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OPINION

Why Disney+ blocking classics should not alarm us

Disney+ has blocked 'Peter Pan', 'Dumbo', 'The Aristocats', and 'Swiss Family Robinson', for viewers under 7. Parents should embrace the help.

Adam R. Holz
Opinion contributor

Families using Disney+ might be surprised to find that four of that studio’s animated films have now been blocked for users under 7 years old. "Dumbo", "Peter Pan", "The Aristocats", and "Swiss Family Robinson" have all been subjected to new content restrictions. 

Why? you ask. 

I’ll let Disney answer with a disclaimer that now appears for older audiences viewing those movies: 

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” 

Disney has decided these films include depictions of racism or racist stereotypes that young children shouldn’t consume without that proverbial “parental guidance.” 

Is Disney really censoring?

So how should we respond to what Disney’s done, with some suggesting that the Mouse House has “censored” innocent classics many of us grew up with? 

First, Disney+, hasn’t removed these films from its service. That would constitute something closer to censorship. Instead, the streaming service limited these films’ availability to a very young audience. Families that want to watch these films still can, but only from an older user’s account.  

Disney’s moral calculus here likely rings true with some folks, while others might view it as yet another intrusion of political correctness run amok. 

A scene from the 1953 animated movie "Peter Pan."

But let’s step back and view the bigger picture. Since the movie industry’s inception, controversy has raged about content and its control. Who should be able to see what? Risqué movies in the 1920s led to the so-called Hays Code, which influenced movie content from 1934 to 1968. At that point, the Motion Picture Association of America’s new rating system commenced, launching the now-familiar G, PG, R ratings. 

In 1984, gory scenes in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins" birthed the PG-13 rating. Since then, however, multiple studies have shown that today’s PG-13 movies are often more violent than R-rated movies were in the 1980s. That’s led some to question whether adding a new age category to protect young viewers actually had exactly the opposite effect.  

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That brief history illustrates this important point: Entertainment ratings are not an exact science. 

Rating are a snapshot, at any given moment, of society’s values and its attempt to classify content. But the inexorable passage of time means those subjective assessments also change over time. What once would have seemed acceptable may seem utterly offensive decades later. 

Culture changes over time and influences what we embrace

Cultural mores evolve — for better, for worse — over time. Every era embraces particular values, rejects others and is simply blind to some problems (such as, say, the influence of smoking in myriad films in previous decades). And it’s not just true of beloved kids flicks — it’s true of all of them. 

So, any time we watch a film from another era, we do so with an understanding that it’s a product of its age. We might respond to it differently today than original audiences did. And we might need to guide our kids deliberately through concerns no one thought about back in the day. Go back and watch many movies from the ‘80s — I’m a child of the ‘80s, and I love many of those films — and you’ll be shocked at some of what we embraced (and what you forgot). 

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We can easily think of culture as getting worse and worse. But it’s more accurate to consider culture as a vortex. As it swirls, culture emphasizes some values and minimizes others. It’s constantly changing. Thus, raising children in our information age’s chaotic maelstrom of ideas and values requires — you guessed it — parental guidance and wisdom as we intentionally help our kids consider which values to embrace and which to reject.

Is Disney+’s decision to lock up "Peter Pan" for the littles asinine? Some will think so. Others might applaud. Either way, remember that any rating system is a culturally relative portrait at best. It can never replace a loving parent’s intentional, active engagement with the ideas within that have the power to shape young hearts and minds. 

Adam R. Holz is director of Plugged In, Focus on the Family’s entertainment media and technology review website. He and his wife have three children.