Reviewing old books and films with content which unsettles you

I’ve doubtless read more old books and seen more old films than I have from the modern era. As such, there are times when I run across things which can make me uncomfortable as a modern reader/viewer, even offend me. It’s not that I don’t know certain attitudes were prevalent, but rather that it’s kind of hard to just dispassionately take it in without reacting, thinking, “That’s just how things were then.”

We’re all going to experience books and films differently depending upon our socialization, background, personal experiences, values, and beliefs. I, as a Jewish, working-class woman, am bothered by things that wouldn’t bother an upper-middle-class Methodist man. Things that might merely make me uncomfortable in passing might outright anger an African–American, a Catholic, or a Cherokee.

Things to keep in mind while watching/reading and writing your review:

How much of a focus is the material in question? If there’s, e.g., a three-minute scene of racially-motivated violence in a 20-minute short, or a brief scene with a stereotyped Jewish pawnbroker in a 73-minute movie, there’s no reason to obsess over it and make that the entire point of your review. Say it made you uncomfortable, and then move on.

Were these attitudes overtly racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-Catholic, etc., or were they such an ingrained part of the culture as to seem matter-of-fact to the average person in the original audience? A lot of old cartoons accused of being horribly racist have struck me as more a product of their time, not going out of their way to offend people. It’s like the difference between celebrating a lynching vs. a blackface scene.

Was this something that couldn’t really be helped given the era? For example, as much as I wish non-white actors had been able to play major roles outside of so-called “race movies,” that just didn’t happen. White actors played characters of other races, or minorities played servants or minor roles. That didn’t mean a white actor in makeup couldn’t play a character of another race with integrity and sensitivity, or that a servant character was automatically pathetic.

If it’s more than a minor aspect of the story, take some time to explain your discomfort, but don’t go on some long-winded rant. The treatment and so-called slut-shaming of unmarried mothers in films like Faust and Way Down East really does upset me, but there are so many other things in these stories to talk about.

If you point-blank admit you don’t care about the historical, social, and cultural context, you’re not the right person to be reviewing old books or films! You have every right to feel genuinely uncomfortable with certain things, but you need to subdue your 21st century values and viewpoints when you’re dealing with bygone eras.

The normally awesome Rap Critic and his annoying SJW girlfriend Lady Jess totally dropped the ball when they reviewed The Jazz Singer last year, and they likewise missed a golden opportunity in their recent four-part series on Warner Brothers’ Censored Eleven. Instead of placing these cartoons in their appropriate setting, they did almost nothing but rant about how racist they are by modern standards.

If stereotypes are present, are they the only thing about a character, or just one of many traits? For example, the easily-spooked Trohelius Snapp in Midnight Faces seemed to have been included primarily for cheap, racially-motivated laughs. He wasn’t some deep, complex character who just happened to be easily-spooked.

If there’s truly enough material to do a full critique through, e.g, a feminist, class-based, race-based, or Jewish lens, why not do that in a second post? That way, your review proper stays on topic and addresses the actual story within its historical setting.

Was this based on popular beliefs of the time and not intentionally meant to be offensive? As much as I love Dante, he was still very much a product of Medieval Catholic Europe. So, yes, he was under the false impression Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic even though he was never Christian to begin with. Dante also subscribed very much to other Catholic doctrine. At least give him some credit for being evolved enough to question certain things he considers unjust or puzzling. He tends to accept Church doctrine in the end, but he doesn’t blindly accept it.

Words that seem dated now were the de facto words then. Words like Negro, Oriental, sinistral (left-handed), Mosaic (Jewish), Sapphist (lesbian).

Above all, consider the context and intent! Going on a huge rant against, e.g., blackface or the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention just makes you look immature and historically ignorant. These people weren’t including this material just to offend your 21st century special snowflake SJW self.

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8 thoughts on “Reviewing old books and films with content which unsettles you

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to review older things by today’s standards. It’s certainly okay to point out that possibly offensive content exists in an older work, but to obsess on that content makes little sense from the standpoint of a “review”. Perspectives were different in the past and if audiences don’t understand that going into whatever they are reading, watching or listening to then they should educate themselves before going in.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    • A lot of modern-day reviewers seem to be so offended that people in a bygone era held certain views instead of being exactly like 21st century people. Some of these old cartoons, like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, seem more boring and stupid to me, in spite of their reputations as being so racist.

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  2. People do like to nitpick and rant over small things. I see it all the time. If there’s something I don’t like, I only mention it briefly with one sentence. I don’t agonize over it. When I review, I actually like to talk more about the things I like. I agree with Alex, we have to remember what the time/era was like and keep that in mind.

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    • I seem to remember making the mistake of disproportionately focusing on dated material in some of the reviews I wrote on my old Angelfire site. They didn’t dominate the whole review, but they were still given more space that they really merited. Then again, I overall had the problem of too much wordiness in my posts back then.

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  3. It’s not only dated film/books that could have ‘politically incorrect’ material. It also depends on who is the author. For example, I’m Jewish, and I know that Jewish people sometimes allow themselves to talk in terms and say things that they would consider offensive, if a non-Jew said them. We mock ourselves, bot nobody else is allowed to do so. The same goes for any social or racial group. The word ‘negro’ is considered offensive nowadays. A modern white writer would be crucified for using it in print, but Lawrence Hill wrote a book “The Book of Negroes” in 2007. He is one himself, so nobody dares to criticize his word choice. I think when we review, we should take such facts into account as well.

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    • It took a long time for me to start feeling comfortable using the word Negro outside of dialogue in my historicals. Even knowing it was considered the correct term back then, it was really hard for me to step away from using the modern term in the narrative and use the term that actually fit with the time period.

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  4. What people also seem to not understand is our values to people in the future (and to people of the past) may seem ridiculous as well. When we are 80, what will we think of our current values? We often look at the world differently based on our age and experience. Our values will change.

    As to the easy humor, do we not cater to the easiest laughs in films today? We have potty humor for easy laughs. Films want to make money with cheap laughs. How many potty humor comedies are made versus clever comedies? I can count on one hand the number of intellectually funny films versus films. Cheap, easy laughs make more money and are funny to the most people.

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