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Movies, Beliefs, and Dangerous Messages

photograph of a crowd marching the streets dressed as witches and wearing grotesque masks

In spite of being a welcome part of our lives, movies are not always immune from criticism. One of the most recent examples has been the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book “The Witches,” starring Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, who plays the role of the leader of the Witches, is depicted as having three fingers per hand, which disability advocates have criticized as sending a dangerous message. The point, many have argued, is that by portraying someone with limb differences as scary and cruel – as Hathaway’s character is – the movie associates limb differences with negative character traits and depicts people with limb differences as persons to be feared.

Following the backlash, Hathaway has apologized on Instagram, writing:

“Let me begin by saying I do my best to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others not out of some scrambling PC fear, but because not hurting others seems like a basic level of decency we should all be striving for. As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused. I am sorry. I did not connect limb difference with the GHW [Grand High Witch] when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened.”

As Cara Buckley writes in The New York Times, examples of disfigured people being portrayed as evil abound. From Joker in “The Dark Night” to the “Phantom of the Opera,” cases where disabilities are associated with scary features are far from isolated instances. For as much as these concerns regarding “The Witches” might be justified (as I believe they are), critics seem to already anticipate a criticism of their criticism: that the backlash against the movie is exaggerated, and sparked by, to use Hathaway’s words, a “scrambling PC fear.” As Ashley Eakin, who has Ollier disease and Maffucci syndrome, remarks in Buckley’s article, “[o]bviously we don’t want a culture where everyone’s outraged about everything.”

So, is the backlash against the movie exaggerated? I want to suggest here that it is not; I want to suggest that the association between disability and evil portrayed by movies is a real issue, one that connects with recent philosophical discussions. The argument in favor of the dangers of this association seems to be that by portraying people with disabilities as ugly or scary, viewers may internalize that association and then transfer it onto the real world, thus negatively (and unjustly) impacting the way they see people with visible differences. As quoted in Buckley’s piece, Penny Loker, a visible difference advocate, argues that one of the problematic aspects of “The Witches” is that it is a family movie, and this might make the association between limb differences and evil even more pernicious because “kids absorb what they learn, be it through stories we tell or what they learn from their parents.”

Loker’s line of reasoning touches upon an issue that has recently been examined in philosophy and psychology, particularly with respect to how individuals differentiate facts from fiction. Researcher Deena Skolnick Weisberg, for example, who studies imaginative cognition, argues that despite children being competent in distinguishing imagination from reality, they not always and necessarily do so when it comes to consuming fiction. Quoting a study a study from Morison and Gardner (1978), Weisberg suggests that “[e]ven though children tend not to confuse real and fictional entities when asked directly, they do not necessarily see these as natural categories into which to sort entities.” This is made even more acute in the presence of negative emotions. Weisberg says that “[c]hildren are more likely to mis-categorize pretend or fictional entities that have a strong emotional valence, particularly a negative emotional valence.” Weisberg remarks, and this is my own conjecture, seem to be relevant for the depiction of Hathaway as a witch to be afraid of. One may worry that children who are scared of Hathaway’s character might have more difficulties separating fiction from reality, thus making Loker’s concern even more pressing.

If what has been said so far may apply to children, then what about their parents? Intuitively, one would think that when adults know that what they are watching is fictional, then the worry of associating limb differences with evil does not have any application to reality precisely because adults would categorize what they see in the movie as being purely fictional.

Yet, things are not as simple. As philosopher Neil Levy argues, adults are not always good at categorizing mental representations (such as beliefs, desires, or imaginings). Levy’s argument focuses on fake news and suggests that consuming news that we know to be fake does not insulate us from dangerous consequences. Meaning, under certain circumstances we can “acquire” information as well as beliefs even when we know that the “source” is “fictional.” The main context that situates Levy’s argument is fake news, but I think that its conceptual import can teach us something even in the context of movies. If it is true that even adults have a hard time categorizing mental representations when they know they are fake, then this could potentially impact the way adults, similarly to children, absorb what they see when watching films as well as how they employ it in real life.

What should we make of this? I think one important lesson to draw from this reflection is that once the movie industry recognizes the considerable impact their films can have in the way both children and adults internalize what they see, the industry has an obligation to consider the consequences that portraying certain connections can have. Given how viewers absorb what they see, regardless of their age, the movie industry should strive to be more alert and spot problematic associations like this one.

Hollywood Structures: The Age Gap in Relationships

A photo of the Hollywood sign at sunset.

Recently, it was reported that 31-year-old rapper Drake shut down a restaurant in Washington D.C. to take 18 year-old model Bella Harris on a date. And while the pair has denied that a date occurred (Harris doing so on Instagram, saying she had been in New York), Harris also has posted an image on Instagram of the pair embracing with the caption “no place I’d rather be ” While Harris is at the legal age of consent, the pair first met when Harris was 16 years old. And rumors of the two dating become more alarming when looking at some of the pictures she also posted on her Instagram after their first meeting.

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Could Gender-Blind Casting Limit Epistemic Injustice?

Photograph of Edwin Austin Abbey's painting of a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear

Following on the heels of her 2018 Tony award for her role in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Glenda Jackson is set to reprise her portrayal of the title role in King Lear when it comes to Broadway next season. Lear’s extreme emotional range has led many to consider the role to be one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters to portray, but Jackson’s embodiment of the mad king in Deborah Warner’s 2016 production at London’s Old Vic was hailed by audiences and critics alike as an artistic and cultural success. Undoubtedly, Jackson’s talent will once again have an opportunity to shine in New York, but this example of gender-blind casting (Jackson did not play “Queen” Lear) offers an interesting suggestion for addressing a problem within the world of entertainment — one that Miranda Fricker called “hermeneutical marginalization.”

In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Fricker outlined various ways that an individual might be wronged when they face a disadvantage to accessing or sharing knowledge that others can access freely. Some kinds of epistemic injustice are preceded by what Fricker called hermeneutical marginalization, which are particularly evident in the case of marginalized groups, whose reports of mistreatment, for example, might be ignored or minimized by audiences with greater social power. This concept, as explained by Dr. Emily McWilliams on the Examining Ethics podcast, is what happens “when members of non-dominant groups don’t get to fully participate in the process of meaning-making as we develop our shared pool of concepts through which we communicate.”

Many examples of attempts towards this sort of marginalization can be found in wide-spread responses to recent productions of shows like Hamilton, comic books like Thor and Spider-Man, and movies like Star Wars, Ocean’s Eight and the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters. When John Boyega was named as a primary cast member of the then-unreleased Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens in 2015, white supremacists called for a boycott of the franchise on the grounds that it should be “kept white.” Donald Glover endured similarly racist criticisms after he was proposed as a possible choice to take over the role of Spider-Man in 2012, as has the cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway show Hamilton for its re-envisioning of the American founders. When Marvel Comics recast the character of Jane Foster as the new Thor in 2014, detractors criticized the move as “politically correct bullsh**,” a complaint also suffered by the rebooted Oceans Eight and Ghostbusters projects. The upcoming season of the BBC’s Doctor Who that will premiere later this year with Jodie Whittaker at the helm of the T.A.R.D.I.S. faced the same criticism. In particular, the 2016 Ghostbusters film withstood an organized campaign of sexist attacks that was specifically designed to damage the movie’s profitability, even before the film was actually released. In each case, the attempt to remove these criticized women and people of color from the meaning-making process of big-budget storytelling means that they have been likewise victimized by Fricker’s hermeneutical marginalization.

And while endeavors like the Time’s Up campaign and the #MeToo movement have offered opportunities to spread awareness and aid to victims of such marginalization, it seems unlikely that gender-bending reboots hold much promise for changing the landscape of American culture — in fact, as Alexandra Petri has argued, they may actually contribute to the problem of “the male experience being taken as a proxy for the human experience.” Instead of intentional gender-bending, perhaps Glenda Jackson’s gender-blind casting may offer an opportunity to provoke a more widespread “mooreeffoc” moment in the minds of an audience.

Coined by Charles Dickens as reported in his biography by G.K. Chesterton, “mooreeffoc” refers to the sign on the windowed door of a coffee room, read backwards from the inside, to indicate the sudden re-appreciation of something previously taken for granted. Much like how someone might at first be confused, then suddenly pleased to realize that they now understand something obvious in a new light (as when realizing that you can, in fact, read an at-first-confusing sign), the mooreeffoc moment comes uncontrollably when one recovers a “freshness of vision” (to quote J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the effect) about something previously considered trite.

This is what is needed for representation in Hollywood and beyond: not simply more diverse roles and casts (although that is certainly crucial), but the proper appreciation of those casts on the part of the public at large. Though Fricker promoted a “virtue of hermeneutical justice” wherein sensitivity to “some sort of gap in the collective hermeneutical resources” might function to offset or even prevent the harms done by hermeneutical injustices like marginalization, gender-bending casting decisions do not seem to serve such a purpose. Unfortunately, dominant groups — members of which would do well to reconsider their marginalizing attitudes and actions – will likely continue to raise questions (however unfounded) of political intentions and suspicious concerns over subversive messaging surrounding these roles. Indeed, gender-bending productions may currently be too charged to promote reflective considerations that could precipitate a mooreeffoc.

Yet gender-blind casting might bypass such accusations entirely with its firm foundation on simple actorial merit. Although many may not realize it, gender or race-blind casting has led to some of the more memorable roles in cinematic history, such as Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Red in The Shawshank Redemption and Sigourney Weaver’s depiction of Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. Certainly, if diverse representation is to truly become more common in Western entertainment, then even resistant audiences must come to have a freshness of vision about the possibilities for the depiction of fictional characters (and, by extension, individuals in general). Particularly in light of research that indicates the empathy-promoting power of literature and immersive storytelling, proving to suspicious members of dominant social groups that members of marginalized groups perform perfectly well in the same roles might offer the very wedge needed to provoke a mooreeffoc moment. If gender-blind-casting could bring about this effect even if only for a time — therefore offering an alternative pathway to promote a more equitable entertainment industry — then it seems like it would be worth considering more frequently.

When Men Dominate the Film Industry, What’s the Problem?

Watching the Oscars recently, I was struck by the fact that, for all the emphasis on women over the last year because of the #metoo movement, the winners were still mostly a parade of men. Greta Gerwig did not win for her wonderful movie Lady Bird; Guillermo Del Toro won for the overly contrived movie The Shape of Water. Yes, there were female winners in the acting categories, but there have to be: those categories are gender-segregated.

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Harvey Weinstein and Addressing Hollywood’s Unacceptable Reality

A photo of the Hollywood sign at sunset.

On October 5, The New York Times released a report detailing various instances of sexual assault perpetrated by Hollywood director and executive, Harvey Weinstein, on many of his female colleagues. The allegations span over a period of 30 years, as Weinstein’s power in the film industry protected him from consequences. “Movies were his private leverage,” the report reads, as Weinstein often offered promotions and bonuses to his female colleagues in exchange for sexual acts, and silenced those who spoke out with payments that ranged between $80,000 and $150,000.

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Hollywood Needs Diverse Directors

Recently, we have seen some upward changes to the Hollywood film industry. For example, six Black actors from four movies were nominated for this year’s Oscar awards, unlike the past two #OscarsSoWhite years. These nominated movies are about, directed by and/or starred by Black people. The 68th Emmy Awards nominees and winners are also a diverse group of actors and actresses. But has the industry really become more inclusive?

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Apocalypse Now: Hollywood and the End of the World

Few events are as captivating of the human imagination as the apocalypse. Whether seen in ancient religious texts or modern novels and video games, on some level it seems we’re all concerned with and captivated by how it’s all going to end. But when such a fascination begins to reflect real life, are there any ethical concerns to address?

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