gone with the wind

The Absolutist Case for Problematic Pop Culture

As HBO Max temporarily removes Gone With the Wind, we should all cast a skeptical glance at gestures that cost nobody a dime and change nothing. Photo: Selznick/Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

Even in our current era of the corporate-cultural double backflip, the latest chapter in the tortured saga of America’s relationship with Gone With the Wind was impressively swift. BOOM! Screenwriter John Ridley writes a Los Angeles Times op-ed urging HBO Max, the new streaming service you still can’t figure out how to get on your TV, to take the movie down, arguing that it “romanticizes the Confederacy” and perpetuates “some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.” BANG! HBO Max removes the film from its platform. POW! People get angry about censorship and attempts to cleanse our troubled cultural history. HMM! (the unimpressive sound effect that always ends these narratives) HBO Max announces that the movie will return — something, incidentally, that Ridley, from the beginning, had said would be fine — once the service can append to it appropriate discussions and (their word) denouncements.

In some ways, this was all an academic exercise. Even if HBO Max had purged it, Gone With the Wind would still be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and about five other streaming platforms. Nevertheless, I believe that just about everything in pop-culture history, even the reprehensible, should be widely and permanently available. What about [insert the name of whatever you think would disgust me]? Yes, even that! I think it was a mistake to wipe The Cosby Show from some platforms after its star’s exposure as a serial rapist (it’s interesting how the loud, knee-jerk removal is followed, eventually, by a much quieter return), because it is not possible to understand the history of Black representation on American TV if you have a giant void where the most popular show of its decade used to be. I believe Disney’s decision to render the racist 1946 movie Song of the South inaccessible in any medium was the self-preserving action of a company attempting to paper over its own past, not a demonstration of cultural sensitivity. I groan (as many on Twitter have groaned) that during two weeks of world-shaking Black Lives Matter protests, the movie more Netflix viewers turned to than any other is The Help, but removing it from the service, as some have suggested, would be more appalling.

I also agree that Gone With the Wind is everything John Ridley says it is, as well as a film that was, not incorrectly, seen as the pinnacle of a certain type of Hollywood achievement just ten years into the sound era, and an important milestone in the careers of everyone who participated in its making. Should you watch it? Only you can know that. Should you be able to watch it, even this week? Yes. That shouldn’t be the call of either a jittery corporation or an offended person or group. I’ve seen the argument that quasi-deplatforming Gone With the Wind is the equivalent of toppling and removing a Confederate statue. But as Angelica Bastién has explained in an elegantly argued 2017 essay, it’s a troubling comparison. Statues are not simply displayed; they’re meant to be looked up to, so the assumption of veneration is built in, and they’re in public spaces, where many people have no choice but to be confronted by the glorification of racism and oppression they represent. A streaming movie isn’t that; it exists but it does not impose itself, unless you think its very existence is an imposition.

More to the point, attempting to cancel pieces of America’s pop-cultural history is bad, not because it’s “Stalinist” or “censorship” or “woke” or whatever right-wing people love to scream about, but because it’s not real. Things don’t stop existing because you drape a shroud over them any more than they stop existing because you cover your eyes, and rewriting the past is not how you write a better future. Speaking only for myself, I’d rather know everything, have everything, see everything. When I discover a character who’s clearly intended to be gay in any movie made before, say, 1960, nine times out of ten what I’m looking at is some kind of utterly vile or insulting stereotype, and yet sometimes, I’m excited to see it because at least it’s information, evidence even — a small, bitter antidote to the invisibility that was then the rule. We were there, and this is the way people treated us. I feel I can walk away from those movies with a little more power, because I know one small thing more about what the road to the present looked like. But others may feel they already know all that, and don’t need America’s terrible record of oppression constantly regurgitated at them.

HBO Max’s decision to append a warning to Gone With the Wind is … okay. Warnings are useful for people who feel they need them, and small and extremely bearable for people who don’t. But Gone With the Wind is perhaps not that interesting a test case. It’s 81 years old; its good place and its bad place in film history have both been discussed and argued over for decades, and saying “We know this movie is a problem” feels cosmetic. The argument against labeling is often about a slippery slope — if you start, who gets to decide what’s objectionable (this is generally where conservative braying about cultural commissars begins) and where do you stop? In this case, the slope is at least worth glancing at before proceeding. What, for instance, should HBO Max do about 1989’s cringe-making Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy? Or about 1999’s The Green Mile, a Best Picture nominee that is now widely derided for trafficking in magical-Negro stereotypes? Or about the 2000 Will Smith–Matt Damon film The Legend of Bagger Vance, which is set in Georgia during the era of lynchings, and about which Spike Lee famously asked, “Why is [Will Smith] fucking around with Matt Damon and trying to teach him a golf swing? … What world was that?!” For that matter, what should HBO Max do about Friends, having shelled out more than $400 million for streaming rights to a show its own co-creator and stars now call a “time capsule” for its all-white cast and willed oblivion about racial diversity?

In a way, putting a warning label on Gone With the Wind will, I fear, be used as an excuse not to explore any of these questions — the end of a conversation rather than the beginning of a more complex one about whether we want entertainment corporations to serve as custodians of cinema history, or as (be careful what you wish for) active curators of it. (We may be just one home screen away from “Other Movies in the Cultural Doghouse You Might Enjoy.”) And if you’re not willing to ask those questions, then I have one more: Was this really just about one movie? It’s so easy — a film now further removed from the present day than it is from the Civil War itself. Yes, it’s a pernicious attempt to rewrite history in a way all too familiar to bigots of our own era, but also one that feels like a relic of a different world. Denouncing it is a way of saying, We’re not like that anymore. But problematic pop culture isn’t a historical phenomenon; it’s a timeline, with new points charted on it every year. (Lest anyone forget, the top-grossing movie of 2020 is a celebration of cops who don’t play by the rules called Bad Boys for Life. That aged well.)

At a moment when practically every one of your favorite brands — and any number of people in trouble — have their “We are now going to take some time to reflect and grow” statements ready to Instagram, we should all cast a skeptical glance at gestures that cost nobody a dime and change nothing. Removing Gone With the Wind was one. Bringing it back with a label may just be another. Like all streaming services, HBO Max is a strange combination of old and new — it’s a repository of existing content that, combined with HBO, is also allocating more than a billion dollars to the creation of original content. If you think of it as a vast museum that has a huge store filled with new products in the front, maybe its mission should be non-interventionist in the museum and activist in the store. In other words, if HBO Max really believes we’re “not like that anymore,” money talks, and funding new shows by BIPOC creators will speak louder than any words that will now precede Gone With the Wind.

The Absolutist Case for Problematic Pop Culture