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Why moral ambiguity is popular on TV and the big screen

Published: Monday, June 9 2014 11:30 a.m. MDT

Disney's "Maleficent."

Frank Connor, Disney Enterprises Inc.

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Maleficent, the frightening, evilly beautiful villain of the 1959 film "Sleeping Beauty," is portrayed as a complex, sympathetic character in Disney's newest film. As the movie's narrator describes her: "Our kingdom was united not by a hero or a villain but a hero who was a villain."

Obviously "Maleficent," released in theaters May 29, is not a typical fairytale. But it is part of a growing trend on big and small screens of moral ambiguity — main characters and plots that blur the line between good and evil, unlike their more traditional, black-and-white superhero or princess counterparts.

Moral ambiguity isn't a new storytelling device; it's been used in literature for thousands of years from the Bible's Old Testament to Shakespeare's plays. But the popularity of morally ambiguous TV shows and films has some worried that the trend could lead to greater moral relativity in society. Other observers of modern culture, however, contend the comparatively young and evolving visual media of television and film are simply reflecting reality with story lines that still contain absolute moral principles.

"The popular (morally ambiguous) TV shows and films of today are popular because they are touching upon issues that we, in the culture, are conflicted about," said Richard Krevolin, a screenwriter and former adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Cinema/TV School. "In doing so, they allow us to work out these issues for ourselves."

Appealing ambiguity

"Breaking Bad," an award-winning and record-setting TV series about a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug dealer, is an example of popular morally ambiguous entertainment.

But why do viewers enjoy watching anti-heroes like Walter White, the meth-cooking, drug-selling murderer in "Breaking Bad"? Or a character like Don Draper of the series "Mad Men," who lies and cheats?

Part of the reason is viewers believe these characters are more realistic, said Barna Donovan, an associate communication professor who teaches a course examining ethics in entertainment at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.

Donovan explained half of his students mention they like morally relativistic films and TV shows because they show the world is not filled with "Hitlers and Mother Theresas, where everyone is a demon or a pure saint."

"We're living in a morally ambiguous world where most of the solutions to life and death problems — like crime, terrorism, national security — don't have clear-cut answers. It's really difficult to decide what is the right thing to do," said Donovan.

Krevolin agreed these characters are more realistic and engaging.

"(Morally ambiguous characters) are appealing to us because all of us are neither pure saints nor pure sinners," he said. "Hence, we can connect most easily with those characters onscreen who are like us. And when these characters deal with moral ambiguity, it helps us deal with similar ambiguities in our lives."

Viewers are not repelled by morally ambiguous entertainment because they are willing to forgive characters for bad actions if the characters' motivations are good, said Maja Krakowiak, assistant professor of communication at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who researches entertainment and morality.

"Walter White, for example, cooks methamphetamine, but he started doing it because he had cancer … (and) he wanted to provide for his family. And we're very swayed by the motivations of characters," Krakowiak said. "People are willing to excuse any kind of bad behavior."

She added her most recent research, which is under review for publication, indicates people feel better about their own morality after watching or reading about morally ambiguous characters.

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