Rewatching 80s Movies in the Era of Cancel Culture
If you haven’t heard, there is a lot of scrutiny over the messaging and content of classic movies right now. You may have seen the news several weeks back that HBO had decided to remove the classic movie Gone with the Wind from its streaming service. Some applauded the move, claiming that the movie sugar coats the “horrors of slavery”. Others accused the company of erasing artistic history. A compromise, of sorts, was reached, with the movie being reintroduced to the platform but with a disclaimer – two short clips by experts explaining what’s wrong with the movie’s depiction of African-Americans and slavery.
It seems that looking back on these movies will not stop with Gone with the Wind, nor is it going to be limited to movies if you take into account the recent removals of Fawlty Towers and 30 Rock episodes. But there are a lot of movies out there with problems, not just in terms of depictions of race but in other areas – gender, disability, sex, and violence.
Even John Hughes’ movies can be problematic
Looking at, for example, the 1980s, there are many films that can be viewed as problematic through a modern lens. A good place to start is with Sixteen Candles (1984). For many of us, John Hughes’ 80s films are there to be cherished as a reminder of our youth. But it’s difficult not to be uncomfortable with the creepy scenes where Ted (Anthony Michael-Hall) is encouraged to have sex with Caroline (Haviland Morris) because she is unconscious. There is barely any suggestion that this is unethical – it’s rape. The film has also been criticised for having a stereotyped Asian character, Long Duk Dong.
Sixteen Candles is not alone in those 80s teen comedies for being seriously out of touch. Revenge of the Nerds (1984), where it seems to be okay for the nerds to trick girls into having sex by impersonating their boyfriends, and Animal House (1978. Yes, not strictly an 80s movie, but it gave birth to the genre), where it’s cool to spy on women getting changed, both seem dated today, although they were still doing similar in movies like American Pie until quite recently.
Disability on screen can come across as a stereotype
But away from the gross-out comedies, there are serious films that might wrankle with modern audiences, such as Rain Man (1987). Whereas Rain Man’s casino scenes inspired us all to count cards at a live blackjack site, Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as autistic savant Raymond has given rise to many stereotypes about autism (and blackjack, for that matter). It’s a wonderful movie and a superb performance from Hoffman, but there is an on-going debate over how people with disabilities should be portrayed on screen.
The year after Hoffman won the Oscar, Daniel Day-Lewis got the nod from the Academy for his role in My Left Foot (1989). Again, it’s an incredible performance, and Day-Lewis showed why he is regarded as one of the greatest actors of modern cinema with his portrayal of the cerebral-palsy sufferer, Cristy Brown. But modern critics are now comparing these types of portrayals to the practice of wearing blackface.
It’s also worth remembering that there is a cancel culture due to the people starring in – and making – the movies. What do we do now, for example, with the long list of classic films that have Harvey Weinstein’s fingerprints on them? What about movies directed by Roman Polanski? How about those starring Kevin Spacey? The point is that there are a lot of issues with a lot of movies. We aren’t attempting to make any determinations here, nor suggest there should be censorship. However, it’s nevertheless right to ask just where all this is going? And, if there is some sort of endpoint?