I'm not a psychologist, and thusly, can't pretend to understand the inner-workings of anyone else's brain, but I've spent thirty-plus years inside my own head, and I like to think that I now have a rudimentary grasp on what goes on in there. I've always had an overactive imagination. I spent most of my time growing up in what my mother affectionately called "Randyland", never even acknowledging the real world for longer than was absolutely necessary. Every aspect of my life was associated in my head with an ongoing narrative that I made up as I went along. It was a source of constant frustration for my parents, and a constant source of adventure and escape for me. I was obsessed with cartoons and would often pretend that I was the characters from my favorite shows. I adopted their personalities, their temperaments, and even their favorite foods. I spent countless hours drawing characters in different situations, obsessing over every detail. My world was based almost entirely on fantasy, and as a result, I've actually discovered over the years that many of the memories I have of my childhood are at least partially fictional. When I began growing out of childhood into adolescence, coming to terms with reality was actually painful for me. I remember coming to the realization -- at an age older than I'd care to admit -- that I would never be able to acquire super powers. It sounds silly, but it was devastating to me. As I grew older and I allowed reality to penetrate my thoughts a bit more, I still took advantage of every opportunity to engage in narratives. Books, movies, and television allow me to escape into different worlds, experiencing adventures that I would never have dreamed up on my own, and feeling emotions more powerfully than I often do in the real world. Stories have played a huge role in shaping who I am, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. I believe stories carry power; the power to mold minds and shape wills. What I want to talk about specifically, is their power to affect moral judgment.
Morality is a philosophical issue that has been pondered on and argued for thousands of years. The purpose of this post is not to weigh in on what I believe to be right or wrong, but to discuss how narrative entertainment can reaffirm or alter one's moral beliefs. I believe there are two separate issues to discuss when it comes to the effect of stories on audiences: content and narrative. Content refers to all the stuff that a story contains. A common complaint about stories is that they contain too much disturbing content such as violence, sex, drugs, racism, language, etc. The narrative provides context for the content. For example, there's a distinct difference between a story's villain being depicted as racist and the hero being depicted as racist. On one hand, the story associates racism with wrong, while on the other it's associated with right. That's the big difference between content and narrative.
The debate over disturbing content in the media has been raging for decades. Video games, books, movies, and music have all been scrutinized for containing graphic or disturbing content. Research into the negative effects of such content has been almost exhaustive. Studies confirm that content certainly can have a negative impact on morally acceptable behavior in audiences (Vossen, Piotrowski, and Valkenburg 175-193). At the same time, it's been widely studied and accepted by others, that disturbing content can be a useful device to use in storytelling (Rubenking and Lang 543-565). The world is, after all, often a crazy, violent, and disturbing place to live in. Should we avoid creating stories that reflect the darker side of reality? Kathryn Bigelow, an academy award-winning filmmaker has been asked several times particularly about the use of violence in her films. An interviewer asked her about the effect her films might have on her viewers in this way: "What about the stories of people who get pumped up on watching violent films and then go on a shooting spree?" Bigelow responded to the question with her belief that the individuals mentioned were the exception rather than the rule, and that "one should make moral judgments for oneself" (10 Famous Directors on Movie Violence). Certainly, a violent film isn't going to turn every member of the audience into a crazed killer, but to say that they're all unaffected by it would be irresponsible. At the very least, repeated exposure to graphic content has been confirmed to have a desensitizing effect on audiences (Fanti et al. 179-187). The question of content is one most people are familiar with and have likely weighed in on to one degree or another. While I believe that content plays a big part in altering what audiences see as morally acceptable, I want to focus on what lies beyond blood and guts; sex and drugs. The real power of a story lies in the narrative.
Part 1 of 4. Read part 2 here.