“It’s a weird moment to be living in, as a society and also for me as a Black person,” says Racquel Gates, a professor of cinema and media studies at CUNY’s College of Staten Island. “I’m being asked to play along with this ruse that white people and white companies weren’t aware of these things when they obviously have been. Whether they chose to care or not is a different matter.”
The problem, Gates says, is that these moves to keep “problematic” television content offline don’t often engage with how these episodes happened in the first place — and may be more effective at erasing mistakes than meaningfully confronting them. “It’s just trying to Band-Aid over the history,” says television writer Alanna Bennett, whose credits include “Roswell, N.M.” and whose recent viral Twitter thread called for “an archive of the mistake and apology” rather than outright erasure. “It really feels like trying to protect the legacy of those creators instead of actually trying to address what those episodes did.”
In choosing to excise offensive material altogether, creators, studios, and streaming services open themselves to criticism that they are taking shortcuts in lieu of thoughtfully dissecting racist material. “Part of what’s happening is that these streaming platforms and companies are going for, in their minds, the easiest and most obvious symbols of racism,” Gates says. “What gets lost there in any kind of larger context, any kind of discussion of how something functions.”
In the instance of “The Golden Girls,” the episode Hulu removed (1988’s “Mixed Blessings”) is one that attempts to tackle interracial dating and the main characters’ own prejudices surrounding it. At one point, it makes a punchline out of an image of Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and Rose (Betty White) in mud masks reminiscent of blackface. In Gates’ estimation, that moment contributes to a larger storyline about the women’s “racial anxieties” that, while messy, is indicative of how white America was thinking about and discussing race at the time. In the instance of “30 Rock” or “Community,” the blackface moments are of a very specific era of comedy that leaned on “pushing boundaries” with jokes whose primary aim was to shock. (Hulu and Netflix declined to comment.)
“These are living documents as much as they’re also evidence of a historical time period,” says Gates, who has used “Golden Girls” episodes like “Mixed Blessings” in classes to contextualize 1980’s era stereotypes for her current students. “Being able to sort of reframe for the audience how we make sense of these feels like a much more productive lens than taking them out of circulation.” By opting out entirely, streaming services that drop episodes are stripping shows and fans of crucial context.
This becomes an even more complicated “solution” when you consider that platforms like Netflix and Hulu have quickly replaced physical media for many subscribers. Most present day fans won’t have DVDs to turn to in order to get the full picture of the series’ intentions, making the erasure of their mistakes more complete. So when Hulu pulled that “Golden Girls” episode, Gates found herself more upset than she had been when HBO Max briefly took “Gone with the Wind” down. “TV can be really hard to get. It hasn’t been archived and saved in the way that some people seem to assume it has been,” Gates says. “This is why the tapes of ‘The Johnny Carson Show’ got recorded over; people just didn’t save stuff.”
Given that much power as makeshift archives, streaming platforms that delete content may be changing the tenor of the series for viewers who might not otherwise have access. “It kind of freaks me out that [streaming services] can just pull episodes that have issues in them,” says Bennett, “because I would rather the people of the future have access to the fact that the ‘How I Met Your Mother’ creators thought that a yellowface episode was okay in the 2010’s,” she says. “They had Jason Segel in full yellowface! I would just rather we have access to that history.”
With racist instincts baked into the DNA of so many shows, removing a more obviously egregious offense like blackface may not, in fact, address the meat of the issue. In the case of Hulu agreeing to lose the “Golden Girls” episode, Gates contends that the platform holding onto “Diff’rent Strokes” — a series Gates considers wholly racist thanks to its premise and constant trafficking in anti-Black stereotypes — conflicts with the purported goal of combatting racist content (though she does not advocate for pulling that entire show, either). “The true nature of racism in television is so much more insidious,” Gates explains. “That’s a much harder conversation, because those conventions are still in operation in contemporary television. I don’t think that we need to to scrap the whole thing and start over, but we do have to understand that their roots are in something really problematic.”
This recent spate of deletions is far from the first time that Hollywood has retroactively censored itself. What sets this round apart, however, is its performative righteousness in doing so. “They’re doing it for publicity. They want everyone to know they’re doing it,” says Hollywood historian Karina Longworth, whose podcast “You Must Remember This” recently examined Disney’s production and eventual burying of “Song of the South,” the 1946 film which suggested, among other racist things, that freed slaves might just miss the comfort of their enslavement. Longworth is careful, however, to draw distinctions between the circumstances of streaming services loudly dropping blackface episodes now and how Disney has tried to hide “Song of the South” over the years without anyone noticing. What the industry is experiencing now amidst the national conversation about white supremacy, she says, is “an unprecedented moment of panic” in which companies and creators are scrambling to prove their progressive bonafides. And yet, the end result is roughly the same. “Both [approaches] are intended to make sure that people can’t actually see the problematic thing, which sort of absolves the company from ever having made it.”
So if taking down episodes and films isn’t the answer to challenging racist content, what is? Both Gates and Bennett pointed to something like what HBO Max did with “Gone with the Wind” — i.e. putting it back online with an introduction from cinema scholar Jacqueline Stewart that frames how the movie was made and received — as a perhaps more useful approach than outright deletion from the record. Just today, Lionsgate announced a sweeping “Mad Men” streaming rights deal that includes a new title card that will play in front of an episode featuring a white character performing in blackface at a party. The note explains that the scene was meant to demonstrate “how commonplace racism was in America in 1963,” and therefore that the episode will remain intact on streaming platforms so “we can examine even the most painful parts of our history in order to reflect on who we are today and who we want to become.”
So while there are no straightforward solutions or one size fits all approach, finding a way to provide more context, while more complicated than pretending something didn’t exist at all, might prove a more instructive way forward. “Because culture is so cyclical, just hiding something is not going to create meaningful change,” contends Longworth. “Having a conversation about it has a better chance of allowing future generations of understanding what came before them and how to deal with things in a more thoughtful way.”