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The Ethics of Reproducing Trauma in Celebrity Biopics

photograph of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee

Practically every streaming service available has a new biopic revisiting celebrity scandals or scandals that turned former unknowns into cultural villains. Hulu just released The Dropout, a series that focuses on the infamous Elizabeth Holmes who lied about the effectiveness of her company’s game-changing blood test for diagnosing diseases. Netflix just released both Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler exposing the rise and fall of two con artists turned elite socialites. A number of other biopics are set to be released this year covering music stars like Elvis and Bob Dylan as well as documenting the important stories of Emmet Till and the journalists who broke the story on Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood. As this wave of series and films are released, it is important to remember that these depictions memorialize difficult personal moments and are often told from a very specific angle – whether it be sympathetic or not to their subjects. The act of trying to tell other people’s real-life stories raises a multitude of questions about the ethics of taking a private event and turning it into a public spectacle. These questions become particularly pertinent when the biopics are made without the consent of the subject they are covering.

Obviously, there are many things to be gained from films and television that cover real historical events and people. After all, Schindler’s List – considered one of the most important movies ever made – is a historical drama that explores the tragedy and resistance in Nazi Germany, as well as the brave efforts of Oskar Schindler, a real man who saved Jewish people during WWII. The film covers one of the most traumatic events in modern human history, yet surely no one would argue against making a film such as this.

A more recent example of such a successful historical biopic is the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. The film depicts the violence that Black Americans faced in the 1960s from governmental organizations trying to quell the civil rights movement. Fred Hampton’s end is, tragically, also a traumatic one, but is one that a majority of Americans need to see in order to unlearn a white-washed version of American history. The movie’s makers were able to get permission from Hampton’s family to produce his story on screen, but securing consent from the subject or subject’s family is not always an option. Does that mean that the film shouldn’t be made? Surely the subjects of The Dropout and Tinder Swindler would rather not have their crimes brought to the screen.

What happens when filmmakers reach out for consent, but are denied? Studios have to weigh the risk of not getting permission from the subject and then potentially being sued later for defamation if the subject objects to the way that they were portrayed. Oftentimes, however, these cases get thrown out because it can be particularly hard to prove defamation, especially if the story is already well-known. The other option that studios have is to buy the life rights to a story. Life rights offer multiple benefits for studios because they provide legal protection and insider-access to the subject in a competitive movie-making market. These legal protections allow studios to exercise a good deal of creative license over a story, which often strays from the truth of actual events. Yet, they are still able to claim that their film is based off of a true story, which often lends extra significance to a story.

Ultimately, asking for subjects’ consent in film-making is treated more as a friendly gesture than a priority. The current state of affairs leaves very little room for the actual subject to have any sort of agency over how their story is told, especially when they are up against multi-million movie production companies. While studios may claim they are simply producing art, in the 21st century it is highly possible that an audience would take what they see on-screen at face value, especially when it is labeled a true story.

There are two very recent examples of this sort of conflict in the film House of Gucci and the Hulu series Pam & Tommy. In the first, the story of Patrizia Reggiani’s plot to assassinate the heir of the Gucci legacy, Maurizio Gucci, in the 1990s. The film featured an all-star cast with the role of Patrizia being played by Lady Gaga, who created an internet frenzy when it was revealed Gaga did not want to meet the character she was playing in the film. While Gaga had her own fair reasons for not wanting to meet the convicted murderer, Reggiani has criticized Gaga’s decision to not reach out. Meanwhile, the Gucci family has been vocal in their criticism of the film, particularly the sympathetic view the movie takes toward Reggiani as a woman trying to climb a patriarchal ladder. They also charged the film with chasing profits first and foremost, without a thought as to the potential impact the film might have on the family. In response to this criticism, director Ridley Scott only pointed out that the Gucci family has its own history of profit-seeking, which has placed them in the “public domain.” We might wonder, however, whether this reasoning is enough to outweigh the potentially traumatic impact of seeing their family member’s murder played out on the big screen. What obligations might filmmakers have when telling someone else’s story – especially a version they can sell to the public?

The new Hulu series, Pam & Tommy (2021), complicates this question even further as Pamela Anderson not only refused to give consent to the show, but has also spoken out about the trauma she endured. The release of the tape over two decades ago forever scarred her life as Anderson faced all manner of slut-shaming, misogyny, and invasions of privacy. Of course, as her career plummeted, her abusive partner in the tape only gained more status to his rock ‘n’ roll image.

All of this was mostly forgotten by younger generations who might’ve never even known the names otherwise. But Hulu’s series drudges up the sordid details and presents them anew. While showrunners claim to be defending Anderson in a way that she was not in the early 2000s, the series still does harm by simply revisiting all of this past trauma and bringing it to the forefront of headlines and social media. The reactions of Anderson and Lee make it clear who still benefits from this production. While Tommy Lee has praised the actor portraying him, Anderson posted to Instagram about refusing to be victimized once again, and continues to identify herself as a survivor. Anderson has also revealed that she’ll will be able to make her own documentary that truly tells the tale from her perspective. Will shining a new light on the story justify its production?

Anderson’s case is especially troubling because of the potential retruamatization. The Gucci family too stand to be deeply impacted, not only emotionally, but also financially by their family’s, and brand’s, name being dragged by a Hollywood film. These productions raise serious concerns over the lack of agency that one can have over how their story is told. What are the ethical boundaries of memorializing someone’s darkest moment for the world to see? What sort of responsibilities should showrunners be held to when attempting to produce “true” versions of someone else’s tale? And what might it say about modern society that we are so hungry for these fictionalized accounts of other people’s lives that they’ve become such lucrative projects?

Praise and Resentment: The Moral of ‘Bad Art Friend’

black-and-white photograph of glamorous woman looking in mirror

The story of the “Bad Art Friend” has taken social media by storm. For those who have yet to brave the nearly 10,000 word New York Times article, here is a summary of the tale: Dawn Dorland, a writer, decided to donate one of her kidneys after completing her M.F.A. She kept her social media friends abreast of her donation and surgery, and noticed (some time after the donation) that one of her friends had failed to comment on the donation. Dorland wrote to the friend (Sonya Larson, herself a writer) asking her why she hadn’t said anything about Dorland’s altruistic activities. They exchanged pleasantries, Sonya praised her for her sacrifice, and all seemed well. Several months later, however, Sonya published a short story inspired by Dorland’s kidney donation which set off a bevy of legal and relational blows involving multiple lawsuits and, potentially, ruined careers.

There are a slew of ethical issues and questions embedded in the text and subtext of this story: questions about the differences between plagiarism and inspiration, questions about appropriate boundaries in friendships and acquaintanceships, and questions about the legality and propriety of lawsuits. But a majority consensus has seemed to emerge about the protagonist of this story: almost universally, readers are not on the side of Dawn Dorland.

Elizabeth Bruenig, in an op-ed for The Atlantic, describes Dorland as the “patron-saint” of our “social-media age,” emphasizing the description is not a complement. She characterizes Dorland’s initial behavior towards Larson as follows:

“Dorland, in particular, went looking for [victimhood], soliciting Larson for a reason the latter hadn’t congratulated her for her latest good deed, suspecting—rightly—a chillier relationship than collegial email etiquette would suggest. She kept seeking little indignities to be wounded by—and she kept finding them. Her retaliations quickly outpaced Larson’s offenses, such as they were.”

Bruenig is right that Dorland considered herself to be wronged by Larson’s apparent apathy. And insofar as we find it implausible that Larson really did wrong her in this way, it is understandable why Bruenig might analyze the situation as one in which Dorland sought out a kind of victimhood status. This may explain part of why Dorland’s behavior immediately turns us off — looking for victimhood, or claiming it too quickly, seems like a kind of injustice to those who really are victims of really bad actions or circumstances. In diverting attention to extremely mild wrongs (if they were wrongs at all) done to herself, Dorland distracts people from truly awful situations that merit their consideration. Human attention is zero-sum: if I am paying attention to you, then that means I am not paying attention to something else. So, there is a consequentialist argument to be made that I should not seek out “victimhood” status and, thereby, attention, if the public’s attention would be better spent elsewhere.

Yet, Bruenig’s analysis does not consider the fact that our mild disgust at Dorland begins even before she voices her complaints to Larson. They begin even before she speaks to Larson at all. They begin where Dorland seeks out praise and attention for her (admittedly very brave) act of donating her kidney. But did Dorland actually do anything wrong in seeking out praise for her praise-worthy act? Does our disgust stem from genuine moral assessment, or a deeper kind of resentment of people who act more selflessly than we do?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant theorized that it was morally impermissible to treat others as a mere means to our own ends — we must always consider them to be intrinsically valuable creatures themselves, and our actions must reflect this. We may, therefore, think that Dorland’s seeking of praise for her donation indicates that she was using the kidney recipient as a mere means to gaining praise, popularity, or notoriety.

Still, it is not clear that Kant’s concepts would apply in this case. Dorland’s donation of her kidney indicates that, while she may have used the opportunity as a means to other social ends, she was not using the recipient merely as a means — in saving his life, she acted toward him in acknowledgement of his value as a person. There is nothing in Kant’s moral philosophy which prohibits us from using people to attain our ends, so long as we respect them as persons while doing so.

From a utilitarian perspective, seeking praise for your good works may even maximize happiness, meaning that it would be the morally correct thing to do. For example, by seeking praise for your honorable deeds, you may draw attention to what you did, encouraging others to display the same amount of selflessness and charity. Additionally, you yourself would derive happiness from the praise, and it doesn’t seem that anybody would lose happiness by praising you. Therefore, it seems that seeking such accolades may benefit everyone and harm no one.

A virtue ethical approach to the issue may seem to yield different results. After all, surely there is something unvirtuous about someone who seeks out praise for supposedly altruistic actions? Many consider humility to be a virtue, and Dorland’s constant social media updates and attention-seeking behavior seem to indicate a lack of humility in her character. Perhaps we are turned off by the desire for praise because it indicates a character vice: pompousness, perhaps, or neediness.

And yet, historically virtue ethicists have praised the (appropriate) seeking of praise. In his Nicomachean Ethics, book four, Aristotle calls it the virtue of “small honors,” which we might more simply understand as the virtue of seeking to do, and be rewarded for, honorable things. Of course, Aristotle still holds that I should not seek praise for things that are not praiseworthy, nor should I act in praiseworthy ways purely for the praise. Still, seeking honor (and the praise that arguably ought to go with it) in moderate amounts is a virtue. At least for Aristotle.

There is a case to be made that our distaste for those who seek praise has a distinctly Christian origin. In Christian scriptures — specifically, the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6 — Jesus preaches against seeking recognition for acts of charity:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

In the Christian tradition, the idea is that those who seek recognition from others in the here and now eliminate their opportunity to build character and, perhaps, gain other spiritual rewards. One may have earthly, social rewards, or longer-lasting spiritual rewards, but one may not have both.

Yes, I suspect there are many who would not claim Christianity who nevertheless are repelled by the idea of someone asking for praise for donating a kidney. Those familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings will recall his extensive critique of Christian moral thought which, he wrote, “has waged deadly war against this higher type of man; placed all the basic instincts of his type under ban” (The Anti-Christ, p. 5). Nietzsche argued that traditional Christian morality — which he referred to as “slave morality” — served only to make humans weak, powerless, and full of resentment at those who were powerful and flourishing. One can imagine a Nietzschean critique of our distaste for those announcing their good deeds in the public square: perhaps, rather than a kind of virtuous disgust, what we are truly experiencing is resentment toward someone acting with more courage than we have.

No matter your opinion on Bad Art Friend and all the drama that story contains, it is worth reflecting on how we respond when someone announces their good deeds to the public. Why do we prefer discretion? What is wrong with desiring praise and honor? These questions may be worth investigating deeper, lest we act in ordinary human resentment rather than careful moral consideration.

The Ethics of Telling All: What’s at Stake in Memoir Writing?

Photograph of author Karl Ove Knausgard standing, holding a microphone, and reading from a book where the title "My Struggle" is visible

When Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard published the first volume of his My Struggle series in 2009 it was a startling commercial success, but also a personal disaster. Knausgaard’s infamous six-part series of autobiographical novels (titled Min Kamp in Norwegian) recounts the “banalities and humiliations” of his private life. While My Struggle is classified as a “novel”, it is described by Pacific Standard as a “barely-veiled but finely-rendered memoir”. After his first two fictional novels A Time for Everything (1998) and Out of This World (2004) received critical acclaim in Norway, Knausgaard found that he was “sick of fiction” and set out to write exhaustively about his own life. Consequently, My Struggle reveals his father’s fatal spiral into alcoholism, the failures of his first marriage, the boredom of fatherhood, the manic depression of his second wife, and much more.  “Autofiction” has become an increasingly mainstream mode of contemporary writing, but how authors should balance the ethical dilemma of exposing the private life of their friends and family remains unclear.

The first book of the My Struggle series, titled A Death in the Family, meticulously chronicles the slow, pitiful demise of Knausgaard’s alcoholic father. When Knausgaard first shared the manuscripts of his work with relatives, his father’s side of the family called it “verbal rape” and attempted a lawsuit to stop publication. Under the weight of bitter family and legal action, Knausgaard was forced to change the names of My Struggle and refers to the villainous alcoholic of the novel only as “father”. For Knausgaard, the suppression of true names weakened the goal of his novel: “to depict reality as it was.”

The issue with ‘reality’, however, is that everyone seems to have their own version. Part of the legal action against My Struggle were defamation claims disputing the circumstances surrounding the death of Knausgaard’s father. In another dispute over reality, Knausgaard’s first ex-wife recorded a radio documentary, titled Tonje’s Version, where she details the trauma of having her personal life publicly exposed. What’s striking about the documentary is Tonje’s point that her own memories came second to Knausgaard’s art. For Knausgaard, depicting reality meant his own reality. But, if memory is colored from our own perspective, how much claim can he have on what’s ‘true’ and not? Hari Kunzru writes in an article for The Guardian, “But he [Knausgaard] is, inevitably, an unreliable narrator. How could he not be? We live a life of many dinners, many haircuts, many nappy changes. You can’t narrate them all. You pick and choose. You (in the unlovely vernacular of our time) curate.”

Even when people accept the ‘truth’ presented by a memoir it can damage and destroy personal relationships. Knausgaard was married to his second wife, Linda, while writing My Struggle. After Linda read Knausgaard’s frank account of their marriage in his manuscript, she called him and said their relationship could never be romantic again. The media storm generated from the first few books of the series led to Linda having a nervous breakdown and divorcing Knausgaard. In an interview, Knausgaard admits to striking a Faustian deal with the publication of My Struggle saying, “I have actually sold my soul to the devil. That’s the way it feels. Because . . . I get such a huge reward.”, while “the people I wrote about get the hurt.” My Struggle is now an international bestseller and revered as one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the 21st century, yet on the final page of My Struggle Knausgaard admits “I will never forgive myself”. Critical acclaim and popular fame could not justify the damage done to Knausgaard and his family, but can anything positive emerge from the pain of writing such an unforgiving memoir?

Ashley Barnell, a contributor to The Conversation, writes in an essay, “By representing the conflicts and silences that families live with writers can introduce more diverse and honest accounts of family life into public culture.” From Instagram photos to popular humor people work hard to hide what hurts and feign happiness. As a collective unit, families are no exception. Norway found My Struggle particularly scandalous because of its violation of family privacy, which an article by The Guardian says was “profoundly shocking to the Lutheran sensibilities of a country that is less comfortable with public confessions than the Oprah-soaked anglophone world”. Knausgaard’s reckless exposition does not simply leave behind the outward facing mask individuals and families show the rest of the world, it shatters it all together and instead exposes deliberately, albeit painfully, the reality of one’s life.

Thematically speaking, shame is a core aspect of My Struggle. “Concealing what is shameful to you,” Knausgaard reflects, “will never lead to anything of value.” In a piece of literary criticism, Odile Heynders writes that shame in My Struggle, “. . . is connected to questions of humanness, humanity and humility. The capacity for shame makes the protagonist fragile, as it constitutes an acute state of sensitivity”. Advocates of literary fiction often cite its ability to increase one’s capacity for empathy. The shame and sensitivity of My Struggle, mixed with a self-deprecating humor, similarly accomplishes this feat by bringing readers to consider their own openness about pain they have both felt and delt. Barnell’s essay also points out that “The memoirist’s candid account of family struggles can destigmatize taboo topics – such as divorce, sexuality, and suicide.” In My Struggle, tough subjects like alcoholism, manic depression, existential dread, and broken relationships are not constructed neatly within the pages of fictional novel, but laid bare in their honest existence.

My Struggle, which has sold over half a million copies in Norway alone, may be helpful in encouraging more candid discussions of emotional pain. Yet, those whose private lives are thrust into the spotlight through nonfiction writing can be deeply disrupted. I think Knausgaard would argue that, to move past pain, it must be addressed in its most raw, authentic form. However, not everyone may be looking for such a public reconciliation. Authors working with the powerful mode of tell-all memoirs should consider the wellbeing of those immediately affected by publication and then the work’s potential benefit to the rest of the world.