The Morality of Erasing Content Made By Sexual Predators

Can tainted content reclaim its legacy?

The last two months have been an unusual time in the entertainment industry as the business finally seems to be confronting the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct in the workplace. The recent scandals involving Cinefamily and the Alamo Drafthouse were seemingly only warmups. Back in October, The New Yorker published a story wherein multiple women – including Asia Argento and Mira Sorvino – accused the famed producer Harvey Weinstein of everything from sexual misconduct to outright rape. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before – a powerful man’s accused of rape, it grabs headlines for a while, but ultimately fades with few lasting consequences.

That wasn’t the case here. These women were believed and their bravery spurred others to come forward. And that started the avalanche as every day more and more famous and powerful men were accused of all manner of sexual misconduct, with charges going back decades: Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss were two such cases. The wave expanded, moving to claim TV producers whose misconduct wasn’t limited to sexual harassment. Supergirl showrunner Andrew Kreisberg had a litany of complaints against him, which in turn spurred a former One Tree Hill writer to tweet about bad behavior from that show’s creator Mark Schwahn. That was unique in that it provoked ALL of that show’s female cast to come forward in an open letter (and in follow-up interviews) about the harassment they were subjected to during the show’s run.

We’re in an era where all of this has been taken seriously for once. And that sometimes means serious consequences.

When allegations were published that Kevin Spacey had forced himself on actor Anthony Rapp when the boy was a 14-year-old, the consequences were swift: Spacey’s Netflix show House of Cards suspended production to figure out how to write him out and announced that this season would be its last, and Netflix terminated their relationship with him, deciding to shelve his unreleased film Gore. Ridley Scott made the unusual move of deciding to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes in All The Money In The World, set for release in December, with Christopher Plummer.

After Louis CK was accused of masturbating in front of female writers and comedians – many of whom worked for him – his film I Love You Daddy had its release cancelled, FX ended their association with him, and HBO went even further. Beyond cancelling his future projects, the network pulled all of his past projects from their online content. It was a totally understandable move. Louis CK is radioactive right now, and it probably wouldn’t be a good look for a visitor to their site to be greeted by a still of his mug, promoting shows where he jokes about some of the same things he’s accused of.

But this leads me to a concern that will only become more potent as physical media is replaced by streaming content. Should we be worried about the ease with which an entire portfolio can be erased from film and TV history? In the case of Louis’s standup specials maybe that’s not so much of a loss. HBO understandably doesn’t want to be the portal to the manifesto of a sexual pervert.

Consider if Spacey’s actions had the consequence of making Netflix completely revoke House of Cards. Some of Robin Wright’s finest performances would be largely inaccessible, save for the DVD releases of the series, something Netflix isn’t always diligent about with their own shows. In any case, the odds are good that such a scandal will eventually befall a high-quality show that exists only as a digital product. When that happens, it will be erased from streaming sites like it never existed, completely inaccessible.

Disney has long resisted U.S. distribution of Song of the South, their 1946 film that features Br’er Rabbit (who you might know from the Splash Mountain ride at the Disney parks) and a host of racially insensitive depictions. I have a vague memory of seeing this in a re-release in 1986 when it apparently wasn’t quite politically correct enough. They have released it overseas in a number of territories, including Europe and Latin American countries. Not only does that keep the movie from fading entirely from history, it also has likely kept bootlegs in circulation.

(Personally, I’m with Roger Ebert – the film shouldn’t be widely distributed, but should still be available to film students as it is a part of film history.)

So far we’ve discussed the easy calls of erasing a film that’s either aggressively offensive or the largely unfiltered product of the offender. But what happens to works that are of great cultural significance and also sprang from demented minds?

To put it another way, I have zero desire to ever watch The Cosby Show again. Hearing the depth of the depravity in the accusations against Bill Cosby has forever altered my perceptions of the man. He’s not a guy who had a few sexual encounters in the 70’s that now seem “problematic” or “questionable” under modern standards; he’s a straight-up serial rapist. I can’t see anything but that when I watch him on-screen and I can’t imagine ever getting past that.

Problem: The Cosby Show is of serious historical significance in more than one way. It practically revived the sitcom as an art form in the mid-80’s and it was one of the most popular to center on affluent black characters. It challenged stereotypes, reached a mainstream audience and paved the way for more minority-led shows. And that’s just discussing the impact without even addressing some of the classic sitcom writing like an episode all about a funeral for Rudy’s goldfish.

The allegations against Cosby resulted in the show being pulled from syndication entirely for a while. This year, it started airing on the low-profile channel TV One. Older DVD releases are still available, and much to my shock, you can find the whole series streaming on Amazon Prime. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disgusted when I discovered this. There are so many very good arguments about why the show should not be erased from history… and yet, is it wise to feed Cosby’s public image of the genial family man?

Maybe it’s a case of the studio and distributors thinking that since there are so many DVD releases in circulation, pulling it digitally would be like fixing the barn door after the horses have gotten out. Putting the product out at least kills any demand for illicit bootlegs and dodges the debate about the erasure of important black history.

But I keep pondering what’s the right call when the show in question can be contained, despite its impact on culture? What happens if a star of The Handmaid’s Tale is exposed as having a propensity for picking up hitchhikers and dismembering them? Is it right to erase the most culturally significant show of 2017? Particularly one that plays as an important commentary and warning about our current times?

If it had to, Hulu could yank The Handmaid’s Tale immediately and there wouldn’t be anything to bootleg. It’d live on only as a footnote in the resumes of its key creatives. For all intents and purposes, it could disappear like it never existed. Something about that feels very scary.

I don’t know that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to what should be done with compromised art. Maybe it’s on us to think differently about the work that came from the mind of these demented men. The One Tree Hill situation offers some hope. When the allegations surfaced and the degree to which Mark Schwahn had forced himself on his female cast became clear, it appeared that the show could only be seen as a SVU crime scene.

But with the remarkable act of sisterhood shown by the female cast and crew coming together and standing up against the powerful man who’d threatened to ruin all of them before, those women reclaimed the narrative of the series. Its legacy is no longer that of a hunting ground for a lecherous showrunner, it became a training camp for women warriors out to avenge past wrongs and inspire by example.

Kevin Spacey and Louis CK need to go away forever, that’s a given. But when the dust settles, we need to figure out if we can reclaim their most culturally significant work, and if so, how we begin that process. Obviously, this is far from the most pressing issue with regard to sexual harassment fallout, but it’s a concern that will need to be confronted at some point.

More to Read: