Maleficent, the frightening, evilly beautiful villain of the 1959 film "Sleeping Beauty," is portrayed as a complex, sympathetic character in Disney's newest film. As the movie's narrator describes her: "Our kingdom was united not by a hero or a villain but a hero who was a villain."
Obviously "Maleficent," released in theaters May 29, is not a typical fairytale. But it is part of a growing trend on big and small screens of moral ambiguity — main characters and plots that blur the line between good and evil, unlike their more traditional, black-and-white superhero or princess counterparts.
Moral ambiguity isn't a new storytelling device; it's been used in literature for thousands of years from the Bible's Old Testament to Shakespeare's plays. But the popularity of morally ambiguous TV shows and films has some worried that the trend could lead to greater moral relativity in society. Other observers of modern culture, however, contend the comparatively young and evolving visual media of television and film are simply reflecting reality with story lines that still contain absolute moral principles.
"The popular (morally ambiguous) TV shows and films of today are popular because they are touching upon issues that we, in the culture, are conflicted about," said Richard Krevolin, a screenwriter and former adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Cinema/TV School. "In doing so, they allow us to work out these issues for ourselves."
"Breaking Bad," an award-winning and record-setting TV series about a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug dealer, is an example of popular morally ambiguous entertainment.
But why do viewers enjoy watching anti-heroes like Walter White, the meth-cooking, drug-selling murderer in "Breaking Bad"? Or a character like Don Draper of the series "Mad Men," who lies and cheats?
Part of the reason is viewers believe these characters are more realistic, said Barna Donovan, an associate communication professor who teaches a course examining ethics in entertainment at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.
Donovan explained half of his students mention they like morally relativistic films and TV shows because they show the world is not filled with "Hitlers and Mother Theresas, where everyone is a demon or a pure saint."
"We're living in a morally ambiguous world where most of the solutions to life and death problems — like crime, terrorism, national security — don't have clear-cut answers. It's really difficult to decide what is the right thing to do," said Donovan.
Krevolin agreed these characters are more realistic and engaging.
"(Morally ambiguous characters) are appealing to us because all of us are neither pure saints nor pure sinners," he said. "Hence, we can connect most easily with those characters onscreen who are like us. And when these characters deal with moral ambiguity, it helps us deal with similar ambiguities in our lives."
Viewers are not repelled by morally ambiguous entertainment because they are willing to forgive characters for bad actions if the characters' motivations are good, said Maja Krakowiak, assistant professor of communication at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who researches entertainment and morality.
"Walter White, for example, cooks methamphetamine, but he started doing it because he had cancer … (and) he wanted to provide for his family. And we're very swayed by the motivations of characters," Krakowiak said. "People are willing to excuse any kind of bad behavior."
She added her most recent research, which is under review for publication, indicates people feel better about their own morality after watching or reading about morally ambiguous characters.
"People who are feeling bad about themselves for something that they've done may feel better after reading a story about a morally ambiguous character because they're comparing themselves, perhaps, with this character," said Krakowiak.
Literature vs. film
Sean Fitzpatrick, a writer whose work on media and religion has appeared in Crisis Magazine and The Catholic Exchange, said morally ambiguous characters like Walter White and Don Draper have been entertaining and challenging audiences for centuries. For example, Shakespeare's Macbeth was an anti-hero, he said, and the "tragic hero is traditionally an appealing, sympathetic character."
"There is some mysterious quality of the soul that finds appeal in witnessing the downfall of a good man," Fitzpatrick said.
But morally ambiguous films and TV shows are different than literature because the two media have distinct histories, explained Timothy Kleiser, a writer with graduate degrees in theology and philosophy who is working toward a doctorate in theological anthropology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
"One the one hand, literature and film are very alike in that they both transmit moral values," said Kleiser. "Like any good literary work, movies tell stories about individuals who face obstacles and attempt to achieve some desired outcome. ... Like literature, movies are stories that teach moral lessons — no matter how big or small the lesson may be."
However, literature's history that has long included different "cultural contributions, philosophical assumptions and moral viewpoints," while films have have been more "restricted to the gradual moral developments that have taken place in American culture," according to Kleiser.
"With its origins in Hollywood, film history is closely tied to American history. And since American culture has historically been steeped in Judeo-Christian values, the early history of film tended to reflect these values," he said. "As America has become more secularized, cinematic depictions of absolute, biblically based morals have given way to depictions of postmodernism with its stories of moral liberation and self-actualization."
A 'moral miasma'
Fitzpatrick fears Western society has lost the idea of "an objective good" as culture becomes more relativistic. He explained since people are losing their moral compasses, morally ambiguous films — such as "The Dark Knight" and "Gladiator" — are harmful to modern viewers because the majority cannot understand the complex moral messages in these movies and make moral judgements.
"The result is a growing moral miasma that society is unable to discern. The bottom line is if people are struggling to find the good, why give them mixed messages on how to acquire it or what it even is to begin with?" he said.
The lack of moral education, along with "abuse of artistic responsibility," is to blame for people's inability to distinguish good from evil, said Fitzgerald.
"If the common man is not given an education rooted in those eternal standards whereby he may judge material conditions, then he will be a brute," he said.
However, Donovan said such criticisms may fall under the third-person effect theory. This theory, which was first expressed by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, postulates people believe mass media has a greater effect on others than themselves.
"People usually think they're too intelligent to be affected personally by the media," said Donovan, who jokingly dubbed the third-person effect "the self-righteous theory."
"You always think you're smart enough to tell reality from entertainment. … You're concerned (other) people are going to be negatively affected and they're going to cause all kinds of damage to society," he said.
For good or ill, morally ambiguous characters (and anti-heroes in particular) are likely to remain popular for some time, Donovan predicted.
"We have this popularity of anti-hero entertainment on television and things like 'Mad Men' and 'Sons of Anarchy' (where) the main characters now are the kind of characters that used to be the villains in the past. ... So I think that's going to be a trend in the future," he said.
Filmmakers could put an end to this trend (and stop contributing to moral ambiguity in society) by creating art with clearer moral messages, according to Fitzpatrick. "All art is rhetoric and has a persuasive and didactic power. Filmmakers should wield their art with a gravity that is truly and accurately commensurate to the issues of modern society."
"The reality of evil can indeed — and should — have a place in the visual arts, in the mindset of society, but such efforts (by filmmakers) should at least meet people where they are instead of offering situations and concepts that are beyond the ken of the average consumer," he said.
But ethics are not dead in American film and TV shows, according to Kleiser. He pointed out movies with anti-heroes whose opponents are morally worse as well as films that include characters acting badly for good reasons (e.g., "The Hunger Games" and "Gran Torino") demonstrate Americans still believe in absolute principles. They just see these principles through a different lens.
"Rather than basing moral absolutes on something outside of us, like the Bible, we look inside of us and rely on our own intuition to determine what is ultimately right and wrong," said Kleiser. "In these (type of movies), ethical choices are not black-and-white but are Technicolor because while moral principles exist, circumstances might cause a higher principle to override the normal principle."
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