Movies teach us morals


Carl Plantinga's talk, "Spectator Judge: Affect and Ethics in Narrative Film and Television," delivered to the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, argues that movies powerfully instill moral values in the people who watch them, by cueing us to "judge, believe, and feel emotions in various ways." This is the thesis of the novel I'm working on, so I read the summary of the talk with great interest:

Fiction films and television dramas, in other words, are persuasive devices. One might say that although analysis of film has largely been thought of as a branch of poetics, according to Plantinga’s argument it should better be seen as a branch of rhetoric. The spectator is typically invited by a film into the position of making judgements about characters and their actions, and this immediately makes film a moral activity. Film therefore offers a sentimental education, teaching people about emotional scripts and structures of feeling. It invites us into a state of transportation and engagement, and we are pleasurably rewarded by the moral and evaluative emotions we experience, carefully specified for us by writers and directors. For instance, we feel empathy and sympathy for a protagonist, and this will lead to relief and satisfaction in the promise of justice. In response to cruel or contemptuous behaviour of a character, we feel anger and disgust, and we are pleased to see wrong-doers punished. We recognize sacrificial acts, which induce states of admiration.

Morality at the Movies [Onfiction]

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  1. Why, yes, I am in fact aware of all of this and probably far more well versed in the subject than you are, so I don't really need your explanation of the obvious. However, having her marriage on the cover of People Magazine was a BIG FUCKING DEAL, and part of the change of how gay people were represented in media. I wish I could find the article I read but it was well over a year ago. It talked about the significance of that moment -- and how it signified ACCEPTANCE, rather than mere tolerance. People Magazine is huge and read mostly by house wives and such. Her talk show was also a big deal, and also part of the acceptance rather than mere tolerance of gay people. The magazine was just an extension of that.

    It was also one of the first times where gay people were represented as REAL people (getting married!), and not just caricatures of themselves, especially in MASS media (rather than niche gay magazines). Will & Grace was a great, ground-breaking show, for example, but it was still a bit "ha ha ha, look at this funny gay caricature!" rather than "these are real people doing human things".

    That People Magazine cover signified a huge change that Ellen was a big part of creating, not just because of her TV show, but because of her TALK show, wherein she talks often about LGBQT civil rights.

    When I saw that magazine at my local CVS, it was the moment when I went "Ah-hah!" and realized that there was no turning back.

    Trust me, for us non-straight people, seeing two lesbians get married on the cover of People mag was a Big Fucking Deal.

  2. Ouch. I was trying to voice agreement, not to be condescending. Sorry if it came off the wrong way.

  3. I promise I will never, ever claim to be any kind of expert about People Magazine. wink

  4. After reading the entire discussion, it's clear that we all understand how storytelling in general shapes our morals, and the better the storyteller, the better they can transfer the moral lesson within the story.

    What makes movies so special, though, is just how much pressure the combination of storytelling, music, camerawork and acting can put on shaping our morals. Movie sound directors have become experts in tweaking the soundtrack just right to make us like or loathe the character on the screen at the moment.

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