On grey morality in media


I genuinely hate the idea that everything has to be morally grey these days. […]

It’s not lazy to have black and white morality. Sometimes some things are truly good, and others are truly bad.

grandenchanterfiona

I kinda think this might have happened because of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, tbh. (Or any number of other things like them, I’m sure we don’t have to be US-centric to find examples, but I’m just using them because they came to mind.)

If you listen to me, I’d say from what I personally know there was no way the US should have pulled out of Vietnam—but you might disagree, perhaps strongly. I have no opinion on the Iraq war because I don’t understand it, but I know it was a highly polarised issue where some people would say the US should definitely not have even gone there, and others would say that it was irresponsible to do the large troop withdrawal in 2008.

On issues like this there has often been a divide between “liberal” interests that want to immediately condemn all conflict and “conservative” interests that want to carry whatever is being done through to its end. But there is rarely a good, satisfying answer because knowing what the answer is requires predicting what will happen in the future.

When I semi-recently watched Captain America: Civil War, I somewhat agreed with criticisms I saw that it didn’t really know what it wanted to do. But really, I could clearly see what it was probably trying to do. It was trying to tell a story where Captain America intervened in a foreign country for the US, there was some collateral damage, and then somebody in that country got angry because they thought he shouldn’t have done that and tried to destroy his team. The writers were trying to appease both “liberal” and “conservative” forces with this story by both showing Captain America attempting to carry out a justified mission and the subsequent pain faced by him and his team, and the pain of the foreign opposition that you end up both unable to entirely be mad at and in my case also very mad at for “righting” Cap’s mistake in such an unnecessarily violent, ham-fisted way.

When you look at Civil War you can immediately see both what was going on and what went wrong. They were trying to address a conflict between nations in a way that was actually too black and white, and then pretend it wasn’t, when it might have been perfectly sufficient to admit that the foreign saboteur was simply wrong. But we kinda all know what the critics would be saying if they’d done that. What is the guy supposed to do. I know I just watched a Captain America film but nationalism maybe isn’t good. We’re not gonna say this is racist, but we have… certain misgivings.

I don’t actually know what specific type of “morally grey” conflict in media you’re aiming at. I’ll guess maybe you might be talking about how suddenly every random cartoon villain has to have a tragic backstory or how things like Teen Titans Go! make light of their pure and respectable main characters for the purpose of “satire” because they think the world is just too nasty for teenagers to possibly make a positive difference in it. Maybe (though you don’t sound like it) you’re even starting to get a little tired of things like Undertale and Overwatch and Steven Universe constantly turning what looks like a straightforward conflict between good and evil into a nuanced exploration of the character of two different flawed factions that’s like, gg, this is okay and fun but we don’t strictly need this every single time.

Teen Titans Go! has pretty much no excuse to be the way it is. It just really doesn’t. I already wrote a post about that, but in short, you pretty much only make a show that way because you either don’t care (pretty much the case) or hate kids and want them to shut up. Its attempts to blur the line between good and evil by having the Teen Titans accidentally do all kinds of terrible/wrong things and downplaying the villains are supposed to be cruelly funny but really just come across as a sort of moral nihilism where you start to get the impression the creators believe there’s no point in trying to do good because our world sucks and nobody can possibly improve it in any way. (Really, when the writers themselves say that it was written in vague response to a ‘polarised world’ I can’t not point out the same thing going on a little more subtly with Captain America.)

Sometimes, whether they’re doing it consciously or not, I think creators do punt moral issues in order to leave people with a feeling of despair. Which—period, end of sentence—is no good.

When cartoon villains get out of hand and weird movies like Maleficent are made I would have a harder time explaining why. I think it’s mainly just because some writers are bad at their jobs and can’t identify the purpose of a character in a work and stick with it, much less invent a new meaningful direction for that character to go. When you have been writing or in my case even just planning a lot of fan fiction you start to realise that you’re picking up important skills of literary analysis some professional writers embarrassingly don’t have. You start to realise that honestly, some boring sympathetic-villain stories probably just happen because the writers didn’t have much imagination so they did the most obvious thing of focusing on evil the same way you’d focus on good.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about F.A.N.G. A lot of people thought this new villain introduced to Street Fighter V was pretty darn awful; Looking through youtube search thumbnails to see people’s expressions when they saw him was decidedly fun.

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But I have something to say about FANG: when I actually looked all the way through his lore in the introductions my opinion changed a lot. He is a shitty dude, and the writers were pretty determined to establish that he is pretty much just a bad over-the-top cartoon/B-movie villain with an extra helping of shitty. Here’s the thing though: they never for a second forgot what his purpose was in the narrative. He’s there to give you more information about the Dictator, to disgust the heroes, and to generally be hilariously shitty and annoying. There is one intro where it’s falsely implied that FANG has a tragic backstory and may be being so outstandingly shitty so he won’t get killed. But when you actually look at his intro, you see that no, they were leading you on, and FANG is fully as shitty a person as you thought he was—maybe twice as shitty.

So, at the end of the day, while I don’t think he’s a great character, I have to admit that FANG is definitely an okay character just because of how much the writers had a clear specified purpose for him and he perfectly fulfilled that purpose.

…Notice how all while giving that surprisingly good review I never walked back my initial assessment that FANG is a piece of shit. I think that if you’re a so-called “pro” and you can’t write a story about an antagonist—sympathetic or not—that is as good as FANG’s, your writing skills suck and you need to work on them.

Finally, when we get to things like Undertale and Overwatch and Steven Universe, if you’re managing to find those things boring, I think you may just be picking up on things about them that the creators didn’t realise. Writing is just really hard at any level of nuance. When you’re a novice at nuance, you might try to redeem somebody like FANG. When you’re good enough at it to realise things are complicated but not good enough to realise how to convey a meaningful message about that, you might produce shit like Teen Titans Go!. But even when you’re a stellar writer who knocks things out of the park you can still make mistakes and lose sight of things that will stick out in some way to your audience.

I love Undertale, and I can easily find ten non-trivial flaws in Undertale to criticise related to its characters, gameplay, and premise. But to stay brief and relevant, one more entirely subjective “issue” I have with it that is easily solved by fan works is that a certain very important character could have been expanded on more. I took notice of this character and the inspiring symbolism he appears to have, and came to my own conclusion that that character alone could carry his own story or three. That’s my personal opinion, but I managed to find a coherent insight into Undertale the creator probably didn’t spend much time thinking about.

Then there’s Steven Universe. It’s a brilliantly crafted cartoon that I think is pretty good. But one problem with it kicked around in my head until it  kind of lost its luster for me. I’m trans, and I’m pansexual, and I’m feminist, and I find all kinds of political discussions fascinating even as over the years most of my friends have become unable to even look at them. I can’t simply get frustrated at tumblr posts and block them, I have to read every “bad” tumblr post I see and use my critical mind to figure out why it’s wrong and not contributing to progress. And with that, you’ll understand how strange and incredible it is I have to say: Steven Universe feels too political to me. I feel like it started putting way too much emphasis recently on the fact that the rock people were girls and lesbians, after early on being very quiet about that and focusing only on their personalities and adventures and the creators emphasising in Q&As that Gems have no concept of “female”. I still like SU but I just… I have never belonged in any identity group As A Member Of That Group and can’t identify with having such a strong, confident solidarity with these groups as the Gems do, and it makes it a little harder for me to identify with these characters.

(Ironically, when news quietly broke out that Tracer had a girlfriend [and everyone made a ruckus on the Overwatch forums], it made me identify with Tracer a little more… so it’s not even the characters being openly gay, nor Women And Lesbian, that’s my issue.)

The point of that is, although increasingly mass media have been getting more complex, flawless, political, and seemingly impenetrable, their creators are still not perfect and if you think you have found insights about them the creator missed it might not just be you. Maybe Undertale isn’t quite art. Maybe SU’s super nuanced intergalactic drama actually missed something basic. Maybe Legend of Korra or Overwatch or anything else isn’t as deep as some people want to believe. (Does anybody actually analyse Overwatch? I dunno. I just picked it because it has neat design and some of the “heroes” seem slightly ambiguous.)

So, to sum up:

Many times writers will dodge morality in media just to cover their asses, because they are bad at saying anything actually insightful so they would rather say something fake-insightful. Other writers will create conflict where there shouldn’t be any question to be asked, because it’s easier to be smarter than it is to see through to the strongest significance of things and be smart. Finally some writers focus on the morally grey with actual nuance, though they might not succeed at it, or even if they succeed perfectly at making their writing make sense in the context of the story, may miss some bigger-picture impressions that their story will have on fans.

Morally grey stories are really important, when they’re actually good and start off with a premise that actually lends itself to issues being that way. If you just imagine everyone treating their view on the Vietnam war as an absolute, you almost see why there was a war in the first place. So, you can see why people want to at least try to treat complex issues with something a little more than a binary view of right and wrong. For a while it was considered sufficient to immediately paint whoever you thought of as the bad guys as unequivocally bad and the opposite side as unequivocally good, so really, the strange and confused moral lessons (but sincere attempts) we’re getting today in Civil War and similar are not that terrible in terms of what could be.

The thing that creates the biggest distinction between morally grey things in fiction and reality is that in fiction, we often know the future, whereas in reality we never do, meaning that many real issues that get treated as morally grey………… are. The conflict around climate science is very concerning to me because we’re dealing with pretty much the same situation as war opinions, where we don’t REALLY know what will happen in the future, but yet people are treating the consequences of every hypothetical action with absolute certainty and acting as if “anti-emissions” and “anti- climate consensus” can literally be exchanged for good and evil in a manner depending on which side you’re on. Science isn’t supposed to work that way. Science is a system based on making a ton of possibly false claims and waiting for them to be falsified, where you are supposed to admit that whatever research you have produced there is probably something wrong with it waiting to be found. Usually, any scientist that says something is 100% certain and will not be refuted happens to be pushing quack science they don’t want real scientists to dispute, and yet everyone on the anti-emissions side always forgets that important bit of scientific etiquette and simply accuses the anti climate consensus faction of being ‘beyond truth’ or such. Maybe climate change “denial” is completely wrong, and I’d be ready to accept that, just as I would be ready to accept that there is something wrong with our current understanding of climate systems—I believe that in science, you should be ready for whatever side you might be on to be wrong. It definitely is worth something that the current model has held up so long, so I’ll stand beside anybody working with it and let them do science. But the one thing we can’t do is prove that the climate consensus is not wrong through circular reasoning saying it will never be wrong because it isn’t wrong yet, just as we can’t prove climate change “denial” is correct by just saying there’s no evidence it isn’t.

The current division between American liberals and conservatives is nothing but concerning any way you slice it. But at the very least, it’s really easy to determine that one side is definitely doing something very wrong. Conservatives are treating liberals as evil to be defeated, while liberals are… calling Trump Hitler, but mostly just sitting around hoping that the conflict will end. And all the other people who don’t use entirely binary thinking want to dodge all political discussions.

The real question to be asked here is, do we actually fully understand the issue? Are we just afraid of it, and trying to avoid real fixes? I think we really don’t understand it fully. Because if we did, it would be much more clear how to quiet conservatives and get them to listen to liberals. But nobody really understands how to do that, so I think we’re missing something.

Here’s what we miss by calling politics grey: “we don’t know the answer” is not the same as there being no answer.