Delta Air Lines is having an apocalyptically bad day, as all flights have been grounded due to a power outage in all systems — but maybe if outages had only hit the carrier’s in-flight entertainment system, it might have been an improvement? Late last week, it came to light that Delta has been airing an edited version of last year’s lesbian film Carol in which not just sex, but all kissing was removed. The omission was discovered by women reporting on Twitter about their viewings on Delta flights, and the cuts were confirmed by the film’s screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who offered United and American Airlines as examples of domestic carriers who chose to air the theatrical release.
As reported by the lesbian media outlet AfterEllen, Delta received a complaint about the film’s censorship back in April, and sent out a statement to the customer apologizing for the film’s editing. In a statement given to MTV, a Delta spokesperson explained that there were two versions of the film being offered by the film’s distributor, and due to the company’s stance on nudity, the edited version was chosen. Delta did not reedit the film themselves, and had no part in the choice to exclude kissing:
“If we were worried about kissing we wouldn’t be showing the film, but because there are scenes with more than a few seconds of nudity, we opted for the edited version instead of the theatrical version.”
Though it has long been documented that queer films receive harsher ratings from censorship boards, queer films are by no means the only movies subject to editing or censorship. Regardless of content, David Lean’s sprawling CinemaScope epic Lawrence of Arabia was edited to fit full-screen TVs — and that was after it spent years being played in a reedited and truncated studio edit. And while sexuality is a frequent target, language is maybe the most prevalent version of censorship. Kill Bill’s Bride drove off in the “Party Wagon” if you were to believe what aired on some basic cable networks. It’s true too that for some films, censorship is an opportunity to make a creative contribution, as elements can be eliminated in such a way that the omission ends up highlighting qualities that are already present in the movie. Removing the swearing from Snakes on a Plane only adds to the movie’s deranged quality — who can forget the delight of watching Samuel L. Jackson curse the “monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane?!” Likewise, spotting the digital bras on all the strippers in Showgirls becomes just another party game, right alongside quoting the movie’s majestically campy dialogue and imitating its equally majestic acting.
Planes have been censoring movies since the days when in-flight entertainment meant a screen rolled down at the front of economy, eighth-grade presentation style. Delta’s last major brush with the practical need for censorship came in 2013 when a flight was grounded after the thriller Alex Cross played on drop-down screens — much to the horror of parents aboard the flight who were unable to stop their young children from seeing the images of sexual violence contained in the PG-13 film. Since then the airline has made in-flight entertainment both free and for the most part individual, with seatback screens available on most Delta flights. But even when watching a movie on an individual screen, the obvious limitations of space that come from hurdling through space in a tiny tube make in-flight entertainment to some extent public, even when you’ve made a private purchase.
In the seatback screen era, films like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have been the subject of censorship woes on international airlines and in theaters. But while arguments of cultural relativism might have made showing an edited version of Carol more logical for international flights, it was domestic carriers that were affected by Delta’s decision — and given the film’s impact within American lesbian culture, its censorship feels symptomatic of more than just one airline’s nudity policies.
The movie Carol is based on the novel The Price of Salt, which was the first lesbian novel to be published in the United States that featured a happy ending in which the women didn’t go crazy, kill themselves, break up, or return to the loving arms of a man. At the time, the novel’s author, the famed crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, published the novel under a pseudonym with a minor publishing house after her representatives at Harper & Brothers rejected the novel because they didn’t want it to be associated with Highsmith’s lucrative (still queer, but straight-passing) crime brand.
Highsmith’s novel approached queer romance from the inside, and she presents the overheated rationalization of a lover as not too far off from the overheated rationalizations of her murderers. As such, it’s an internal novel, consumed with the private threads of a romantic mind. In adapting the novel, filmmaker Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy removed the internal monologue that defines the novel and instead focused on portraying the same passion without words. The camera sometimes places us inside the characters’ points of view, with detailed close-ups mirroring the inspecting eyes of the amorous partner — but more often we spy on the protagonists through windows and doorways, across rooms, from different booths in the same restaurants. Where the novel concerns itself only with private desire, the movie gives us the perspective of both the lovers and the people they understand to be watching them. It’s this exploration of private passion in public space that makes the movie relevant to modern interests, despite its 1950s setting. That Delta should be facing controversy over censored sexual content is the height of irony if only because Carol anticipates the controversy in its own story. Carol is about exactly the kinds of codes to public behavior that make something as simple as going to lunch or watching a movie on a plane into a negotiation of public identity for queer people.
The question of queer space has changed since Carol’s 1950s setting, when queerness was illegal in the eyes of the state and immoral in the eyes of society. Since gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, queer people’s right to a state-approved union has been confirmed. But public space remains contentious. Trans women are still routinely misidentified and housed incorrectly in state facilities like hospitals or prisons. It is still legal in most states to deny a queer person housing based on their sexuality or gender presentation. Just in the last year, a national debate was started over trans people’s right to use a bathroom that reflects their identity. And over this summer, the deadliest mass shooting in America’s history proceeded as an invasion of an Orlando gay bar’s Latin night.
By comparison, not being able to watch movie kissing on a plane is a minor concession to the market — until you remember that what’s being censored in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is beaver shots and anal rape, not making out. In the lesbian community — where the market has already prompted mass closings of lesbian bars thanks to the gentrification of historically gay neighborhoods, where sweeps weeks and season finales are all too often spiced up with the deaths of lesbian characters, where job discrimination is still fighting its way out in the courts — cutting kisses is just another reminder that your right to public space is contingent on the comfort of casual observers.