What do Americans want? If their viewing habits are any indication, they want moral ambiguity.
“Joker,” a 2019 film about a mentally disturbed, clown-faced murderer, grossed over $330 million in the U.S. Two of the most celebrated scripted television series of the 21st century—“Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos”—are centered around deeply flawed and unscrupulous protagonists. From the fallible comedic rascal, to the relatable criminal, to the reprobate whose character progresses along a redemptive arc—American audiences were and remain drawn to the anti-hero.
But as politics has invaded every facet of life, American’s entertainment preferences have become “problematic.” One 2019 survey indicated that Americans are split almost down the middle over the value of moral ambiguity in their entertainment products, with roughly half saying they prefer films “where what’s right and what’s wrong is clearly defined.” If half of all Americans were genuinely repulsed by the lack of an “obvious hero and villain” in media, it’s unlikely that the anti-hero genre would be as successful as it is today. Whether they believe it or not, about half of this survey’s respondents claim to be discomfited by moral vagueness. That is, after all, the sophisticate’s view as well.
Writing for the entertainment blog Polygon, the writer Khee Hoon Chan recently exemplified this impulse among critics in attacking the lack of “black-and-white morality” in modern entertainment products—specifically, video games. Presenting audiences with complex and broken characters presents “a perspective that actually widens the disparity in our fractured world.” The assumption that you cannot clearly distinguish real life from fantasy and, so, must be shielded from malign influences quickly becomes a recurring theme. “Unlike fiction,” the author continues, “allowing a sense of moral dilemma over both sides, particularly in the current era of burgeoning social change, reinforces the kinds of false equivalencies that might slow down social change.” If there is any academic literature to support this assertion, it has been withheld. It is, nevertheless, faddish to believe that American popular entertainment is not merely superficial and coarse but dangerous.
“Stories are inherently moral,” Chan decrees. In fact, stultified morality plays are inherently moral. Stories are structured accounts of connected events, and they need not be remotely didactic. But the presumption that Americans are being brainwashed by media that fails to lead them by the nose toward a preferred conception of righteousness has become a fixation of a particular kind of political activist.
The Marvel series Captain America was savaged by social-justice activists for allowing its main character to flirt with the Nazi-inspired organization “Hydra”—a gimmick that critics blamed for “normalizing” National Socialism. Some of those critics proceeded to burn these heretical comic books (a tactic their author noted was a counterproductive way to combat fascism).
The community of young adult novelists is regularly buffeted by controversy over the depiction of characters of minority extraction who, being multidimensional human beings, behave in ways that are not always upstanding and may inadvertently provide ammunition to racists who are inclined toward stereotypes and generalizations.
Just last month, a moral panic compelled the distributors of both scripted and non-scripted television products to cancel programs depicting police. “The effort to publicize police brutality also means banishing the good-cop archetype, which reigns on both television and in viral videos of the protests themselves,” the New York Times reported. Documentary-style cop shows got the ax, but police-centric comedies and procedural dramas were also put on notice.
Even critically acclaimed programs such as HBO’s “The Wire” got a second look. Cultural critics retroactively deemed that show perhaps the “most nuanced TV show ever made” about police, and this was no compliment. When the show’s law-enforcement characters engaged in violence, it was said to have the “effect of normalizing police brutality as a part, even a perk, of the job.” It is a testament to his sense of proportionality that “The Wire” actor Wendell Pierce was having none of this. “If you thought ‘The Wire’ was [a] glorification of policing in America you missed the point, because it was quite the opposite,” he chastised.
By and large, these critics perceive themselves to be competent enough consumers of media that they can distinguish essential from relative morality—they’re just not so sure about you.
This kind of highly academic obsession with moral absolutism contrasts mightily with the kind of deconstructionism that is designed to strip real life of categorical morality. Moral equivalencies are the currency of this new realm.
That thinking goes like this: Sure, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro might have impoverished, repressed, and even murdered his citizens. But the United States participated in the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile nearly a half-century ago, so it would be pure hypocrisy for Washington to speak up for Venezuela’s besieged democrats. It does seem like China is funneling Uighurs into concentration camps and forced labor mills, ethnically cleansing the semi-autonomous region they once called home. But America once countenanced the institution of slavery and struggles with the legacy of Jim Crow, so who are we to judge? Sure, the Islamic State caliphate engaged in a few crimes against humanity in the effort to safeguard its ever-expanding borders, but, you know, Israel.
These moral equivalencies are an effort to evade reality—not confront it. It’s an impulse the left might find more recognizable when it is evinced by President Donald Trump, who all-too-frequently appeals to dubious parallels between Moscow’s conduct and our own only to avoid having to confront the reality of the threat posed by Russia.
This discrepancy clarifies the demand among culture critics for less moral ambiguity in entertainment. The activist who sees the world as a matrix of moral uncertainties is drowning in relativism. He is starved for immutable, righteous truths. She cannot abide the lack of clearly defined black hats and white hats in media, not just because she is worried you are an impressionable sop but because it is deeply unsatisfying. Media is supposed to be escapist, after all. And if you spent your days demanding a sort of pedagogic moralism from the world around you, you’d be exhausted, too.