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Netflix and Kill

CASE STUDY: The Problem with Romanticizing Serial Killers

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Screencapture: Twitter.com

On January 26, the trailer for the new Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” was released to major excitement. The film stars popular actor Zac Efron as Bundy, a notorious American serial killer, and model Lily Collins as Bundy‘s girlfriend, Lisa Kloepfer. The serial killer is infamous for committing a series of horrific acts, including murder, involving anywhere between 30 to 100 women in the 1970s. The trailer features the two in love and arguing about if the allegations against Bundy are true; Kloepfer is portrayed as conflicted because of her feelings toward Bundy, but she’s also portrayed as wanting to protect herself and her young daughter from Bundy ‘s lies and violent tendencies.

While some eagerly await the movie‘s release, others worry that the new biopic glamorizes and unjustifiably humanizes the killer Ted Bundy. Making matters complex, some aspects emphasized by the narrative do have traces in the real trial involving Bundy. He was not treated like other serial killers such as Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy, and there was not the same overwhelming call for the death penalty as with other killers. Some young women, Bundy ‘s targeted victim type, even attended Bundy ‘s trial and showed support for him, perhaps because he seemed mysterious and attractive; such “fans” ignored the fact that he murdered and mutilated the bodies of women their age. With these facts in place, Suzanne Moore explains how romanticizing the egregious serial killer Bundy in the new biopic might be dangerous for women and how it could demean what it means to be a victim; she worries that the film portrays and potentially evokes “Hybristophilia,” which is “the name given to the sexual arousal that comes from a partner who has committed a crime: the fantasy that you are special enough to give the love that would stop such a man doing the things he does.” Bundy, however, never stopped committing his real life crimes, even after he started dating his girlfriends, including Kloepfer. Dramatizing this hope of redemption and attractiveness might only give him more attention, and demean the real suffering of those he hurt.

But such attention is exactly what Bundy would have wanted. In the biopic trailer, Bundy is portrayed as enthralled by the fact he is “bigger than the Disney World.” Discourse that humanizes or compliments Bundy seemed to only inflate Bundy‘s ego, and to continue to add insulted those who were attacked by him. In 1978, Florida University student Kathy Kleiner Rubin was attacked by Bundy in her sorority house. She is the first of Bundy‘s surviving victims to speak up about the troubling realizations the new Netflix movie is causing. But many were shocked by her statement, as she actually encouraged those to see the movie: “It’s not really glorifying him, but it’s showing him and when they (the characters in the film) do say positive and wonderful things about him … that’s what they saw, that’s what Bundy wanted you to see” (Bonner, 2019). She believes that the movie‘s supposedly accurate portrayal will help women “be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious.” Director Joe Berlinger states the biopic does not “romanticize” or “glorify” Bundy‘s actions, but rather focuses on the relationship between him and Kloepfer as the murderer‘s heinous acts are catching up to him. Berlinger defends his work by revealing that the movie assumes the perspective of Kloepfer, so it will naturally foreground the complex thoughts that she is feeling about Bundy leading up to his arrest and trial (Obenson, 2019). Berlinger‘s defense brings up an interesting point about the artistic freedom in the film industry. When making a movie based on true events, filmmakers can change or select different perspectives on an event, emphasizing different points of view and different ways characters are affected. Films that do this can add to the diversity of stories and storylines we are exposed to, showing the complexities in important historical events.

This is precisely the case for the variety of stories being told about Ted Bundy’s crimes. A week prior to the trailer’s release, a four-part documentary series on Bundy was released by Netflix titled “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes.” This docuseries was also directed by Berlinger. This series does the complete opposite of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”: “This documentary explicitly details the serial killers gruesome attacks, not how his groupies felt about him” (Harvilla, 2019). With both of these films, Berlinger wanted to show different ways of looking back on the serial killer 30 years after his execution, but concerns remain about the ways of telling this story that might seemingly prioritize Bundy‘s looks and charm over his gut-wrenching actions. Some critics might be tempted to observe that Berlinger was able to make “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” in a light that did not romanticize the mysterious killer like his other film, one that cast popular actors adored for their looks and that used a thrilling plot to drive a movie effectively about murdering and manipulating women.

Perhaps “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” makes up for the choices made in “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes,” but the separation of visions may also do more harm than good for Berlinger in providing separable visions that inform and entertain in different ways on this serial killer. What are the ethical implications of related, but separate, artifacts that make very different choices in dealing with heinous acts and infamous individuals?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict with the controversy over the dramatized Ted Bundy biopic?
  2. Do you believe that casting a popular actor and heartthrob as a serial killer presents any problems? How should the directors have handled the casting and scripting of such a criminal?
  3. Does the existence of the documentary excuse the biopic‘s actions, or simply magnify the worries over those casting and writing choices?
  4. What general principles should directors and writers follow when creating films based upon atrocious criminals such as Ted Bundy?

Further Information:

Bonner, Mehera. “Ted Bundy survivor reacts to upcoming Zac Efron film.” WESH2 NBC News. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.wesh.com/article/ted-bundy-survivor-kathy-kleiner-rubin-reacts-zac-efron/26075976

Harvilla, Robert. “‘The Ted Bundy Tapes Can‘t Put You In His Head. Be Grateful.” The Ringer. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.theringer.com/tv/2019/1/29/18201482/netflix-conversations-with-a-killer-ted-bundy-tapes-true-crime-documentary

Moore, Suzanne. “Ted Bundy was deeply mediocre – so why are we romanticizing him?” The Guardian, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/28/ted-bundy-mediocre-why-romanticising-him-serial-killer-played-by-zac-efron-film

Obenson, Tambay. “Ted Bundy Biopic Director Joe Berlinger Says His Film Never Glorifies a Killer.” IndieWire, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-criticism-ted-bundy-1202039201/

Authors:

Irie Crenshaw & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 14, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Advertising Ethics and Social Issues

CASE STUDY: Gillette’s Close Shave with Toxic Masculinity

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Screencapture: YouTube.com

Gillette took to social media to air their new “We Believe” advertisement in early January of 2019. The ad depicts what some would consider the issues related to the common “boys will be boys” mind set and the issues related to current social movements. The ad depicts men of all ages partaking in behavior that many found very controversial to begin with. The ad begins with audio from various newscasts that reported on several controversial topics such as the spread of the #MeToo movement and other ways in which men were involved in cultural movements from the past couple of years. The ad continues to show how these ideas are spread by depicting a scene where fathers are standing around a barbeque laughing and as making excuses as their young sons fight. Another scene depicts a very young boy crying to his mother after his peers had sent him text messages calling him derogatorily terms and questioning his masculinity.  Bullying, toxic masculinity, and sexual harassment are all addressed within the short ad campaign. While some believe this ad is challenging men to hold themselves to a higher standard, others disagree and feel that this ad is shaming them based on their gender. The commercial begins by showing men partaking in controversial behavior such as cyber bullying, cat calling, and fighting. The ad then challenges these men to step above these actions by depicting ways men can avoid partaking in and teaching such things to younger generations.

Scott Galloway, founder of the business research firm Gartner L2 and a professor of marketing at New York University, argues “The ‘woke’ business strategy will be a big theme in 2019 as that’s where the money is.” People who seem to agree with Proctor and Gamble’s stance on the issues in “We Believe” applaud the commercials portrayal of real world issues such as bullying and the #MeToo movement. These pro “We Believe” Twitter uses have defended the ad stating “This commercial isn’t anti-male, it’s pro humanity” (Evans 2019). Other viewers have taken to social media and other platforms to discuss their dissatisfaction with Gillette’s message. These viewers seem to feel that this ad blames certain social issues of today on all males regardless of true character.  Political commentator, Ben Shapiro remarked on the issues he saw in the Gillette campaign: “This ad is all about how men have created a crisis of masculinity in America. How men have trained their boys to be bad. How men are solely responsible for all of the ills in American society. An ad created by a company who makes their money off of men shaving” (Shapiro 2019). Along with Shapiro, the hash-tag #BoycottGillette has rapidly gained recognition after the company released this ad. Twitter users in support of this boycott find that “a company who has asked us to celebrate masculinity for 30 years suddenly wants us to feel ashamed of it.” (Grant, 2019). Others agreed with Gillette’s message about harmful gendered stereotypes but remained skeptical about companies like Gillette and Nike using social justice imagery and messages in a calculated attempt to sell products and brand.

Time will tell if such advertising campaigns help or hurt companies’ bottom lines. But the question stands: Is Gillette’s “We Believe” advertisement a smooth use of important social topics or simply another way to gain a positive image among consumers?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was it smart for a company like Gillette to air a commercial like this or do you feel it will inevitably hurt them as a brand? Why do you think this?
  2. Will this affect the future of advertising and the way companies leverage social issues in campaigns?
  3. Do you think Gillette could’ve accomplished their message without sparking an enormous controversy?
  4. Do you agree that it was hypocritical of Gillette to air this commercial or do you think they’re trying to right past wrongs?
  5. Which brands and in which ways could you see classic male brands aligning or disagreeing with Gillette for Men?

Further Information:

Evans, Erica. “Gillette Is Being Praised and Condemned for an Ad about ‘Toxic Masculinity.’ Here’s What People Are Saying.” DeseretNews.com, Deseret News, 15 Jan. 2019, Available at: www.deseretnews.com/article/900050816/gillette-is-being-praised-and-condemned-for-an-ad-about-toxic-masculinity-heres-what-people-are-saying.html

Gant, Michelle. “Gillette Addresses ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in New Ad Campaign.” Fox News, Available at:  www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/gillette-addresses-toxic-masculinity-in-new-ad-campaign

McCluskey, Megan. “Gillette Makes Waves With Controversial New Commercial.” Time, 15 Jan. 2019, Available at: www.time.com/5503156/gillette-razors-toxic-masculinity/

Meyersohn, Nathaniel. “Gillette Says It’s Satisfied with Sales after Controversial Ad.” CNN, 23 Jan. 2019, Available at:  www.cnn.com/2019/01/23/business/gillette-ad-procter-and-gamble-stock/index.html

Authors:

Grace Holland & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 26, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

And Nothing But the Truth

CASE STUDY: Accuracy and Effects in Reporting on War-Torn Congo

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Laura Heaton, a reporter for the NGO, traveled to Luvungi in 2011, a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was known for atrocities such as mass rape that the community had endured in war-torn past decades.  These women had all been attacked by rebel troops surrounding the village as a further weapon in the violence.  Many articles had been written on the mass rape—the largest instance in the world, with 242 reported survivors over a period of four days—with detailed reports from the women on their experiences and trauma.

A couple of years after all the stories had been published, Heaton traveled back to Luvungi with the goal of speaking to the community about how things have improved (or not) since the last reports had been made about the crimes against this community.  When she arrived, she was greeted with villagers simply lining up to once again repeat their stories of their “systematic rape.” After listening to the stories, she sensed that something was wrong.  After looking for more information from the doctors of the village and some of the women themselves, Heaton arrived at a startling realization: although over 200 women had reported being survivors of rape, the actual numbers of rape victims seemed much lower.

Most of the women, Heaton learned, didn’t come forward with stories until after the many Non-Governmental Organizations arrived on the scene to help victims of the violence and rape.  As Heaton continued in her research and talked to more of the women (promising anonymity) she realized that most of them had lied in an attempt to get much-needed medical help from the NGOs.  The organizations gave more food and attention, she claimed, to women who simply said that they had survived rape.

After talking with the women and learning the truth, Heaton wrote and published an article titled “What Happened in Luvungi?” for Foreign Policy about her findings.   While she didn’t critique the amount of aid given to Luvungi—“no one suggests that giving millions of dollars to help this vulnerable, traumatized, population isn’t warranted”—Heaton did question the heavy emphasis on sexual violence in aid organizations (Heaton, 2013). She noted that this may have created the perception that women only get adequate support and welfare if they are victims of rape.  Caring for this community, she continued to visit the village periodically to stay up to date with the women and their experiences.

Since publishing the article, Heaton has received heated criticism about her story.  Eve Ensler, a playwright who opened a recovery center in the Congo in 2011, told Heaton that the article was unnecessary and will lead to new problems for the women of the Congo.  Ensler argued that by pointing out the lying of many of the women involved, the people who funded the recovery centers and foreign aid might not see this as a cause worth supporting any more.  Because some women lied, now all the women who did need help and who had been victims of rape would be hurt even more.  In another follow-up article posted on Foreign Policy, Micah Williams and Will Cragin disputed her facts and accused her of simply wanting to discredit rape victims.

Heaton felt very conflicted about her position.  As a reporter, she believed in telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Like many reporting on war-torn areas of Africa, she also felt that the west too often forgot the problems it helped to create on the continent with its policies and legacy of colonialism. Her article ostensibly focused on the problems with inflating rape numbers, and was not arguing that rape isn’t a problem in similar areas of Africa.  However, she herself began to question how much the truth matters in journalism if it conflicts the pursuing the general welfare, leading her to recently question if publishing her original article was the right thing to do as a journalist concerned about African communities (Warner, 2017).

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in Heaton’s account of the Luvungi situation and its reporting?
  2. What went wrong in the original reporting of the Luvungi atrocities? Did Heaton do the right thing in her reporting on the situation and past stories?
  3. Should Heaton have looked the other way on “correcting” the previous Luvungi stories? What if her corrections hurt donations and attention to this war-torn area?
  4. How should a journalist balance the consequences of their reporting for the social good versus the journalist duty to tell the truth? What if telling the truth mitigates the help a story could bring to a community?
  5. Do reporters have a duty to correct past reporting done by others, especially when it might undo helpful effects of those already published accounts?

Further Information:

Heaton, Laura. “What Happened in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 4 March 2013.
Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/04/what-happened-in-luvungi/

Warner, Gregory, and Fountain, Nick. producers. “The Congo We Listen To.”
Rough Translation, Episode 1, National Public Radio, 28 August 2017. Available at:
www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=545879897

Williams, Micah, and Cragin, Will. “Our Experience in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 5
March 2013. Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/05/our-experience-in-luvungi/

Authors:

Emma Matus & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Social Media Activism or Mere Slacktivism?

CASE STUDY: Was Kony 2012 Social Media Activism or Mere Slacktivism?

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Screencapture: YouTube

On March 5, 2012, Jason Russell, co-founder of the NGO Invisible Children, uploaded a 30-minute film on YouTube titled Kony 2012. In this short film, Russell introduced Americans to the plight of children in northern Uganda who live in fear of being kidnapped by warlord Joseph Kony. With over 100 million views in just six days, this video quickly became a viral sensation, blanketing the feeds of many social media users (Kanczula, 2012). After visiting Africa in 2003 and witnessing the violence led by Kony, Russell says that he was compelled to raise awareness about this vicious Ugandan group in hope that the United States government would intervene to stop this humanitarian tragedy.  His short film focuses on Jacob, a Ugandan boy who lost his brother to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of armed rebels serving Kony that was founded in 1987. The LRA terrorizes African children, forcing them to mutilate the faces of innocent people and kill their parents. Jacob describes the horror of life in Uganda and how he lives every day in fear of the rebels. Jacob is not alone: more than 30,000 Ugandan children have become victims of Kony and the LRA’s inhumane tactics. Russell’s work is both provocative and hopeful: when Jacob cries in the film in fear of one day being kidnapped, American voices console him and make the promise: Kony will be stopped.

This video was very successful in capturing the attention of concerned social media users: over 4 million tweets mentioned Kony after its release (Kanczula, 2012). Brendon Cox, director of policy and advocacy for Save the Children, an NGO with a similar mission to Invisible Children, states that he supports the Kony campaign because “Anything which continues to pressurize world leaders to bring Joseph Kony to justice is to be welcomed…This viral film shows that even though Joseph Kony is in hiding his crimes will not be forgotten.” In addition to creating the most viral video in history, the campaign led to President Obama’s deployment of a small number of U.S. troops in 2011 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture Kony. Support for Invisible Children’s campaign involved over three million social media users who pledged to support “Stop Kony 2012,” including notable celebrities like Oprah and Bill Gates. Many of these supporters gave money to the campaign: over $28 million was raised to publicize the fight against Kony in 2012 alone (Curtis et al., 2012).

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Screencapture: YouTube

Reactions to this instance of online activism were mixed, since it was premised on making Kony’s activities highly public. The goal of this campaign, reiterated many times in Russell’s film, was to make Kony “famous.” While Oprah donated $2 million to this information-based activist campaign, Ugandans threw rocks during a public screening of the film (Smith, 2012). A young Ugandan man captures the source of this anger after the screening by asking, “How can anybody expect me to wear a T-shirt with Kony’s name on it?” Beyond the publicity, others worry about this strategy of making a trend out of unjust individuals. What happens when the trend dies out? “Kony is so last month,” claimed a Twitter user soon after the initial enthusiasm of the campaign faded (Carroll, 2012). Many Ugandans took offense to this American organization’s campaign and its supposed colonial nature. Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire claimed that the film “makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa…about how hopeless African people are in times of conflict” (Curtis et al., 2012). Others voiced concern with potential ulterior motives and short cuts involved in the activist campaign. The film’s sensationalization of Kony and the LRA strategically presented certain information, including hiding the fact that Joseph Kony hadn’t been in Uganda for six years before 2012. Filmmaker Simon Rawles voiced concerns about the motivation for such a persuasive retelling: “I felt a little nauseous watching the film. Couldn’t help but feel the director’s concern was less about addressing the needs of those affected today by the LRA and the complexities of tackling the rebel group, than as serving as a very slick promotional vehicle for his charity” (Curtis et al., 2012). There are some grounds to support this criticism, such as the fact that Invisible Children only spent about 30% of their revenues for directly helping Ugandans affected by the LRA, while the rest was used for film production and staff salaries (Goldberg, 2017).

Others worry that Kony 2012 is a case of “slacktivism,” or easy online efforts being mistaken for real and effective activist movements. Offline efforts connected with this campaign went nowhere: while Russell ardently pleaded for supporters across the world to “cover the night” on April 20, 2012 (i.e., vandalize their hometowns so that Kony’s name would be everywhere), turnout was abysmal. In Los Angeles, the streets were mostly free of Kony posters and young activists (Carroll, 2012). Likewise, in Sydney, Australia, out of 19,000 who registered online to attend a Kony 2012 rally, only 25 actually participated (Marcus, 2012).

Despite the apparent enthusiasm of internet activists, Joseph Kony is still alive and in power in Uganda. The Kony 2012 campaign seemed to raise many questions concerning the ethics and effectiveness of online activism: can social good come out of making the horrific crimes against Ugandan children a “trend” and their tormenter “famous?” Is such publicity-based activism on social media usefully raising awareness, or is it simply a too-easy “slacktivism?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was Kony 2012 an ethically-worthy film? Was the campaign surrounding it ethically valuable? What ethical issues does this film raise?
  2. Does the effectiveness of the film and campaign matter for your moral appraisal of Russell’s efforts? Why or why not?
  3. Is the Kony 2012 campaign an instance of innovative activism or mere “slacktivism?”
  4. What are the ethical concerns with enhancing the publicity or visibility of those doing immoral actions? How might such plans backfire, and what can be done to make them ethical and effective?

Further Information:

Carroll, Rory. “Kony 2012 Cover the Night fails to move from the internet to the streets.” April 21, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/21/kony-2012-campaign-uganda-warlord

Goldberg, Eleanor. “Group Behind ‘Kony 2012’ Closing Because Of Funding Issues.” December 6, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/16/invisible-children-closing_n_6329990.html

Kanczula, Antonia. “Kony 2012 in numbers.” April 20, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/apr/20/kony-2012-facts-numbers

Marcus, Caroline. “Kony 2012 campaign a giant flop in Sydney.” April 21, 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/kony-2012-campaign-a-giant-flop-in-sydney/news-story/23ce5cec882dba81aa8c2058f5b29dcc

Smith, David. “Kony 2012 video screening met with anger in northern Uganda.” March 14, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/14/kony-2012-screening-anger-northern-uganda

Curtis, Polly & McCarthy, Tom. “Kony 2012: What’s the real story?” March 8, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/mar/08/kony-2012-what-s-the-story

Authors:

Michaela Urban & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 23, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

The Ethics of Computer-Generated Actors

CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films

Case Study | Additional Case Studies


By Lucasfilm

Photo: LucasFilm

Long-dead actors continue to achieve a sort of immortality in their films. A new controversy over dead actors is coming to life based upon new uses of visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead of simply using CGI to create stunning action sequences, gorgeous backdrops, and imaginary monsters, film makers have started to use its technological wonders to bring back actors from the grave. What ethical problems circle around the use of digital reincarnations in film making?

The use of CGI to change the look of actors is nothing new. For instance, many films have used such CGI methods to digitally de-age actors with striking results (like those found in the Marvel films), or to create spectacular creatures without much physical reality (such as “Golem” in The Lord of the Rings series). What happens when CGI places an actor into a film through the intervention of technology? A recent example of digital reincarnation in the film industry is found in Fast and Furious 7, where Paul Walker had to be digitally recreated due to his untimely death in the middle of the film’s production. Walker’s brothers had to step in to give a physical form for the visual effect artists to finish off Walker’s character in the movie, and the results brought about mixed reviews as some viewers thought it was “odd” that they were seeing a deceased actor on screen that was recreated digitally. However, many argue that this was the best course of action to take in order to complete film production and honor Paul Walker’s work and character.

Other recent films have continued to bet on using CGI to help recreate characters on the silver screen. For instance, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star War Story used advanced CGI techniques that hint at the ethical problems that lie ahead for film-makers. Peter Cushing was first featured in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope as Grand Moff Tarkin. In the Star Wars timeline, the events that take place in Rogue One lead directly into A New Hope, so the story writers behind the recent Rogue One felt inclined to include Grand Moff Tarkin as a key character in the events leading up to the next film. There was one problem, however: Peter Cushing died in 1994. The film producers were faced with an interesting problem and ultimately decided to use CGI to digitally resurrect Cushing from the grave to reprise his role as the Imperial officer. The result of this addition of Grand Moff Tarkin in the final cut of the film sent shockwaves across the Star Wars fandom, with some presenting arguments in defense of adding Cushing’s character into the film by claiming that “actors don’t own characters” (Tylt.com) and that the fact that the character looked the same over the course of the fictional timeline enhanced the aesthetic effects of the movies. Others, like Catherine Shoard, were more critical. She condemned the film’s risky choice saying, “though Cushing’s estate approved his use in Rogue One, I’m not convinced that if I had built up a formidable acting career, I’d then want to turn in a performance I had bupkis to do with.” Rich Haridy of New Atlas also expressed some criticism over the use of Peter Cushing in the recent Star Wars film by writing, “there is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.”

This use of CGI to bring back dead actors and place them into film raises troubling questions about consent. Assuming that actors should only appear in films that they choose to, how can we be assured that such post-mortem uses are consistent with the actor’s wishes?  Is gaining permission from the relatives of the deceased enough to use an actor’s image or likeness? Additionally, the possibility is increased that CGI can be used to bring unwilling figures into a film. Many films have employed look-alikes to bring presidents or historical figures into a narrative; the possibility of using CGI to bring in exact versions of actors and celebrities into films does not seem that different from this tactic. This filmic use of CGI actors also extends our worries over “deepfakes” (AI-created fake videos) and falsified videos into the murkier realm of fictional products and narratives. While we like continuity in actors as a way to preserve our illusion of reality in films, what ethical pitfalls await us as we CGI the undead—or the unwilling—into our films or artworks?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
  2. What is different about placing a currently living actor into a film through the use of CGI? How does the use of CGI differ from using realistic “look-alike” actors?
  3. What sort of limits would you place on the use of CGI versions of deceased actors? How would you prevent unethical use of deceased actors?
  4. How should society balance concerns with an actor’s (or celebrity’s) public image with an artist’s need to be creative with the tools at their disposal?
  5. What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?

Further Information:

Haridy, R. (2016, December 19). “Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley.” Available at: https://newatlas.com/star-wars-rogue-one-uncanny-valley-hollywood/47008/

Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at: http://whatculture.com/film/8-disturbing-times-actors-were-brought-back-from-the-dead-by-cgi

Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/21/peter-cushing-rogue-one-resurrection-cgi

The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at: https://thetylt.com/entertainment/should-hollywood-use-cgi-to-replace-dead-actors-in-movies

Authors:

William Cuellar & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

When Does Artistic Creativity Become the Exploitation of Children?

CASE STUDY: Photographic Art and Ethics

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Photo: Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Modified

Art foregrounds creativity, imagination, and often includes materials that are meant to shock us out of our ordinary approaches to the world and life. But when does art transgress ethical boundaries normally thought to be operative in relationships among human agents? This debate about the relationship between artistic creativity and ethical norms is on display in the controversy surrounding the work of Sally Mann. Mann is an American photographer famous for her artworks consisting of large black and white photos. She is the mother of three children—Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia—who played the protagonists in her third, and most controversial, photographic book, Immediate Family (1992). Included in the work were 65 pictures of her children carrying on in their everyday lives from the mid-1980s until they reached puberty; causing the bulk of the controversy were 13 pictures of her children in the nude, then aged eleven, nine, and five years old. These naked and often-vulnerable posed pictures of her children caused critics to raise concerns about the work involving child exploitation and child pornography.

One of such critics is Valerie Osbourne. After viewing a picture of Jessie posed on the ground only in rubber galoshes and panties included in Immediate Family, she writes that “She appears so vulnerable and so frail, yet her gaze is so enticing. The image is taken from above, objectifying her. Her gaze falls directly into the lens as if beckoning the viewer to come join her. The name again suggests something sexual and playful; ‘Dirty Jessie.’ This image becomes the most sexual due to the positioning of the camera above her, and the semi-modest touching of her nipples” (Osbourne, 2006).

In this critique, Osbourne points out a common charge among Sally Mann’s critics: her work relies on or emphasizes the sexualization of her children. Others have also condemned her work as being ‘unnecessary’ and “problematic” (Cohen, 2018). Critics are also concerned about the repercussions the photographs would have on the children as they grow older. From posing with cigarettes and “lolita” glasses to pretending to be garroted or strangled in Mann’s photographs, detractors wondered whether Mann was providing them with “props whose dark associations they [couldn’t] begin to understand. Rather than preserving their innocence, the photographs seem[ed] to accelerate their maturity by relying on the knowingness of the viewer” (Woodward, 1992). In fact, after seeking advice from a federal prosecutor, Mann was informed that no less than eight of her pictures could be cause for her arrest (Woodward, 1992). While she may not intended these photographs to be taken in a sexualized fashion, some worry that overzealous or disturbed individuals might see them in this way. This may have been the case when one male fan of her work wrote to her editors, journalists, and the children’s school seeking more information about Mann’s children. Others worry about whether any consent given by her children was valid due to their very young age and lack of them truly understanding the repercussions that being featured in such photographs might bring. They also speculated whether her status as their parent could have unduly influenced her children’s willingness to take part in this artistic project.

Mann defended her work by stating that she had originally not planned to publish the photo books until her children were older and were no longer children. She says in an interview with the New York Times that such a delay was rejected by her children; they were angered, she reports, by her unilateral plan to delay publication. To placate them, she compromised and promised that she would publish the book only after they had met with a psychologist in order to make sure they understood their decision fully. She also gave the children veto power over the pictures included in the photobook; 13 year-old Emmett used his veto to remove a picture of him with socks on his hands and 7-year-old Virginia rejected a picture of her urinating. Furthermore, individual interviews conducted with the children when the book was published and they corroborated their willingness to be portrayed in Immediate Family. Jessie was quoted as saying in her interview that “I have no objections, none. The few times I don’t like it is when I have a friend over and I’m just in my room and Mom says, ‘Picture time,’ and I don’t really want to do it” (Woodward, 1992). Furthermore, Mann vowed that if she ever thought even for a moment that the pictures would harm her children, she would immediately stop. She argued that her photographs had nothing morbid or exploitative in them and only wished that people could see them as she saw them, natural, just like the pictures she had from her childhood taken by her dad.

Although there has not been any legal actions taken against Sally Mann and her photographs, that has not stopped her critics from protesting the book’s release and continued availability. The director of Belfast Exposed photography gallery, Pauline Hadaway, says, “naked or not, exhibitions of children can be precarious, and what is OK or not can be arbitrarily decided” (Jenkins, 2010). Where does creativity in photographic art end and exploitation of children begin?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the artworks of Sally Mann?
  2. Do you think it is important—or even possible—to get informed consent from her children for their photos to be included in Mann’s book?
  3. What general limits should our concerns over the exploitation of children put on artistic creativity? How far can artists go in using children in their artworks?
  4. If you find Mann’s use of her children in her art troubling, is there anything she could have done to produce similar works in an ethical fashion?

Further Information:

Cohen, Alina. “Why Sally Mann’s Photographs of Her Children Can Still Make Viewers Uncomfortable.” Artsy, January 4, 2018. Available at: www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-sally-mann-s-photographs-children-viewers-uncomfortable

Jenkins, Tiffany. “Art or Abuse? A Lament for Lost Innocence.” The Independent, September 14, 2010. Available at: www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-or-abuse-a-lament-for-lost-innocence-2078397.html

Osborn, Valerie. “Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ – The Unflinching and Unafraid Childhood (2006).” ASX, October 26, 2006. Available at: www.americansuburbx.com/2009/11/theory-sally-manns-immediate-family.html

Woodward, Richard B. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” The New York Times, New York Times, September 27, 1992. Available at: www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html

Authors:

Oluwasemilor Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 18, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

“One Does Not Simply Create a Meme”

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Internet Memes

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Most people could never predict that they would become a viral internet sensation overnight. Canadian teenager Ghyslain Raza never thought about this possibility of digital fame until one day he found that a video he created of himself fighting imaginary enemies with a golf-ball retriever had been uploaded on Kazaa, a collective file-sharing network. According to BBC, classmates discovered this video on a school computer and shared it, reaching around 900 million views. It was labeled as the most viral video in 2006 (Tunison, 2017). The “Star Wars Kid” video continued to be shared, sometimes remixed and edited with funny music and visual effects. Ghyslain Raza had unintentionally become a meme.

There are many internet personalities who would relish in the digital limelight that Raza inadvertently stepped into, but he did not. The sudden popularity of his video caused a severe psychological effect on Raza. He immediately faced aggressive bullying at school. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he shared in an interview with L’Actualite. “People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labeled the ‘Star Wars Kid’… [they] were telling me to commit suicide.” Raza eventually dropped out of school before spending time in a psychiatric institution for severe depression. His parents sued the classmates who uploaded the video without permission, which led to further bullying after some in the media claimed that the family was “greedy” (Zimmerman, 2013). Raza eventually overcame the negative repercussions of his unwanted celebrity. He went on to obtain a law degree from McGill University and has been a public supporter for victims of cyberbullying.

Raza’s experience with becoming a meme sparked debate over the ethical concerns of meme creation and sharing, especially when they use images or videos that depict identifiable individuals. Many memes originate from video or pictures being “repurposed” for the goals of the meme creator, including political commentary, satire, and “lulz.” Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, co-authors of The Ambivalent Internet, emphasize that memes are never “just” memes: “The problem is that the ‘just’ framing (just joking, just a meme on the internet, just a new kind of hazing ritual) posits what we describe… as a fetishized gaze, one that obscures everything but the joke itself” (Phillips & Milner, 2017). They argue that regardless of the medium, real people are almost always affected by a meme, whether directly (as in Raza’s case) or indirectly (in the case of a general racist meme).

However, it is the age of the Internet, and who knows how all the videos or images that we post or comment on will be taken by others. Screenshots and online archives simply continue the permanence and ability of others to comment on this content, often in ways we can’t anticipate. The consequences of being immortalized in a popular meme are difficult to predict, given the ever-evolving use of the meme. Sometimes, these unintended uses of images, videos, or other content seems to be a boon to the unsuspecting person depicted in the meme. Kyle Craven, better known as the subject of the “Bad Luck Brian” meme, has made “between $15,000 and $20,000 in [three years] between licensing deals and T-shirts” (Garsd, 2015). “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” a.k.a. Laina Morris, used her meme fame to launch her comedic acting career. Memes can even be considered a part of modern language, signaling a way of communicating among a technological in-group using digital discourse. Above all, memes strive to be clever, creative, and humorous in their appropriation of content and images that most likely where not intended to be comedic in that specific way.

As with many internet phenomena, meme creation often foregrounds a conflict between the freedom of expression of creative meme makes and the privacy concerns of those that may find themselves featured in the meme. How much control should we have over our images and videos, and at what cost to the creativity of the digital world?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical issues with taking a picture or video and making it into a humorous meme?
  2. What concerns about consent are implicated in making image-based memes? Are these concerns with consent present in our other commentary or use of public images?
  3. Does the intention of the meme maker matter? Does it matter if they do not know (or care) about the subject depicted in the image or video content that the meme is based upon?
  4. What ethical guidelines would you propose for those creating image-based memes? How might these avoid harmful consequences or ethical transgressions—foreseen or unforeseen?

Further Information:

Garsd, Jasmine. “Internet Memes and ‘The Right To Be Forgotten.’” NPR, March 3, 2015. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/03/03/390463119/internet-memes-and-the-right-to-be-forgotten

Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Harvard Case Shows a Meme Is Never ‘Just’ A Meme.” Motherboard, June 6, 2017. Available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/zmen4y/the-harvard-case-shows-a-meme-is-never-just-a-meme

Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Complex Ethics of Online Memes.” The Ethics Centre, October 26, 2016. Available at: http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/october-2016/the-complex-ethics-of-online-memes

Tunison, Mike. “The incredibly sad saga of Star Wars Kid.” The Daily Dot, August 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/star-wars-kid-meme/

Weisblott, Marc. “‘Star Wars Kid’ goes on media blitz 10 years later.” Canada.com, May 9, 2013. Available at: https://o.canada.com/entertainment/celebrity/star-wars-kid-goes-on-a-media-blitz-10-years-later

Zimmerman, Neetzan. “‘Star Wars Kid’ Breaks Silence, Says Online Fame Made Him Suicidal.” Gawker, May 10, 2013. Available at: https://gawker.com/star-wars-kid-breaks-silence-says-online-fame-made-h-499800192

Authors:

Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 14, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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