Back to Prindle Institute

“Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen at a red carpet event

Last week marked the first season finale of Sacha Baron Cohen’s reality television show, Who Is America. The show, which premiered on Showtime early in July, is based on the premise of pranking American politicians, reporters, and even everyday voters into saying or doing embarrassing things on camera. Cohen’s victims have included former Senatorial candidate from Alabama Roy Moore, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, and football star and accused murderer O.J. Simpson.

Continue reading ““Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit”

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.

The Moral Messages of Violence in Media

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Season two of the The Handmaid’s Tale returns with darker themes and more overt torture and sexual violence directed at the majority female cast. The dystopian drama depicts the practical consequences of misogynistic theocracy that takes power in the face of environmental collapse and widespread infertility, set in an eerily similar near-future America.

The violence in The Handmaid’s Tale is often compared to another hulking series, Game of Thrones. Both use liberal amounts of violence against women to keep their plot moving, but to different effect:

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t glamorizing atrocities against women, exactly, or sanitizing them in the way that Game of Thrones or other prestige dramas might sanitize rape. The brutality is the point—the show wants us to experience the logical extension of institutionalized misogyny and theocratic governance.”

Indeed:

In shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones, the focus on female debasement is often criticized precisely because female suffering is positioned as entertainment. What happens on The Handmaid’s Tale is different, as violence against women plays out as a kind of morality tale.”

Visceral scenes in books, TV, and movies are a way of conveying the lived experiences and realities that audiences might struggle to relate to. In speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, showing in detail what would result from misogynist value systems and authoritarian, theocratic regimes can bring home how horrible the lives of the oppressed would be.

Art helps us to relate to experiences and realities that are different from our own, and can have a positive moral impact for this reason. People that read more novels have been shown to have greater emotional intelligence. However, when the perspectives and experiences are particularly graphic and violent, or run the risk of normalizing or sanitizing the persecution or rate of violence against an oppressed group, this raises questions about the ethics of continuing to portray the experiences of violence in detail.

Should we need to experience the pain of others to have their suffering be morally salient to us?

Legislators who become more feminist when they have daughters occupy an interesting dialectical space. While it is a positive step of course, it is good to adopt policies that recognize the fundamental equality of people the fact that they had to care for a daughter in order to tap into the moral reality is more than a bit distressing.

A further complication is the notion that there may just be an epistemically unbridgeable gap between communities that rely on one another for support regarding their experiences. It may just not always be possible to fully grasp another person’s everyday reality. It would be a great misfortune to discover immovable obstacles might bar someone from fully sympathizing with another person and experiencing the appropriate moral emotions regarding their plight.

Moral emotions such as sympathy, indignation, care, and regret play different roles of significance depending on the ethical theory you favor. Consequentialist views such as utilitarianism focus not so much on the emotional or motivational landscape that leads to action, but rather the result of our behaviors. If you make people have a better life out of indifference or kindness, it amounts to the same thing from an ethical perspective for utilitarians. Other views on morality heavily favor the emotions; care ethics and feminist views focus on our relationships to one another and tending to our roles appropriately. A behavior done out of sympathy would have a different moral assessment than the same behavior done out of indifference.

Given these considerations, we could reflect on art that attempts to bring pain and suffering into view in different ways. If the value in question is one of developing the appropriate moral response to suffering, we may ask: is this really necessary? (Isn’t this a case where we should really be able to get to the moral emotions on our own, as in the case of the legislators realizing women are people only when they’ve faced a daughter of their own?) Or, are there countervailing concerns, such as those raised in the discourse around the sexual violence in Game of Thrones? (Is this violence normalizing an already troubling reality?)

There are rich and nuanced questions regarding the consumption of art that includes graphic and detailed violence against marginalized groups. It puts pressure on how we conceive of our moral burdens in relating to one another, and how we experience the messages media sends us.

On Bad Artists, Good Art

Photograph of an older TV with "The Bill Cosby" displayed on it

It is becoming a common occurrence to read in the news that one of your favorite actors, musicians, filmmakers, or other celebrity does not have the quality of moral character that you perhaps thought they did. Examples are plentiful: Bill Cosby has been convicted on three cases of aggravated assault against women (and been accused of many more); Harvey Weinstein was recently indicted on rape chargers; Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexually propositioning a minor; Spotify recently decided to remove the songs of R Kelly from the platform amid many allegations of sexual assault; and most recently (at least, at the time of writing this) Rosanne Barr’s racist tweets resulted in the cancellation of the reboot of her show Rosanne. What inevitably follows each new accusation, indictment, arrest, or general revelation are articles, opinion pieces, and discussions online and in print asking the same question: is it okay for me to watch shows, or movies, or listen to music, made by people who have done reprehensible things? Continue reading “On Bad Artists, Good Art”

Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee: Political Comedy’s Unwritten Rules

Photo of television static

At the end of May, Rosanne Barr, star of a hit TV sitcom, tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a black advisor to President Obama, was (somehow) the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and The Planet of the Apes. ABC cancelled her show and apologized to Jarrett. Then, a few days after the Barr incident, Samantha Bee, star of a political comedy show, called Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, a “feckless c***” for insensitively posting a picture of herself holding her young son in the midst of growing attention to the way children are being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. She apologized, as did her network, TBS, but she wasn’t fired.

Continue reading “Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee: Political Comedy’s Unwritten Rules”

From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy

Image of plastic figures of Simpsons characters sitting on a couch

For nearly 30 years, The Simpsons has been making tongue-in-cheek jokes and chronicling, albeit satirically, the American way of life. As the longest-running cartoon in American television history, the show has had generational range in its influence, which is a rare feat in a modern, Netflix-binging society. In many ways, The Simpsons set the precedent for satirical cartoons and sitcoms to come, with its exaggerated depictions of the stereotypical American family. But it is not only the American family that The Simpsons has stereotyped in the last 29 years; they have also targeted characters ranging from CEOs to clowns. Continue reading “From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy”

Representing Autism On Screen

A photo of Jim Parsons, actor on The Big Bang Theory, at a Comic Con Panel.

In recent seasons, television networks and original streaming programing have introduced series that feature people with autism in main roles.  ABC’s The Good Doctor follows the career of Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism who is excellent at his job, but struggles in his interactions with people.  The Netflix original Atypical tells the story of an autistic young adult and his family. CBS’s Young Sheldon is a spinoff that focuses on the childhood of The Big Bang Theory favorite, Sheldon Cooper.  

Continue reading “Representing Autism On Screen”

Too Much TV and Nothing to Watch

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on February 26, 2016.

The critically acclaimed television drama of the early 1960s, “Naked City,” concluded each episode with the narrator proclaiming, “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” In this era of oversaturated television programming, one would think there is a show being produced featuring each of the 8 million stories.

More than 300 television programs had or will have season or series premieres in the first quarter of this year. Those shows are spread out over traditional broadcast television, cable, and streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. Television releases now happen on a year-round basis. In years past, television outlets released program lineups in the fall and then replaced a few flops in mid-season in January. That era is long gone as program producers looking for eyeballs deluge the video arena with countless shows, many of which are quite forgettable.

The flood of television programming has raised concerns about how much content the idiot box market can bear. FX CEO John Landraf told the Television Critics Association last year, “There is simply too much television.” Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins doesn’t worry about too much television, but he acknowledged in a published report that “there are too many crappy shows out there and not enough good shows.”

The viewing public has tired of what programmers define as television, finding TV fare boring and disgusting. A recent Gallup research survey shows only 16 percent of Americans now list TV as their favorite thing to do in the evening. Fifty years ago, that figure was 48 percent.

Three-channel television in 1966 wasn’t necessarily so profound either, but at least families could watch together without hearing seedy jokes about toilet activity or bedroom romps. Dramatic programs provided some social stability in that good guys and values won out in the end. Today’s television writers would have Ben Cartwright of “Bonanza” joking about his flatulence. Gidget would have a STD. Green Acres would be a marijuana farm. Perry Mason would frequent strip clubs, and Andy Griffith would be addicted to meth. The Hollywood writers, meanwhile, would be crowing about edginess and cultural realism, leaving most Americans to wonder what “real” world these writers inhabit.

Legendary comedienne Carol Burnett said recently that today’s sitcoms “sound like they’ve been written by teenage boys in a locker room.” Evidence of this mentality comes from the CBS “comedy” called “Angel from Hell.” The plot has a supposed guardian angel providing guidance for a young professional woman. This angel, however, has a foul mouth, likes booze and encourages random sex. Thankfully, CBS has canceled the show. That this show, offensive as it was to churchgoers, ever got programmed at all demonstrates that CBS has no societal gumption.

The Parents Television Council reports that decapitations in prime-time broadcast television have nearly tripled in five years. Even with that amount of carnage, not a single over-the-air broadcast program is rated TV-MA for mature audiences. Thus, the television industry believes all prime-time fare, regardless of how blood-drenched or sexually suggestive, is suitable for 14-year-olds. By the way, the networks do the ratings for their own programs.

A major failure of television today is that big media has zero interest in cultural leadership for a society that is more confused, splintered and polarized each year. Programming executives have disconnected from wide portions of their potential audience, scrounging for vacuous programs they can sell to advertisers for a quick dollar. Instead of looking for culturally unifying or positive messages, programmers hope to lure niche audiences with bizarre, fringe and even socially harmful content.

The effect is that television now plays no role in providing common cultural messages. Instead, TV contributes to the separation of generations and socioeconomic groups. With the exception of the Super Bowl, the nation’s viewers have no common viewing experiences, even within the same house.

An upcoming ABC mini-series, “Of Kings and Prophets,” will tell stories from the Old Testament. Producer Chris Brancato told a magazine that the series will be drenched in sex and violence: “We’re going to go as far as we can … we’ll be fighting with broadcast standards and practices.” To Brancato, the Bible is simply a platform from which to shock a national audience.

The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia had it right several years back when he commented on the FCC’s authority to regulate indecent content on television, calling the media’s cultural perpetrators, “foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood.”

Animated Television: A Boys’ Club?

For many people, animated cartoons form a central pillar of childhood. Whether they are classics like Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry or newer shows like Spongebob Squarepants and The Adventures of Gumball, cartoons have been a primary source of entertainment for generations of children. Besides the occasional fart joke, such cartoons seem fairly harmless. In their representation of women, though, such shows can act as anything but.

Continue reading “Animated Television: A Boys’ Club?”