The Simpsons, The Beatles: Get Back have again challenged Disney Plus’ censorship rules
Disney’s self-censoring takes many forms.
Both the New York Times and The Guardian reported on Monday that Disney’s November launch of a Hong Kong version of Disney Plus arrived with most of the streaming platform’s content, one notable work was excluded: “Goo Goo Gai Pain,” a 2005 episode from season 12 of The Simpsons. The episode centers around Marge’s sister Selma pretending to be married to Homer while attempting to adopt a child from China.
“Goo Goo Gai Pain” includes scenes in which the family visits the embalmed tomb of Chairman Mao; Homer calls the leader “a little angel that killed 50 million people”; a Chinese minder named Madame Wu (Lucy Liu) mocks Tibetan independence; Homer tricks Chinese soldiers by pretending to be a Buddha statue; and the family walks through Tiananmen Square to find a plaque reading “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.” Soon after, Madame Wu arrives in Tiananmen Square in a tank, allowing Selma to recreate the famed June 5, 1989 “Tank Man” photograph.
While the Hong Kong Free Press notes that the episode is still accessible using VPN circumvention tools, the Times and Guardians were unable to clarify why “Goo Go Gai Pan” was missing from the service in the first place. While the Chinese government has recently expanded censorship laws in Hong Kong, these laws specifically target movies, not streaming TV shows, resulting in speculation by media experts that Disney is preemptively censoring itself.
“Disney obviously sent out a clear signal to the local audience that it will remove controversial programs in order to please” government officials, Grace Leung, an expert in media regulation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tells the Times.
But Disney’s self-censorship isn’t limited to foreign markets. Through Disney Plus, the entertainment giant has altered and edited a number of its own properties for a variety of reasons. Some of these changes are more onerous than they are censorious, like the choice to initially present all Simpsons episodes in a 16:9 aspect ratio, as opposed to the initial 4:3 aspect ratio in which it aired, destroying several visual gags.
But Disney has also taken the digital knife to other works with the express purpose of changing what can and cannot be seen. The first episode of The Simpsons’ third season, “Stark Raving Dad,” which features a guest appearance from Michael Jackson, is not available on Disney Plus. The season simply starts with the next episode, skipping over the episode as appears to be the case in Hong Kong.
There are other, non-Simpsons-related changes, too. Last year, the service made alterations to the 1984 Tom Hanks movie Splash meant to prevent even the semblance of nudity. The long-rumored “sex” background in The Lion King, where stars in the sky actually spell out “sfx,” or special effects, was also changed to clear up any confusion.
There are also a number of cuts and changes concerning Disney’s racist characters of the past, which populate many of its most famous works. Sometimes, Disney chooses to remove a character completely, as is the case with the racist caricature Sunflower in Fantasia. With other animated works, like Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp, Disney chose to leave the works intact while removing them from the Kids section and presenting a warning beforehand.
The pressures also extend to modern works. While Disney is soaking up the critical accolades for Get Back, Peter Jackson’s recent documentary on The Beatles, Jackson told NME that the company wanted to remove all swearing from the movie until Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison’s former wife Olivia intervened. In other movies featured on Disney Plus, like National Geographic’s Free Solo and the 1987 Touchstone movie Adventures in Babysitting, swearing has been removed.
Regardless of the result of any individual edit or change, Disney Plus continues to trend toward sanitization, and keeping its content within the company’s own framework of what constitutes “family friendly.” These cuts, changes, and flat-out removals will likely continue on, with viewers in Hong Kong and America experiencing Disney history as Disney sees fit.