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Snuffing out Goofy's cigarette

Jens F. Laurson and George A. Pieler explain the Janus-like impact of technology when companies make dumb decisions.

4 min read
With today's technology, anyone can be a video editor (or producer).

Like it or not, the YouTube phenomenon empowers folks with ideas, both good and bad, and the clueless alike. Video re-edits--Goofy as a sex-drugs maniac or the Hamas-ripoff of Mickey Mouse teaching Palestinian kids to blow up people--cause Disney much heartburn.

But technology empowers in both directions, as 2007 proved. Disney, joined by Universal, promised to ban smoking scenes from "youth rated films." Those films include older, even classic, products stashed away in the Disney Vault. Yes, smoking is in disrepute, but should we fear tobacco-as-entertainment?

In July 2007, when Disney promised a smoking ban for its "G" and "PG" products, the news was yawn-producing. What's a little revisionism if it satisfies today's sociopolitical climate? Stalin's helpers got rid of inconvenient Trotsky-photographs with the wave of an icepick (low tech works, too). Much easier for Disney to ensure that smoking won't be seen by impressionable audiences. A noble cause if you find the (usually) perfectly legal act of smoking a cigarette more disturbing than, say, the gratuitous spraying of bullets in an action movie or the law-trashing car chases that even Herbie: Fully Loaded displays.

Tobacco-censors may have an easy time with The Shaggy Dog, The Santa Clause 3--The Escape Clause (no pipe for the old man, though!), and The Chronicles of Narnia--films where neither cigarettes nor smoldering bodies do much smoking. It will be tougher for Disney to extend the ban to its Touchstone and Miramax subsidiaries. Can't not smoke in Hollywoodland or Renaissance (heck, it's set in Paris!). No wonder Disney gave itself a "best efforts"-type loophole for adult fare.

Disney's Bob Iger was pandering to antismoking calls-to-action from Rep. Ed Markey, key video industry overseer, and the MPAA.

Any company can define its market niche, and Disney's Bob Iger was pandering to antismoking calls-to-action from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), key video industry overseer, and the Motion Picture Association of America. Yet the social and political tendencies driving a company to promote the increasingly belligerent "correctification" of modern life--from prescribing whether or where people may smoke or eat trans fats or drive, or how they raise their children (and how not!) is troubling. It asserts that straitjackets lead to a better life, but more often they bring not the "perfect society," but a stultifying and oppressing civil order that sacrifices its freedoms, agility, and inner resilience to the moral imperative du jour.

For truly healthy societies there needs to be room for human stupidity.

Can't 21st century folks make their own decisions? The idea of a film studio contributing to a better world by not showing the deviant act of smoking on the screen is an absurd, yet frightening step into a dark, absurdist fantasy. Never mind that we might get a censored Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with a 100 percent smoke-free caterpillar, or Cruella DeVille with a patch, instead of a deliciously evil cigarette.

This is not hypothetical: Goofy already had his cigarette edited out of El Gaucho Goofy in Saludos Amigos, a U.S.-backed exercise in cultural diplomacy designed to counter Nazi influence in South America. Yet Jose Carioca, in the same film, kept his cigar--so far--and gets Donald Duck roaring drunk. American-ish cartoon characters set a bad smoking example, but not Portuguese-speaking parrots? The cultural contrast shows the impossibility of endless cinematic self-censorship--it inspires new, more radical forms of censorship.

Older technologies, too, have been instruments of censorship or suppression of historical truth, book-burning being the classic example. Should we not also care about deliberately-falsified history when a film made or set in the 1950s shows a clinically clean nonsmoking environment according to today's cultural mores? What would Disney do to AMC's hit Mad Men? Are Disney, Universal, and friends trying to protect us from health risks, or from historical realities that, today, make some uncomfortable?

The political underbelly to all this does not reassure. Markey holds a hearing calling for film industry censorship of smoking; the MPAA and its Washington, D.C., head, Dan Glickman, agree to consider smoking scenes in rating a films' age-appropriateness; and Disney's Iger rushes to lead the pack. No legislation needed, just propaganda.

Hollywood should choose. Do we believe in preserving the original "artist's vision," warts and all? Not incidentally, there's a profound albeit subtle racial undertone in Disney taking Goofy's smokes away while letting "ethnically different" cartoon characters smoke. It's a particularly noxious case of political correctness and lifestyle prescriptions intruding into the lives of citizens, armored by impenetrable righteousness.

Yet there's a fun follow-up: Chronological Donald Volume 3 was just released, with scenes of juvenile smoking (Huey, Dewey, Louie) pristinely intact. Disney, which actually made a similar no-tobacco pledge in 2004 but kept right on smoking, may be having the last laugh.

They probably deserve applause for this inconsistency: Promising to censor and then forgetting to actually do it may well be a surreal yet pragmatic answer to the whole problem.