The Beatles: Get Back, a documentary series more than 50 years in the making, hit Disney Plus last month. With that came some discussions about streaming censorship as viewers began to notice that the miniseries contained swear words in addition to what is normally allowed on the platform.
Self-censorship entertainment companies are nothing new. There is a long history where the American film industry has set limits for itself, mainly to prevent the government from stepping in to do it for them. The Hays Code was a self-imposed set of rules for what filmmakers could put on screen from the mid-1930s to the 60s, for example. The industry eventually replaced it with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which to this day provides ratings for films on a voluntary basis.
However, streaming services still operate in a gray area. They host films that have been rated by the MPAA, but they are not completely tied to the rating board for their own productions. While an unrated movie may face impossible obstacles to getting into theaters and getting its budget back, Netflix, if it chooses, can make an unrated movie, market it widely, and make it available on its own platform.
So where do we stand with streaming censorship? Can we analyze what the rules are, official or not? And what can we learn from Disney’s choice to allow The Beatles: Get Back to stream unedited?
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Peter Jackson barely escapes streaming censorship
In addition to some salty language, The Beatles: Get Back also shows the four boys who smoke cigarettes throughout. This is contrary to Disney’s 2007 policy of not portraying smoking in its productions. House of Mouse also extended the ban to include Disney-owned companies such as Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm in 2015.
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Peter Jackson could easily have pipped out or even cut around swear words in Get Back, especially the f-word. After all, he worked with over 60 hours of footage. His choice to quit was probably the best. He was the first person to access the most unseen footage in over 50 years. This means that the task came with the responsibility of sharing a story half a century along the way about one of the most important bands in history. What is the harm of a few insults in that context?
Censoring a documentary with so much historical significance would have been a bad thing for Disney.
Disney tried to impose such a restriction on him. In an interview with NME, Jackson revealed that it was Ringo Star and Paul McCartney, the surviving Beatles, who pushed back for his original, unedited version to be made available on Disney Plus. They avoided streaming censorship, but it required big names to do so.
Disney’s willingness to withdraw was still a victory for viewers, and that hopefully means there is room for flexibility more broadly.
Disney’s habit of censoring large works
The Beatles: Get Back is definitely an exception. And a big, eye-catching one. Disney has been blocking swear words in its productions for years. There’s a bit of leeway with what constitutes a swear word in Disney’s eyes, but the f-word has been a clear no-go.
Disney’s stance on this one point still gives cause for concern that the exception to standard streaming censorship for Get Back was a one-time thing.
When the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton hit the streamer in 2020, there was great tumult around its inclusion of a few select f-bombs. PG-13 movies can typically get away with one f-word and no more. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda had the task of choosing which one to stay in.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish all had to remove f-words from their Disney Plus projects.
Reply to a fan on Twitter, Miranda explained that the MPAA has a strict rule against more than one utterance of the f-word. If you are more, your movie is automatically in R-rated range. When the insulting word appeared three times in stage production, one was muted, one was replaced by a record scratch, and one remained intact in the Disney Plus version.
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Why did not two world-famous young women writing about their own abuse in crude, sometimes explicit ways, get a similar passport as Get Back? Why would a famous retelling of American history (with a cast consisting mostly of colored) not qualify for The Beatles’ release? Of course, The Beatles have a legacy that spans half a century, but if Disney can make one exception, why not more?
How do other streaming services handle censorship?
Last month, fans of the DC Extended Universe were a little startled when Birds of Prey appeared on HBO Max in a brutally edited form. Among other changes, swear words were removed, while Harley Quinn’s middle finger (of course aimed raw at other characters) was replaced by a peace sign.
WarnerMedia Communications Manager Johanna Fuentes coming soon tweeted that the original edit was available after the previous error. It seems that Warner Bros. made the edit to TV. It was never intentionally intended for HBO Max at all.
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Elsewhere, some have claimed that the translations of Netflix’s hugely popular squid games downplayed some of the original Korean gang’s, along with accusations of a broader mistranslation.
30 Rock creator Tina Fey famously asked streamers to draw episodes of the show depicting blackface (the practice of white actors darkening their skin to look black). While the show generally used blackface to criticize racist practices, Fey understandably wanted to reduce the potential harm caused by these kinds of images. The streamers agreed.
Of course, there are extremely valid reasons to take such steps, even though no standard best practices have emerged. Should studios make different versions of a work of art available? Is it best to remove them from the circulation completely? Would a disclaimer at the beginning of the sections do that trick? Should we not have a clearer sense of what approach will be used in different scenarios and why?
Can we get a clear set of guidelines for streaming censorship?
Streaming services have no real incentive to be direct with us. They can make and break their own rules at will if it is in their own interest. No one will fine Disney for allowing The Beatles to smoke on screen. Nor will anyone have the power to shut down Netflix if it chooses to turn to e.g. “family values” groups that do not want their children to be exposed to certain types of images.
It is not really a major change in the status quo. The MPAA is notoriously opaque – and inconsistent – with its assessment process.
Streaming services have no real incentive to be direct with us about censorship.
What is different now, however, is that streaming services effectively act as archives. So many people have done away with physical media. I might once be fine watching a censored version of a movie on TV. I could also easily rent or buy a physical copy of the unchanged original. There were no doubt exceptions like Blockbuster Video that refused to carry anything above an R rating. By and large, however, you had options.
Today, if you do not have a DVD or Blu-ray player, just trust that when you press play, you will get what is advertised. Otherwise, you can make Harley Quinn inexplicably blink with a peace sign against one of her enemies.
As it is now, a little more clarity, consistency and transparency could go a long way. Beyond that, I can hold on to my DVDs and Blu-rays a little more.