The Beatles: Get Back, a documentary series over 50 years in the making, launched on Disney Plus last month. With this came a discussion about broadcast censorship, as viewers began to notice that the miniseries contained profanity beyond what is generally allowed on the platform.
Self-censoring entertainment companies is nothing new. There is a long history of the American film industry setting limits for itself, in large part to prevent the government from stepping in to do it for them. The Hays Code was a self-imposed set of rules about what filmmakers could put on screen from roughly the mid-1930s through the 1960s, for example. The industry eventually replaced it with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which to this day gives film ratings on a voluntary basis.
However, streaming services continue to operate in a gray area. They feature films that have been rated by the MPAA, but are not fully tied to the rating board for their own productions. While an unrated movie may face impossible obstacles to getting into theaters and recouping its budget, Netflix can, if it wishes, make an unrated movie, market it widely, and make it available on its own platform.
So where do we stand on broadcast censorship? Can we analyze what the rules are, official or not? And what can we learn from Disney’s decision to allow The Beatles: Get Back to air unedited?
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Peter Jackson narrowly bypasses broadcast censorship
In addition to some salty language, The Beatles: Get Back also shows the four boys smoking cigarettes everywhere. That goes against Disney’s 2007 policy not to feature smoking in its productions. The 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 beeped or even cut off swearing at Get Back, particularly the f-word. After all, he was working with over 60 hours of footage. His decision not to do it was probably for the best. He was the first person to have access to rarely seen images in more than 50 years. That means that the task came with the responsibility of sharing a history of half a century in the making of one of the most important bands in history. What’s the harm in a few swear words in that context?
Censoring a documentary with such historical significance would have looked bad 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 rejected their original, unedited version for it to be available on Disney Plus. They bypassed broadcast censorship, but it took big names to do it.
Disney’s willingness to back down remained a win for viewers, and hopefully means there’s room for flexibility overall.
Disney’s habit of censoring important works
The Beatles: Get Back is certainly an exception. And a big, dazzling one. Disney has been blocking oaths in its productions for years. There is some leeway with what constitutes an expletive in Disney’s eyes, but the f-word has been a blatant rejection.
Disney giving in on this point still leaves cause for concern that the exception to standard streaming censorship for Get Back was somewhat unique.
When the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton hit streamer in 2020, there was a lot of buzz about its inclusion of some choice f-bombs. PG-13 movies can generally get away with an f-word and nothing more. Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was tasked with choosing which one would stay.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish had to remove the f-words from their Disney Plus projects.
Responding to a fan on Twitter, Miranda explained that the MPAA has a strict rule against more than one pronunciation of the f-word. More and your movie will automatically be in R-rated territory. With the offensive word appearing three times in the theatrical production, one was silenced, one was replaced by a record scratch, and the other remained intact in the Disney Plus version.
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Why didn’t two world-famous young women who write about their own mistreatment in crude, sometimes explicit ways, not get a pass similar to Get Back? Why wouldn’t a celebrated reimagining of American history (with a cast consisting primarily of people of color) not qualify for The Beatles exemption? Sure, the Beatles have a legacy that spans more than half a century, but if Disney can make an exception, why not more?
How are other streaming services handling censorship?
Last month, DC Extended Universe fans got a bit spooked when Birds of Prey appeared on HBO Max in brutally edited form. Among other alterations, profanity was removed, while Harley Quinn’s middle fingers (which were crudely pointed at other characters, of course) were replaced with a peace sign.
WarnerMedia Communications Manager Johanna Fuentes soon tweeted that the original edition was available after the above error. It seems that Warner Bros. made the television edition. It was never intentionally destined for HBO Max.
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Elsewhere, some have argued that translations of Netflix’s hugely popular Squid Game toned down some of the swearing from the original Korean, along with allegations of a broader mistranslation.
30 Rock creator Tina Fey asked streamers to drop episodes of the show that depict blackface (the practice of white actors darkening their skin to look black). While the show generally used blackface to criticize racist practice, Fey understandably wanted to reduce the potential harm caused by such images. The streamers agreed.
There are extremely valid reasons for taking these kinds of steps, of course, although standard best practices have not emerged. Should studios make available multiple versions of a work of art? Is it better to remove them from circulation completely? Would a disclaimer at the beginning of the episodes suffice? Shouldn’t we have a clearer idea of which approach will be used in different scenarios and why?
Can we get a clear set of streaming censorship guidelines?
The streaming services have no real incentive to be honest with us. They can create and break their own rules at will if it is in their best interest. No one will fine Disney for allowing the Beatles to smoke on screen. No one will have the power to shut down Netflix if they choose to give in to, say, “family values” groups who don’t want their kids to be exposed to certain types of images.
Actually, that’s not a major change in the status quo. The MPAA is notoriously non-transparent and inconsistent with its rating process.
The streaming services have no real incentive to be frank with us about censorship.
However, what is different now is that streaming services effectively function as archives. Many people have removed physical media. I could once feel good watching a censored version of a movie on television. You could also easily rent or buy a physical copy of the unaltered original. There were exceptions, no doubt, such as Blockbuster Video which refused to carry anything above an R rating. Generally, however, you had options.
Nowadays, if you don’t have a DVD or Blu-ray player, you just have to trust that when you press play, you will get what is advertised. Otherwise, Harley Quinn may inexplicably show a peace sign to one of her enemies.
As it stands now, a little more clarity, consistency, and transparency could go a long way. Other than that, I can keep my DVDs and Blu-rays for a bit longer.