We Need a Grown-Up Discussion of Troubling Telly

Following the extirpation of Little Britain, Come Fly With Me, Fawlty Towers, The League of Gentlemen, Cops, and, oddly, Gone With The Wind from various different streaming platforms, it would seem that we’re once again having the ‘should we keep watching stuff that doesn’t fit with our modern, enlightened sensibilities?’ conversation… and we’re doing it badly.

As a culture, we’ve had this debate a few times in different guises but, regardless of whether it’s about Christmas songs, comedy, or some drunk white girls singing all the words to Gold Digger after their fifth pitcher of Woo Woo (or whatever the ghastly glowing drink du jour happens to be), it’s all pretty much the same conversation and it boils down to the same two, implacably opposed, sides.

One argues along the lines of ‘respecting modern sensibilities is good’, the other ‘censorship is bad’ and “never the twain shall meet” (that is, if we’re still allowed to quote Kipling).

Like any ‘culture wars’ debate, the entire thing rests on a false dichotomy and isn’t really much use to anyone in its current form.

I’d like to illustrate this with an example.

There is a character who appears regularly on the single biggest and most important show in television history who is nothing but a stereotype of an entire nation of people. He lives in squalor, is perpetually drinking or drunk, has an awful diet, an impenetrable accent (that is often played for laughs), is quick to anger, has only the most stereotypical passions, resents not only his supposed ‘betters’ but also his countrymen, and resolves his conflicts with violence.

In fact, in one brazen episode of the show, this poor wretch of a man is only ‘civilised’ via a My Fair Lady parody in which he discards his native dress, speaking voice and all the other trappings of his homeland in order to be wheeled out like the savage in Brave New World… if he were appearing on an episode of Queer Eye.

His name is Groundskeeper Willie and he is a staple of that unique pop culture juggernaut, The Simpsons.

For the sake of clarity, I’m not arguing that Groundskeeper Willie is a racist character. He’s not. However, he is clearly a stereotypical character – the one joke to him is about how much of a Scottish cliché he is, and that makes him funny, even to this Jock.

I’m also not arguing that, because The Simpsons regularly depicts its sole Scotsman as a dirty, drunken, damage-inflicting dimwit, either the character or the series should fall to cancel culture to the same extent that The League of Gentlemen, Cops, and Little Britain have. My intent here is to show that, when dealing with culture and entertainment, there is much in the way of nuance, context and detail to consider.

For instance, elsewhere in The Simpsons you’ll find Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a South-Asian shop owner of the most stereotypical sort. The last time Apu was raised in this kind of conversation, his voice actor left the role, but the show’s creators decided that the character would stay. Dive further into the inhabitants of Springfield and you’ll find the effete and doll-obsessed gay man, Waylon Smithers, Italian-American gangster Marion Anthony “Fat Tony” D’Amico, pizzeria proprietor Luigi Risotto, and a Japanese sushi chef who serves lethal fish; as well as many other caricatures of ethnic, social, and faith-based groups. It really is all there if you look for it.

In highlighting these examples, my intent is to add some necessary mud to the water of this discussion – because clear, two-sided debates are over-rated.

To my eyes, the removal of Matt Lucas’ blacked-up coffee-seller Precious in Come Fly With Me is far more reasonable than taking away the minstrel-ish Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen, as the latter is shown to be a supernatural character and he is far less of a generic stereotype. Less worthy still of deletion is Gone With The Wind, which is a truly stunning and important film and, interestingly enough, saw the first black person, Hattie McDaniel, win an Oscar in 1940.

Then at the bottom of the pile are Groundskeeper Willie and Fat Tony from The Simpsons who are, probably, fine as they are. There are many other examples from across our culture that need to be considered on their own merits and demerits, without resorting to crude partisanship or anything as vulgar as opposing ‘culture war’ teams.

My point is that there is a cultural discussion to be had and that appealing to the most strident sides of it probably won’t enrich it. Battle lines, after all, only encourage fights – especially given that, in the Internet age, the chances of properly deleting anything are microscopic anyway. What is needed is a calm, serious and considered discussion about how different groups were, are and should be portrayed on screen. I hope we’re capable of it.

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