HBO Max recently announced that they would temporarily remove Gone with the Wind from its offerings in response to recent backlash over its portrayal of life in the antebellum South. The film, despite its status as a classic, has also served as a lightning rod for accusations of ignoring the evils of slavery and glorifying racial discrimination.
A spokesperson for the company justified their decision with the argument that “Gone with the Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions was irresponsible.”
HBO will offer the film again when they can pair it with a discussion of the story’s historical context, though the movie itself will not be changed. As the spokesperson noted, “to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable, and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”
Regardless of whether or not you agree with HBO’s decision, they did get at least one thing right: ignoring history doesn’t change what happened, it just makes us more likely to repeat it.
The subtle influence of media
One of recent history’s most important lessons is that what we see in films, on TV, or consume via other forms of media has a way of shaping our thoughts that few other influences can match.
That basic principle is part of why HBO fears people watching Gone with the Wind might be ever so slightly more prone to underestimate the horrors of slavery or look wistfully at a time when equality among the races was a concept few valued.
It’s also what has often led Christians to be justifiably concerned with the normalization of LGBTQ+ lifestyles in movies and television.
A recent example of that fear is the new animated short on Disney+ titled Out. The 9-minute film is the first time Pixar Animation Studios has featured an openly homosexual main character, and it chronicles his journey towards telling his parents that he’s gay. And while it’s not available under the kids profile setting, it is made with the same basic animation qualities as other programs that are geared towards children.
Given the pervasiveness of media and it’s subtle—yet consistent—influence on our thinking, it’s more important than ever to have a plan in place for how we’ll consume it. To that end, what are some practical steps we can take to guard against the waves of culture slowly ebbing away at our faithfulness to God’s truth without going so far in the opposite direction that we act as though those waves don’t exist?
Don’t run from the issues
First, we need to accept that the issues are real and see that reality as an opportunity rather than a threat. Throughout his ministry, Jesus never shied away from dealing with difficult topics and was often able to use them to help people better understand the Lord.
For example, he used the incipient racism of his day to teach people about God’s love in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He used the legalism of the religious leaders to show people the limitations of trying to make themselves right with God in their own strength (Luke 11:37-52). And he used the Jewish hatred of Roman taxes to remind them that every part of their lives should be dedicated to the Lord (Mark 12:13-16).
In the same way, we shouldn’t be afraid of the issues commonly brought up in the media. Rather, we should view them as opportunities to teach people about God.
That doesn’t mean they’ll always accept his truth, and the opposite is likely to be true as often as not. But if we willingly cut ourselves out of the conversation, then we also give up the right to lament when society seems to move steadily away from the Lord.
After all, if God’s people won’t speak up for him, who will?
Own your influence
Lastly, we need to take ownership of our own spheres of influence.
If you’re worried about your kids, for example, accepting unbiblical truths because they see them on TV or in a movie, then don’t let those mediums be the dominant voice in their lives. That doesn’t mean ignoring the topics or even restricting those shows. If we don’t bring them up, someone else will. It’s up to us to take responsibility for what we see.
If you feel like your kids are old enough to have the conversation about homosexuality, for example, Out could present a great opportunity to broach the subject. (For help preparing for that discussion, see What does the Bible say about homosexuality?) In the same way, Gone with the Wind could be a good (albeit long) chance to show how people used to see slavery and life in the South, while also discussing the flaws inherent to the portrayal of both.
And the same is true for addressing these subjects in your own life as well. If we neglect to take responsibility for the media we take in and the subjects they depict, then we will inevitably be swayed into acceptance. Instead, own those choices and ask the Lord to guide you in seeing the world—media included—through the lens of Scripture.
God is here to help, but he’s not going to do it for you.
Ryan Denison is a graduate of Baylor University and Truett Seminary and is completing his doctoral dissertation in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute.