Why do we put up with unethical behavior in films and television?
Why do we laugh at the unethical and cruel in comedies? Are we released from moral responsibility because it’s all in fun? Comedies are a release from the tedium of our daily existence. One of the reasons they are funny and entertaining is that the rules that normally apply to us, temporarily have no effect. In real life, we don’t laugh at someone falling down. It’s a tragedy. but pratfalls have been a staple of comedies from the beginning.
It’s also an opportunity to humiliate the villain. And authority. From the Keystone cops to the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we delight in seeing power humiliated and brought down. Kids vs. adults. Workers vs. Management. Husbands vs. wives. Children vs schools and parents. It’s a way of getting rid of conflict, dealing with it. Who cannot be punished in real life can be defeated in the world of fiction.
Corporations and the world of finance are major, constant villains in films and television. While in reality, the major figures in these powerful institutions are largely immune to prosecution, make enormous sums of money and are morally oblivious to their actions, in film after film they get their comeuppance. If there is little justice in reality, there is a great deal in fiction. It is a reflection of the powerlessness of the general public that justice has become a fictional concept like angels and wizards.
But what is to be done about our acceptance of cruelty and unethical behavior in film? Some of us can develop analysis skills that the brain can not turn off during the viewing of visual entertainment. Television and movies tend to go past the thinking parts of the brain and straight into the unconscious. We can learn to interfere with this process and think about what we are seeing with a critical eye but only a few will manage this. What is to be done?
Societies have to attack a lack of ethics in entertainment across long periods of time by a consensus view that change is necessary. Remember that fifty years ago most humor was ethnic full of degrading jokes about stupid Blacks, penny pinching Scots, drunk Irishmen, cat eating Chinese, etc. It took time and persistence but that kind of humor to pass away. In that sense, we have made ethical progress. Cigarette smoking and jokes about rape have largely disappeared from the media. That is also progress.
I would not go back to the film censorship of the twenties and thirties. I appreciate realism in films. But unethical behavior is portrayed so often as normal that I worry about the effect on thinking. Harming people or their possessions is not funny. Most people are able to make the distinction between reality and fiction, but not all. I believe we should take a more active role in deciding what is acceptable behavior in our media.
… The true source of this movie’s evil lies in what I can only, at the risk of sounding priggish, call its value system. Simply put, all of these people are horrible to each other, and only about 10 percent of that horribleness is ever acknowledged. Every relationship in the film is crassly transactional: When Danny takes Katherine shopping to outfit her for a single appearance as his wife, she exploits the opportunity to the hilt, loading him down with bags containing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases. Later, one of her children blackmails Danny into buying them all tickets to Hawaii; he complies resentfully. None of this angling for expensive presents is presented as greedy or materialistic in the least; it’s just the way people with less money get what they want from people with more. Danny, for his part, takes advantage of his position as sugar daddy to insult and abuse his whole entourage of traveling companions. He’s so consistently awful that, when he briefly manages to treat the children with mildly avuncular jollity, his harem (which is how I came to think of the Aniston/Decker dyad) coos over him as if he’s just cured polio.
Which brings us to the movie’s treatment of women: Hoo boy. Where to begin? Major plot points hinge on the understanding that Jennifer Aniston is a frumpy old hag who can only earn the longed-for prize of being leered at by creeps when she doffs her clothes to reveal an unexpectedly slammin’ bikini body. (The fact that said leering happens in the company of the Aniston character’s son adds an extra-unsavory twist.) In not one but two scenes, one scantily clad woman is explicitly and lengthily compared to another by an audience consisting mainly of men. The second of those scenes—in which Aniston competes in a hula contest with Kidman—also makes a point of casually insulting old or fat women, who are peremptorily booted off the stage for insufficient hotness. As for the movie’s treatment of race, suffice it to say that in those rare moments when Hawaiian and other nonwhite characters appear, they’re generally depicted as obese buffoons.
The trailer from the film: