When Delta Airlines Cut Gay Scenes From In-Flight Movies, One Actress Knew That She Had To Step In

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In October 2019 Delta Air Lines landed in hot water when it emerged that the versions of two films it showed on its flights had been edited. Specifically, the movies had been tweaked to remove gay love scenes and references to homosexuality. And when one actress-turned-director found out, she had to speak out.

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Delta is one of the United States’ most prominent airlines. It has been flying passengers since 1929, when it established its first route between Jackson, Mississippi, and Dallas, Texas. And while the company’s headquarters lie in Atlanta, Georgia, its operation is international – serving 325 destinations in 52 countries across the world.

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As part of Delta’s service, the airline offers entertainment during flights on many of its routes. Back in the 1960s this consisted of audio programming, which saw tunes piped to passengers through hollow cylinders that acted as headphones. But in the subsequent decades, things have gotten quite a bit more sophisticated.

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The history of in-flight entertainment dates back to 1921, when Aeromarine Airways screened Howdy Chicago! to 11 passengers as they circled Lake Michigan on a flying boat. This had occurred simply for the sake of generating publicity. However, it paved the way for modern in-flight entertainment systems, which now regularly have multiple films on demand.

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It was another four years after the promotional screening of Howdy Chicago! that movies on planes became more commonplace. That started in 1925, when a film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on an Imperial Airways flight. This went so well that rival airlines began to copy.

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But besides movies, there were soon other sources of entertainment available on many airplanes, too. Passengers could, for example, listen to live radio, giving them access to a range of drama and comedy shows during their flights. Some airlines even organized real-life entertainers to perform for passengers as they flew.

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In-flight entertainment as we know it today came about during the first part of the 1960s. It was then that Transworld Airlines installed a film projection system that inventor David Flexer had been developing for years. The model was given the green light by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1961. And soon after, it was rolled out on a number of flights throughout the United States.

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The age of in-flight movies had well and truly begun, but it wasn’t without its teething problems. Namely, while passengers could see the films fine, listening to them was another story. Engine noise, after all, often drowned out the sound. As a result, airlines began handing out headphones so travelers could hear better.

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Apparently, passengers loved viewing movies on their flights so much, that they would organize their return journeys to avoid seeing the same movie twice. This problem was ultimately addressed though in 1971, after the creation of 8mm film cassettes. This meant that planes could carry many films on board, meaning that crews could switch the onboard screenings more easily.

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Nowadays, in-flight entertainment systems offer much more than films and radio. There’s also music, TV shows and games, all within an arm’s reach of our airplane seats. As a result, passengers have lots to keep them happy during almost any long-haul flight. However, one recent decision by Delta has led to criticism from at least one customer.

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The source of the uproar was an apparent case of in-flight censorship. Airlines have long shown films that have been edited from their original versions. Changes are often made, not only to the length of movies, but also to their content. This is perhaps intended to make features more appropriate for passengers.

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It may be considered reasonable to some people that airlines might want to censor inappropriate content from films. After all, there’s a viewing screen on the back of each and every seat. So, it can be important to shield younger and more sensitive passengers from violence, nudity and potentially offensive humor.

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With that in mind, studios often cut “airline versions” of their leading blockbusters. These modified movies often feature no graphic violence, terrorism, sex scenes or aviation accidents that may upset viewing passengers. Furthermore, there are companies that customize films to make them more suitable for cultures with varying taboos and inclinations.

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Encore Inflight Limited specializes in film distribution for airlines. And in November 2019 the company’s CEO Jovitah Toh explained to the travel advice website The Points Guy how in-flight censorship works. He said, “We offer the airlines the choice of a theatrical/broadcast version or an in-flight edited version.”

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Toh added, “Each airline will provide the distributors with their censorship guidelines. And distributors will work with them on the edits. For example, nudity, implicit sex scenes, religious representations, plane crashes, competitor airlines’ logos, swear words and images or mention of pigs or pork for Muslim carriers are the general items that are edited.”

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Another company called Global Eagle also provides airlines with in-flight entertainment. And Mike Miller, its vice president of corporate communications, revealed that his company offers a similar service as Encore Inflight Limited. As he told The Points Guy, “Each airline has its own requests and we respect our customers’ wishes.”

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Miller explained, “We dub and edit movies for global audiences, including children on board. And at the same time, we are required to obey local laws and local religious sensitivities. That includes for sensitivities across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Middle East and Africa. Each airline has its own requests and we respect our customers’ wishes.”

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In 2017 Miller’s colleague, Amir Samnani, gave an interview to HowStuffWorks. The Global Eagle’s vice president of content services revealed, “You can get away with a lot of stuff on European carriers. Because the countries they represent aren’t as culturally conservative compared to other regions in the world, like Indonesia or the Middle East.”

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Samnani continued, “Airlines fly all over the world nowadays… You can’t say or show something that portrays that you’re insulting a religion or a faith group or any country or any culture.” Samnani added, however, that bad language generally isn’t as much of a problem, though there are always limits.

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No hard rules or laws – in the U.S. or anywhere else – exist that dictate exactly what should be excluded from in-flight movies. But an industry trade group known as the Airline Passenger Experience Association works alongside distributors to create some broad guidelines. However, it’s usually left to individual airlines to make their own censoring decisions.

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And as Delta Airlines now know well, such in-flight censorship can backfire. The issue was seemingly raised by passenger Michaela Barton on Twitter, after she was left disappointed with how film Booksmart had been edited. In particular, she was concerned that gay love scenes had been dropped from the movie.

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Booksmart is a coming-of-age comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as high schoolers who are about to graduate. On their last day, they celebrate by breaking their school’s rules. However, two of the leading actresses also share a lesbian sex scene, which was apparently dropped from the film when it was screened by Delta.

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Writing on Twitter in October 2019 Barton said, “Tried watching Booksmart on the plane and they cut the ENTIRE lesbian hookup scene… like not even a KISS was allowed! Oh, but don’t worry guys, the straights got their kiss.” In a follow-up tweet, she added, “Watched a different film and they had completely unedited [heterosexual] sex scenes, so pretty sure it’s definitely a lesbian bias thing.”

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Barton clarified that she had viewed the edited version of Booksmart on an Etihad flight. However, it was later revealed that Delta had also screened the censored version on its flights, also excluding the gay love scenes. Responding to Barton’s tweet in October 2019, Molly Templeton wrote, “I also just watched it on a Delta flight! So much dialogue was cut from the film, on top of the kissing scene.”

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Needless to say, then, Barton’s complaint about the in-flight censorship of Booksmart caused quite the stir within the online community. And eventually, her post clocked up a considerable 3,700 likes and 254 retweets. Furthermore, her concerns soon even came to the attention of Olivia Wilde, the woman who directed the movie.

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Unsurprisingly, Wilde was disappointed by the in-flight censorship of her directorial debut. And she expressed her chagrin with a tweet of her own, directly responding to Barton’s post. The actress-turned-director wrote, “This is truly a bummer. There is no nudity in this scene. What makes it too obscene for airplane viewing? What airline?”

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Later, it appears that Wilde decided to seek out the edited version of Booksmart that some airlines were using. And she was seemingly not impressed with the cuts that had been made on her film. As a result, she made her feelings known in a series of tweets calling out Delta and other airlines for in-flight censorship.

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In October 2019 Wilde wrote on Twitter, “I finally had the chance to watch an edited version of Booksmart on a flight to see exactly what had been censored. Turns out some airlines work with a third party company that edits the movie based on what they deem inappropriate. Which, in our case, is… female sexuality?”

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Wilde then relayed what she had found. She tweeted, “First of all, in order to select this movie from hundreds of options, you have to agree to a ‘parental advisory’ that warns you that viewer discretion is advised. Once you click ‘proceed’ it seems like you’ve agreed to watch the movie in its original form.”

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However, Wilde went on to reveal exactly how the airline version of Booksmart had been edited. She appeared dismayed that the word “vagina” had been cut, as had the word “genitals.” Many sexual references had also been dropped, as had what Wilde described as a “consensual love scene between two women.”

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Wilde said of the edited version of Booksmart, “Most disappointingly, they cut most of Amy and Hope’s love scene in the bathroom, which involves zero nudity, but does involve an essential plot point for a lead character. Wtfffff. By the way, they didn’t cut ANY cursing. Every ‘f***’ is heard loud and clear, sometimes in the same scene where they muted ‘vagina.’”

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Continuing with her Twitter rant, Wilde wondered exactly how the censoring of Booksmart might impact upon the edited version’s viewers. In fact, she posed online users with the question, “What message is this sending to viewers, and especially to women? That their bodies are obscene? That their sexuality is shameful?”

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Wilde finished her tirade with a plea to the companies that had used the edited version of Booksmart. She said, “I urge every airline, especially those who pride themselves on inclusivity, to stop working with this third party company, and trust the parental advisory warning to allow viewers to opt out if they choose.”

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Wilde also addressed the edited version of Booksmart during an appearance at the 2019 SCAD Savannah Film Festival. She pointed out that the censored film still contained scenes in which male characters acted lewdly, but removed the mention of female body parts and sexuality. As a result, Wilde felt that the edits held a sexual bias.

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Speaking at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival Wilde said, “What we discovered is that on certain planes, this film has been edited in a very slanted manner. That there are certain words and certain scenes that are cut out, that aren’t the swear words. It’s ‘f***, f***, f***’ all day, but they removed the word ‘masturbation,’ they removed the word ‘vagina.’”

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Wilde continued, “So I’m just curious what a woman is supposed to take from that. That it’s an obscenity. That it’s inappropriate. You can say ‘f***, f***, f***,’ but you can’t show the Barbie sequence when they take off their Barbie clothes and have Barbie boobs. Which by design, have no genitals, which is the entire f****** point of the scene.”

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Following Wilde’s complaints Delta issued a statement in which they assured customers that they hadn’t asked for “homosexual content” to be cut from Booksmart. It read, “We value our inflight entertainment options as a means to reflect the diversity of the world… We are reviewing the processes of our third-party editing vendors to ensure that they are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion.”

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This Booksmart episode wasn’t the first time that Delta had faced criticism over in-flight censorship. That’s because the airline had previously showed an edited version of the Elton John biopic Rocketman. This had removed all references to the singer’s sexual orientation and drug use for Russian passengers.

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John later addressed Delta’s inflight censorship of Rocketman in a joint statement with the film’s creators. It said, “The local distributor has edited out certain scenes, denying the audience the opportunity to see the film as it was intended. [This] is a sad reflection of the divided world we still live in and how it can still be so cruelly unaccepting of the love between two people.”

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Following the backlash, however, Delta vowed that it would screen unedited versions of both Rocketman and Booksmart on its flights. In a statement issued to Fox News in November 2019 the airline said it was “immediately putting a new process in place for managing content available through Delta’s entertainment.” It added, “The studio has agreed to provide a special Delta edit that retains the LGBTQ+ love scenes in both Booksmart and Rocketman that will be on our flights as soon as possible.”

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