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Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Unfortunately, I Really Am That Nerdy

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Thoughts on Disneyland Morality
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kistaro
First order of business, before the random unsolicited excessively long essay, is about exams. I'm done for the semester, and I think my exams went well; I at least hope they did! I have my Computational Geometry grade in- and I'm off to a good start, as it's an A.

Anyway, something I found myself contemplating recently for no obvious reason: good and evil in popular culture, and the damage the concepts have done. I suppose this is the danger of taking a Philosophy class with a strong emphasis on how everybody is wrong at the same time. For whatever reason I was thinking about it, I've come to clear conclusions: good and evil in most "light" popular fiction are extraordinarily unrealistic concepts, and the way they are presented has done definite damage to society.

The most defining feature of Disneyland Morality, as I'm calling it for a lack of any better ideas, is that it is utterly, completely clear what is Good and what is Evil. It's usually blatantly obvious from the actions and morals of the characters, of course (and I'll cover some of that later); it is easy to infer that the entity attempting to kidnap and skin ninety-nine puppies is probably Evil. But beyond that, Evil always looks Evil. Can you imagine a young, polite, blonde Cruella De Ville? How about a short Jafar who wears bright colors, smiles a lot, and is a tenor? Dr. Claw in a Hawaiian shirt for most of the show? It's simply visually obvious who's in the right and who's not.

I don't think that's good. It's convenient, certainly, but it's not good. I don't really care exactly what visual cues set off Evil from Good- although "lack of pupils" is certainly a tradition- it's the fact that they're so absolute and so universal that they exist. It has to be reinforcing racism. I don't care if Evil is as far from a racial stereotype as you can get- all things considered, "obese caucasian woman with warts" is pretty popular for "Evil"- it's that it's reinforcing the entire idea that you can take a valid moral measure of a person by appearance alone. I think that not only would it not be reinforcing this, it would make these shows more interesting if it is not physically obvious- only through actions and morals- who is Evil and who is Good. I don't even really defend it being entirely blatantly obvious- but if it has to be, it doesn't have to be visual.

An objection that I'd expect to face is that I'm over-analyzing childrens' entertainment, "After all", my hypothetical detractor might suggest, "children can't understand complex morality. Obvious evil is required." And I completely disagree with that. I'm considering my experiences watching Into The Woods, and things brought up during the interview with the playwright. The two acts of Into the Woods have very different flavors- the first as a traditional fairy tale, and the last a minefield of unclear morality, difficult situations, and no clear answers. The Witch turns out to be the only rational voice amongst total chaos, and the remainder of the cast- who weren't flattened by her feet- are forced to kill a giant who is only out for very reasonable revenge against one particular person- but the community defends the murderer, the thief, Jack. (Y'know, Jack and the Beanstalk?) It's never clear who was really in the right, and I think that's how it should be. The show was written for a mature audience.

But y'know what? During the talks with the playwright, the second act was discussed. In his experience, children have no trouble understanding it, and are quite comfortable with and accepting of the concept that morality isn't always clear. They didn't try to simplify it, nor were they frightened by complexity; they merely accepted that the situaiton was complex. And this didn't take explicitly telling them what was going on. This is one anecdote, but I hold that children are a load of a lot brighter than most people give them credit for. I don't think children inherently assume theat morality is obvious, and nor do I hold that this "innocence" should be preserved. Whether or not a child believes that morality is black and white, it's quite clear that such a child can learn otherwise and understand otherwise- and I state that he or she should.

That is the other component of Disneyland Morality- not merely a lack of it being visually obvious who is Good and Evil, but it even being totally clear from the situation. I can't think of many situations where Good and Evil are truly obvious. Sometimes it is, but the vast majority of cases are not. I suppose it's comforting to think so, but it's not accurate. What's even more blatantly wrong is the observation that in Disney movies, Evil is always aware that it is Evil. Furthermore, it is generally proud of that fact. Consider Rasputin's musical number in Anastasia, for example.

That's not very realistic either. The vast majority of Evil, as far as it can be clearly found, justifies itself, tries to believe that it is doing something Good. The terrorists commiting murder in the Middle East- I don't care which side they're on, both sides are wrong- believe they are executing the will of their God- and to them, there is no higher good. To an unbeliever, or to a polytheist who believes that the whims of a God are not always the best thing to follow (in short, the belief in falliable deities), these people are murderers, committing indefensible crimes against innocent civilians. I'm strongly within that category- the whim of a God does not override morality, and it certainly doesn't define it- but I can understand how these individuals, commiting evil acts, see themselves as agents of good.

I'd say the same for the Southern Baptist fundamentalist Christian movement. I consider their systematic attack on civil liberties- most notably and visibly against homosexuals, but against anybody who doesn't agree with their religion or morality as spewed from the whim of their God and then twisted by two thousand years of political humans- to be Evil. Do I even need to explain how Good they consider themselves? I would suggest that every single follower of that movement believes that this is Good, and my very nature- as bisexual, as Pagan, as Otherkin- is Evil. I wouldn't be so sure of the administration- there may be motives of profit and power within it as the primary drive, rather than any semblance of piety- but they aren't the primary forces.

This sort of situation never happens in Disneyland Morality. Evil is EVIL AND PROUD OF IT. Good is Valiant, Bold, Heroic, and Posessed Of Shiny Teeth. And teaching that- that good and evil are always clear-cut and obvious- is far, far more dangerous than any teaching that it's visually obvious. It leads to people being taught that it's correct to make hasty assessments. People are taught that it's not worth their time to think about morality. Consider- is philosophy (such as this) a common pastime? Shouldn't just thinking about things, like the entire basis of one's concept of ethical decisions, get a little bit of brain-time once in a while? Like, say, really frequently?

But I've seen the impact. I've been to two Philosophy courses, and it becomes clear in the first weeks that they are the first time my classmates have questioned their opinions, beliefs, and morals. (Ooh, the abortion debate was fun.) These people never even thought about it; they merely assumed they'd found Good. This is what we get from a society that teaches that morality is obvious and quesitoning is bad. I suppose almost any society would tend towards that, as societies tend to be self-perpetuating and such disorder would tend to fragment a society. That doesn't make it any healthier or safer. What, then, is the inevitable result of people believing in black-and-white morality?

George W. Bush and his righteous War on Terror, for one.

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As best I can tell, Disney films and other tales are escapism and entertainment. People like to "get away" from the complexities of reality for awhile. That's what make-believe is for. Obviously people (such as yourself) can see that things are more complex than stories. Even a story like "In the Woods". So what's the harm in a little fun?

(Side note: Anastasia is not by Disney, though "Beauty and the Beast" is. Who's the villain there, and does s/he know and enjoy evil?)

[Sorry this reply is poorly written and/or missing the point... I've got "much to do" thrice over before Wednesday is through.]

Disney's (heavyhanded) theme with "Beauty and the Beast" is that good/evil appearances can be deceiving, with the real villain being a gallant fellow with shiny teeth who believes himself to be a hero, and the real hero having claws, horns, and tusks, and who believes himself to be an awful monster. (Ironically, Beauty is the only one who can be "judged by her cover.") I think they carried the theme on with "Hunchback of Notre Dame," probably others. When I first saw "Lilo and Stitch," I was intrigued by the ambiguous alignments of the characters, but was disappointed to find in the TV series that they're just bad guys being turned into good guys, which is less complex than I was hoping.

Those exceptions may be interesting to analyse, but the concept of Disney's Readily Perceived Good and Evil still stands, even outside of Disney. It's much more obvious in children's television cartoons than in movies, where characters are put together in more of a hurry. You want the bad guys to be obvious enough to be picked out at least within the half-hour show, after all. I can think of a lot of song and dance numbers from TV cartoons where the villains talk about what fun it is to be evil, which they're very much aware of being. The formulae for villains was so clear that even in make-believe games I played with other kids when I was seven years old, we conformed our characters' descriptions to how the good and bad guys should look.

Something else interesting to explore might be possibilities of the overly-obvious good and evil being drawn that way with the intention of making it very clear to children the difference between good and bad, since it's always been a complaint that kids don't know the difference. (Because of this, when I was six, I knew the difference- the bad guys were the ones with the cooler powers and better weapons!)

I see one major problem with overly-obvious good and bad being used in such a way with the intent of making it very clear to children which is which. It teaches children that what is bad is easy to recognize. While this may certainly be said to be a benefit when applied to the behaviors exhibited by the bad guys, showing children that such actions are not good, it can be dangerous. A child who has been shown time and time again that bad people can be easily recognized would probably be less likely to consider the nice-looking person who might want to kidnap or harm them to be bad because that person doesn't look bad. Such clear-cut lines also don't generally show good people who occassionally do bad things or bad people who sometimes do good things, so it can be difficult to grow out of a mindset that someone has to be either all good or all bad.

Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) is such an amazingly good film partly for that reason - no one is truly good or evil. Most of Miyazaki's work is similar, but Mononoke's one of the most obvious. It's a classic nature vs. man story, but because of the nature of it, we sympathize equally with both sides. The wolf-god Moro is raising her children, even the orphaned human girl San, and defending her home - while Lady Eboshi is giving work to prostitutes and lepers, and needs to turn a profit on the ironworks in order to continue doing so.

It's a very Shinto belief, really. It's probably one reason why some anime just doesn't translate very well - there are no black and white lines, no clear-cut definitions of good or evil.

The best anime music video I've ever seen really captured that feeling. Neon Genesis Evangelion actually manipulates the concepts of good and evil in very odd ways already - it borrows a Christian mythos, but no character is precisely the type you'd expect. Further, the song in the video keeps repeating "this isn't what we meant" - a choice turned horribly wrong.


Odd that another essay-entry on my flist today was on the nature of paladins... weird people.

Disney believes its own hype, too. Nobody who works for the Disney corporation, whether they work with the public or not, may have a beard. Disney acquires your company? Shave by tomorrow or you're fired. No exceptions. When they bought the Big Red Boat, the captain had a nice white beard, which is the sort of stereotypical appearance you'd think they'd be happy with. Nope, he didn't shave it off, so they replaced him, separating him from the boat he had captained for his entire career.

Everywhere else, the rule is merely unspoken.

I'd argue, in this day and age at least, that when one reaches adulthood, that those lines blur a bit, if not a lot. While my tastes are certainly quite geeky, as far as most things go, I'd think that a lot of mainstream cinema these days is starting to go a bit more with ambigiuouty. Kill Bill, Attack of the Clones (almost certainly Revenge of the Sith, too), and such (I would list more, but I haven't watched that many movies in a while) have some very grey areas in them. If one expands to various hobbies, then the there are only more examples to conjure up.

Anime and manga have numerous examples of grey morality. Akira, for instance, has a very sympathetic antagonist (Tetsuo) and a protagonist who is almost an anti-hero (Kaneda). Blade of the Immortal's protagonist, Manji, is a dishonorable ronin trying to reform his ways by slaying 1000 villians.

Games also have a great deal of this "grey morality" to them. Warhammer 40k's universe is a hellish place, showing flawed heroes in all their glory, but contrasting them with villians who originally held to some very noble ideas and had legitimate grievances (Thousand Sons, for example or the Iron Warriors). Fable, Black and White, and Knights of the Old Republic also allow a person to take any path they want, and can show people those so called "grey" heroes. Though, admittedly, there are still some problems there, as there is a good deal of dualism, however, not to the extent of Disney.

That's a very interesting essay that you've written. There's one point that wasn't really addressed much, though. If morality is not something that is concrete, then there will inevitably be situations where reducing things to black and white would be moral. To simply say "reducing things to black and white is immoral" is... well, you can see the irony there.

It's my personal belief that things are black and white. Issues like abortion seem to be gray only because they are in fact many issues bundled into one. Abortion for example, is not a single issue. It deals with the question of when life starts. It deals with the idea of one person's rights overriding another's. It deals with the idea of faith based legislation.

If any given issue is broken down into its smallest component issues, I think that they all can be categorized as wrong/not wrong. That's not to say that I have a corner on the market when it comes to what I do believe is right and wrong, though...

Following up on Draque's comment: Moral relativists seem to rest too confidently in the belief that "since there are situations where there are no right action, there can be no absolute morality." As if the existence of gray means that there can be no black and white. Thinking that no matter can be resolved in a 'good' or 'bad' way doesn't give you a much safer situation than drawing up hard lines. Certain acts, say torturing Iraqi prisoners, are evil, while others, say caring for a hurt bird, are good. Neither cause nor effect can change that. Most certainly, the alleged desires of a proclaimed deity does not enter into the equation. Especially if said deity works in mysterious ways not meant to be comprehended by mortal man.

As for looks? Well, you can learn a lot about a person by how he tends himself and acts around other people. Looks wouldn't be deceiving if they weren't right rather often. :) But frankly, perfect teeth and wavy blond hair are very poor indications of somebody's ethics.

"But frankly, perfect teeth and wavy blond hair are very poor indications of somebody's ethics."

I remember a poem I saw a long time ago, and I don't know if I've remembered it correctly:
There is no ugliness save in the mind
No one to call deformed but the unkind.


This comment may lack the necessary seriousness to be an important part of this discussion! But I'm tired...

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