Conservative media is concerned about the Muppets.
“Kermit Cancelled? Disney slaps offensive content label on the Muppet Show,” Sunday’s headline on The Daily Wire read. The Daily Mail UK scoffs: “The Muppet Show appears to be the latest victim of political correctness with new warnings over its historic content.” Is Outrage! Snowflake libs are even ruining The Muppet Show!
They’re upset because when Disney+ re-released The Muppet Show this weekend, sixteen of the episodes came with a content warning reading:
“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people 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.”
As a recovering Rush Limbaugh Conservative, I understand why people are upset. Libs can’t walk three feet without tripping over something that offends them. Things that just used to be good clean fun are now crimes, and everybody’s a victim.
These are things I used to say and think. Like most pernicious ideas, they’re not entirely untrue. You can find far-left activists who really are ridiculous, who really do get offended over nothing, and who really do long to see themselves as victims — and who really do want to squash joy, crush free speech, and silence anyone who disagrees with them. My kids had an English teacher who refused to teach Moby Dick because it didn’t have any female characters and was therefore sexist. That’s just a small example. There’s a push from much more powerful people to crush things that don’t deserve crushing (sometimes cynically shielding actual offenders in the process).
But content warnings aren’t an example of this; they’re the remedy for it.
The Daily Wire and others have referred to the addition of content warnings as part of “cancel culture.” It’s literally the opposite: Rather than refusing to broadcast the show, they’re showing it.
Cancel culture says, “This says or implies something I don’t agree with; therefore, it must be gone.” Content warnings say, “This says or implies something you might not agree with. Here it is anyway; you decide if you want to consume it or not.” This strikes me as manifestly conservative: We report, you decide. And they can’t be accused of insensitivity, because they did warn us! Their butts are covered.
Don’t get me wrong: Disney+ is doing this because broadcasting shows makes more money than not broadcasting them. But in practice, it’s actually the perfect balance of free speech and personal responsibility. It may be the lifeline we need to drag us out of the quagmire of actual cancel culture, which really does make good things disappear.
That being said, conservatives have made other objections to the inclusion of content warnings. But I think they’re equally bogus.
The first is an objection to the very fact that there are warnings at all. This is disingenuous, especially coming from conservatives.
When my kids want to watch a movie or show I’m not familiar with, and I don’t have the time or desire to watch it with them, what do I do? I look it up. I see if it includes nudity or violence or cussing or themes that may not be appropriate for their age. This is standard practice for responsible parents. Different parents are leery of different things, but there’s nothing new or outrageous about offering a content warning so we can make reasonable decisions. Heck, I remember chortling when a Batman movie warned me it would contain “menace.” I hope so!
It’s a core principle of American conservatism that Hollyweird is trying to pervert our youngsters, and we have the right and the duty as responsible parents to know what kind of media they’re consuming and to make independent choices about that. At least in theory, content warnings are an excellent tool to help us do just that.
Also, memories are faulty, and standards change. Most adults, especially parents, have had the experience of watching a movie or show we haven’t seen in decades, and being shocked at how — something — it is. How sexist, how violent, how racy, how racist, how crude. There are even memes about this phenomenon: Showing a beloved movie to your kids and then leaping for the remote because OH NO I FORGOT THIS SCENE. I’m old and tired, and happy to get an assist, to avoid this kind of thing.
The second objection has to do with what kinds of things earn a warning in 2021. And this is where conservatives will have a harder time; but if they’re Christians, they probably shouldn’t.
In theory, warnings are useful to parents, left and right, to have a heads-up about content. In practice, they’re are often a little less helpful. Saying “The following may be offensive to some viewers” is about as useful as saying “The sun may rise.” (I had a kid who found owls offensive, reasons unclear.)
But the specific warnings on the Muppet Show episodes specify that they will “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” In other words, it’s going to include a bit that makes some group of human beings look stupid or crazy or subhuman, for laughs.
I don’t have a list of the specific scenes that earned warnings (Newsweek has a list of the episodes), but I’m guessing the group of human beings are not oligarchs or mean bosses or anyone else who has power and influence. It’s almost certainly groups of people who have less power and less influence: Certain ethnic groups, maybe victims of domestic violence, being treated as if they themselves are jokes.
And this is what is actually at the core of objections against content warnings: Conservatives who are angry about the warnings want to defend punching down. They want to defend the practice of making fun of people who can’t fight back, for the sake of a joke. And they want the practice to go utterly unchallenged, even fleetingly.
This is something I’ve been trying hard to grow out of — or at least to be more consistent about, because I am a Christian. Here’s an example: I once told a funny story that hinged on a Chinese accent, and I got swatted down. I asked why my story was hurtful, when a joke involving a French accent wouldn’t be. And the answer was: Because Chinese accents get treated as evidence of stupidity and backwardness in a way that French accents do not. And that was right. I learned something, and now I’m more careful, because I’m a Christian, and I don’t want to punch down.
Being a parent, and having to think hard about what it will do to a developing young heart to see certain scenes and hear certain phrases on TV, has made me think hard about . . . well, my own heart. I’ve had to change. We’re supposed to change. We’re supposed to take it seriously when we realize we’re wounding someone. At very least, we should think it over, and not dismiss it out of hand as liberal fragility.
I do understand that, when Disney+ or some other corporation chooses to put a warning on something, they do it inconsistently. They will warn the audience if they’re going to show something that current cultural standards finds offensive, but they don’t bat an eye over something else that’s equally offensive, but not in a popular way.
My friends, so what? If you know better than Disney+, then good for you. It doesn’t hurt you to see a brief warning. Nobody’s preventing you from watching, and nobody’s making your mind up for you. All they’re doing is saying, “Here’s an idea; take it or leave it.” If your kids see a warning and have questions, then talk to them about what you think, and defend your take, and listen. If you just shut the conversation down and refuse to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong . . . isn’t that . . . cancel culture?