Entertainment

You Can't Erase Trump from Pop Culture

Trump's legacy can't and shouldn't be scratched out of history. And removing him from pop culture would only serve to reinforce white supremacy.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
January 20, 2021, 9:18pm
The_Fresh_Prince_of_Bel_Air_TV_Series-720024364-large
Credit: NBCUniversal

In a scene from 1992's Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, Donald Trump offers Macaulay Culkin directions to the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, which Trump owned at the time, and of course he did since it's a gaudy New York landmark. It's a brief cameo; he's not even on screen for 10 seconds. But it became the subject of controversy in 2019, when Canada's CBC network cut the scene during a televised broadcast of the movie. Trump threw a massive hissy fit over it, retweeting an article that called the edit an act of censorship and making some dumb vague claim that the scene was cut because Justin Trudeau was being petty over trade issues. A spokesperson for the network explained on Twitter that it was edited out for time in 2014, before Trump even announced his candidacy. 

The largely unimportant issue sparked opinion pieces for and against the edit. While some of the president's detractors cited the need to scrub the bad man from their nice movie, the right ran wild with the culture-war angle, effectively calling those backing the cut snowflake libs who were triggered by Trump's big, bold, 80s teen movie villain presence. “I think they’re actually terrified that people will remember that before he was the 'new Hitler,' he was actually a beloved mainstream cultural figure," said conservative commentator Mark Steyn on an episode of (you guessed it) Fox & Friends. "I think they’re terrified of these little things that will remind people of just how deranged his opponents are."

Donald Trump finally left office today, but our national—nay, global—nightmare is far from over, and we'll be feeling the negative ripple effects of his presidency for a long time. And in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and Twitter's permanent suspension of the departing president's Twitter account, the conversation around Eternal Sunshining him from the film has continued, with fans digitally removing him from the film themselves and pro-trump D-list actresses rallying against the scene's deletion. Macaulay Culkin even weighed in.

As much as we'd like to forget the last four years and the hell Trump wrought upon the world, I'd argue that it's important that we never forget. It might be easy to delete a scene for our own comfort, but Trump's legacy shouldn't be scratched out of history. The longer we remember the atrocities at the border, the stoking of misinformation and violent sedition, the allegations of sexual misconduct, the racist rhetoric that's placed lives at risk, the complete and utter stupidity, and so much more—the longer we're reminded—the better chance we have that we don't end up in a mess like this again. Removing him from any and all pop culture would only serve to reinforce white supremacy.

Home Alone 2 is far from Trump's only appearance in various films and series. He is, after all, a reality TV star and an all-time Olympic level fame-whore obsessed with celebrity and power. In all his years as a public figure, there's nowhere the camera-thirsty orange man wouldn't appear on screen, whether it was slamming Vince McMahon to the ground during a WWE match (far from his only foray into the wrestling ring), being kind of a perv on Sex and the City, or taking on uncredited role as someone named "Daniel Ray McLeech" on a 1998 Halloween episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A willingness to go uncredited on a beloved but markedly low-tier teen show is pretty desperate for Trump, even in 1998.

Despite the fact that he was the least qualified person for the position in every conceivable way, Trump became president on the back of racist policy and ideology, misogyny, and maybe some help from Russia. The media's wall-to-wall coverage only legitimized him further, and his Republican cronies kept him running fast and loose, to a terrifyingly dangerous degree. 

Now that the whole thing is sort of "over," it's understandable to not want to see his smug, cheese-puff-baked, twice-impeached-for-high-crimes mug while watching an old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But we can't do with Trump what society did with George W. Bush and his melted wax museum-looking paintings, whitewashing his crimes with time. For one thing, we know Republicans will attempt to do just that; within hours of the insurrection, the outgoing president's very own supporters were trying to smooth things over with calls for unity or claims that denouncing the president incites divisiveness in a desperate attempt to save their own asses and Scotch-tape a party that's in shambles. Wild considering some of their own colleagues aided in inciting an actual coup that led to multiple deaths and places several others' lives in danger.

Advertisement

We're still learning how we got here, and what happened, but it's clear there's no one reason. Deleting him from every roll of tape he has appeared in only serves to erase the story of how we got here. Too many people (and especially white people) will want to view Trump's time in office as an embarrassing blip in American history rather than acknowledge it as the outgrowth of systemic injustices and prejudices that they themselves benefit from and participate in. Sorry to inform, but racism isn't over now that he's out of office. And the communities that Trump harmed, that have long been harmed, don't get to forget.

Past attempts to remove offensive content from platforms have produced mixed results. Last year, Disney+ began adding disclaimers to their older series and films, including Aladdin, Jungle Book, and The Aristocats, noting that they contain imagery and racist characterizations. "These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now," says a note that appears on screen before a movie plays. "Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together." The disclaimer points viewers to a website that explains why these images are harmful. This is ostensibly a good move, giving parents the tools to educate their children about racist imagery and why siamese cats drawn with slanted eyes, buck teeth, and singing about Chinese food is pretty fucked up.

Advertisement

Over the past couple years, streaming services and series producers have added similar disclaimers to some non-child programming; Lionsgate added one to an episode of Mad Men that featured the character Roger Sterling in blackface, notifying viewers that the scene "shows how commonplace racism was in America in 1963." 

On the surface, it may seem like a smart move to instruct audiences that racism is bad and that this sort of thing was commonplace in the mid-20th century. Except—the platform didn't add the same disclaimer to, oh, probably around 500 other episodes of the series that contained racist jokes and imagery, including one where a Chinese family is placed in Pete Campbell's office as a joke. The fact that whoever made this decision determined that adults didn't understand that blackface is bad, racism existed in the 60s and continues to persist, and needed to have it explained to them is bleak. Where was this concern before? And, once again sorry to inform, but shows very much set in more present times have also employed racist imagery and stereotypes for laughs.

Elsewhere, episodes of 30 Rock, The Office, Community, Golden Girls and others featuring blackface were removed from streaming services completely. Executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock had four (!!) episodes of 30 Rock that incorporated blackface removed. Like a fart you let out in an elevator in front of a coworker, removing it has mega "let's never speak of this again" energy, and that does much more harm than good considering how often these shows relied on racist stereotypes to land their jokes, far beyond blackface. Remember Michael Scott's character Ping? Removing a very select bit of evidence only serves to protect those who made it happen, all while affording producers and networks an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for curing their racism. Fixating on just instances of blackface while not bringing that same energy to the many other examples of racism on these shows reads as performative. It also allows those who laughed at their screens to not have to think about why they did so, or recognize the other insidious ways in which racism permeates in these series. Once again, the people who these incessant jokes or imagery harmed, who spoke up long ago about it, are left in the dust. They don't forget.

And the same goes for Trump. Removing him from a scene in a movie doesn't delete what he did or the ways his followers enabled his rise and executed his wrongdoings. Sure, it would piss him off to no end, which is fun, but it would be a fleeting joy. Reminding ourselves that a celebrity evolved from an eccentric pop culture figure to inciter of a full-on insurrection reminds us to trust no bitch, hold people accountable, and do the work to confront racism rather than brush it under a rug. Otherwise, who are we protecting from racism?