Look At Life: Politically Incorrect Entertainment

6th April 2018

When the classics offend…

By Jennifer Lipman

Bingeing on old 'Friends' episodes recently, I came across the one where Chandler’s colleagues assume he is gay, to his abject discomfort. It’s a typically comic set-up, which devoted fans will recall ends with him denying that he is out of a particular man’s league (clearly, he is). But watching it in 2018, it felt a little out of date.

After all, what mainstream programme today would present not being straight as a bad thing – even if, as in Friends, the joke is on the character? And, equally, how many mainstream series would introduce an all-white cast, like 'Friends' or 'Sex and the City', without facing justifiable criticism? Would Aaron Sorkin get away with making a 'West Wing' today in which there are few senior women and those present are regularly patronised by their male colleagues (albeit that this might reflect the current White House dynamic)? Possibly, possibly not. Certainly, such choices would be unlikely to go unnoticed.

That things have changed in the 24 years since 'Friends' debuted is, I think, not a sign of political correctness gone mad or the snowflakes taking over, but a positive development. Entertainment should reflect the world outside, and that world includes people of different races, religions, social backgrounds and sexuality. A children’s book published today is unlikely to use the language used by Enid Blyton, and that’s no bad thing.

But the fact that so much entertainment now seems old-fashioned for its lack of diversity or for its entertaining of casual prejudices raises another question. Can we still enjoy the programmes and films we used to love, despite their flaws? Can – should – we still be reading novels like 'Gone With the Wind' that use racially charged words? Or watch women with barely any decent lines be objectified, as with almost the entire 'James Bond' back catalogue?

Post the #MeToo movement, the arguably trickier question is whether we can we still enjoy the art of actors and entertainers who have been discredited. Should we still lap up the political intrigue of 'House of Cards', in the wake of the Kevin Spacey scandal, or laugh at old 'Cosby Show' episodes given what is now believed about the man playing the titular character? Can we watch anything produced by Harvey Weinstein ever again?

On the one hand, art exists beyond its maker or performer; novels, poems or films are often interpreted by new audiences in ways their creators might not recognise. Reading 'Gone with the Wind' in the 1930s, some readers might well have empathised with Scarlett’s character and accepted as normal her treatment of black characters. When I picked it up as a teenager in the 1990s I could fall into the plot and be captivated by the romance but still recognise that the language, prejudices and actions of the time were reprehensible. Watching 'Annie Hall', a modern viewer can still enjoy the witty repartee even while they acknowledge the (unproven) allegations against Woody Allen.

Yet the act of consuming entertainment is not passive. If I stream 'American Beauty', am I choosing to do so in the knowledge that the film elevated its star and perhaps enabled some of the behaviour allegedly connected with him? When I laugh at that 'Friends' episode, am I complicit in a narrative that associates being gay with something shameful? Is it time to re-evaluate what I’m entertained by, just as romance novelists are, reportedly, rethinking their portrayal of powerful male love interests for the Pussygate era?

Of course, there are shades of grey. Failing to offer a diverse cast or writing storylines that reflect the prevailing attitudes of an era is hardly endorsing a white supremacist, homophobic world view. Enjoying the work of an performer facing questions is not necessarily ignoring them, and neither is it the same as saying good art excuses appalling behaviour.

Ultimately, all art dates to some degree, from special effects that would once have wowed but now look amateur-ish to non-PC language or behaviour. The best entertainment tells you something about the time in which it’s made; watching it later can remind you how attitudes have shifted and reinforce why that matters.

Rather than burning books or relegating entire films or albums to history, what matters is that we acknowledge their flaws and, insofar as possible, seek out new entertainment that challenges historic prejudices and behaviours. We can laugh at Chandler’s antics – and still expect the next 'Friends' to do better.

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