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Halloween Hijinks and Internet Shaming

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Racially Insensitive Costumes

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Stock Photo: Pixabay

Halloween is a holiday that many Americans wait for all year to bring out their creative costumes—funny, crude, or scary.  Inevitably, some of these costumes will be judged by others as insensitive. Recently, the issue made national headlines when fourteen staff members of Middleton Heights Elementary School were criticized for offensive Halloween costumes. Playing off of the controversies surrounding President Trump’s proposed border wall, a group of Middleton staff members held maracas and wore sombreros or ponchos marked with the phrase “Mexican,”, while another group had Trump’s MAGA slogan plastered across a makeshift border wall in reference to his border security plan. Both groups embodied these partisan and offensive labels into costumes they then wore to the elementary school. On October 31, 2018, photos of staff members in these costumes were published on the Middleton School District’s website, which then quickly spread across the nation.

The public, it seemed, was not amused by these Halloween frivolities. By November 3, the participants were placed on paid administrative leave while further investigation took place. Superintendent of the school district Josh Middleton stated that “This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District.’’ He admitted that this was “an unfortunate incident of very poor judgement,” but expressed that this is not representative of either the school district or the teachers. Within days, it was revealed that all of the involved staff, except for Principal Kim Atkinson, were reinstated and the investigation only discovered “love and commitment” of the staff members involved. Additionally, the staff involved in the incident released an apology. To clarify the purpose of the after-school event, the superintendent claimed that it was a team-building exercise with a focus on kindness and education regarding other cultures where staff members were divided and named after countries.

Similarly, the intentions of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights were argued to be, at worst, misguided and good in nature. News of the staff members’ consequences and the negative response across the nation spurred the creation of an online petition in favor of the staff members called “Save our Middleton Staff, Teachers, and Principal.” Supporters also left comments on the petition, such as “Unfortunately, the photos were very controversial. However, we believe it’s been blown out of proportion,” and “I support our teachers 100% and know they did not do this as racial hatred! They are amazing individuals and I’m proud to have them teaching my children!” The petition and its supporters argued that the events should not obscure the ability of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights to be loving and supportive of students.

But is the image created by their costumes too much to overcome in regard to what some students might expect of an educator? Despite the intentions of the Middleton staff members, there is concern about their ability to educate and foster inclusive environments for minority students. The 2017 U.S. census reports that Middleton has a Latino population of 9.5 percent, and Idaho Ed Trends reports that the elementary school has a Hispanic demographic of 12.9 percent; these facts could worry those that say these costume antics will displease or exclude significant populations of students. A former public school teacher, Meredith St. Clair, said in a letter to the school board that “I feel that everyone does have a right to free speech and their own beliefs, politically and otherwise, but we cannot bring these into the classroom.” St. Clair argued that “If we’re doing this overtly, what are the covert, the underlying messages that are being sent to these children on a daily basis” (Katz & Moeller, 2018)? Other critics have taken to the internet to raise support, creating a petition called “No Racism in Middleton School District” that highlights a set of demands to approach racism—including “culturally relevant curriculum, policy change, review of hiring practices, and district wide training” (Mondragon, 2018).

The counter-petition involves individuals from across the U.S., and not simply from the school district or Idaho; likewise, its point is integrated into a national conversation over racial sensitivity.  Outrage over this seemingly small instance has grown national in scope. Those thinking more about how much controversy ill-chosen costumes bring up are asking the question: How much do the supposedly good intentions of the staff members wearing the offensive costumes matter?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the Halloween costumes at the center of this case?
  2. Are the costumes an instance of speech or expressive conduct? Why or why not?
  3. How should the school district react to those educators that were involved in this party? What principle are you basing this reaction on, and do you think it will be useful for the next instance of controversial Halloween costumes?
  4. Are there conditions under which such culturally insensitive costumes can be worn?

Further Information:

Foy, Nicole. “Frustrations Fly at Middleton School Board Meeting.” Idaho Press, 13 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/frustrations-fly-at-middleton-school-board-meeting/article_2fdd6358-7ff7-5f07-be14-7411450ab370.html.

Foy, Nicole. “Middleton Costumes Expose Racial Fault Lines in Canyon County.” Idaho Press, 17 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/middleton-costumes-expose-racial-fault-lines-in-canyon-county/article_82cdc0b5-16a8-596a-afe8-7f78e7fe1bb0.html.

Katz, Michael, and Katy Moeller. “Middleton Heights Staff Placed on Administrative Leave over Controversial Halloween Outfits.” Idahostatesman, Idaho Statesman, 3 Nov. 2018, www.idahostatesman.com/latest-news/article221074560.html.

Mondragon, Estefania. “Sign the Petition: No Racism in Middleton School District.” MoveOn Petitions, 2018, https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/no-racism-in-middleton.

O’Kane, Caitlin. “Thousands Sign Competing Petitions over Teachers Who Wore Border Wall Costumes.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 6 Nov. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/thousands-sign-competing-petitions-over-idaho-teachers-who-wore-border-wall-costume/.

Authors:

Sophia Park & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 3, 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.

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.

The Ethics of Computer-Generated Actors

CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films

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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

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


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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.

When Actors Become Characters

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Real-Person Fan Fiction

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In the world of fan fiction, there is a thin line between creative works by fans who admire and take inspiration from their favorite celebrities and stories that might be harmful to that person’s identity and reputation. A popular subgenre within the fanfiction world is called “real-person fanfiction” or RPF. This subgenre of fanfiction occurs when fans write their favorite public figures—including actors, athletes, and musicians—into fictional stories. These realities are created, owned, and controlled by fans, leading to a wide array of creative and sometimes disturbing storylines. For instance, one story depicts an adulterous affairs between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whereas another story is titled “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” The latter story is controversial precisely because of narrative events such as the following: “‘I’ve never been with a man, either, Jesus. I’m scared, just like you are, but we can’t let our fears rule us! I love you, Jesus. Do you love me?’ Hitler’s eyes had tears in them. Jesus smiles. ‘Yes, Hitler. I love you.’ They embraced. Again, they kissed passionately” (Angkras, 2010). Beyond the offense given to religious communities in this story, other real-person fanfiction narratives range from wholesome but mundane stories to hardcore explicit erotica. There are also hundreds of thousands of fanfictions tagged as “incest,” “rape/non-con[sensual],” ”domestic violence,” and ”underage sex,” a range of often-forbidden topics enabled by the freedom of expression and creativity afforded in the often-anonymous world of fanfiction writing.

Controversy over the ethics of fanfiction gets even more intense when its subjects are contemporary real individuals such as celebrities. Fans have used the abilities to create and quickly share content in digital form to write their favorite public figures into scenarios the fan may have fantasized about, but which may be taboo in real life and shocking to the actor or celebrity depicted. In most communities, sexual relationships between siblings is generally stigmatized; in the digital arena of fanfiction, amateur authors can safely “publish” narratives such as “Taken,” written by “Missbeizy,” which depicts a fictional sexual relationship between the actor Elijah Wood and his sister in its made-up story line. Siblings such as James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter series, as well as the actors Liam and Chris Hemsworth, have also been the protagonists in such lurid fan-written creations. While many RPF creations function as satire or as simply bad story-telling, other fan creations feature well-known actors or celebrities being brutally raped or in scenarios involving underage sexual encounters. All of these raise the question of how much control a real but public person has over his or her image in fictional creations.

Fans of fanfiction have debated such controversial extremes. Celebrities have taken to social media to air their personal opinions about fanfictions and real-person fanfiction narratives. For instance, Lynn Flewelling, author of The Nightrunner Series, has not been shy about her feelings: “That being said, here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL. Anyone still unclear on my feelings should read the previous sentence again.” Celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender have encountered their own fanfiction echoes and seem to be amused by them. On The Graham Norton Show, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender were read the synopses of multiple fanfictions about themselves; Fassbender called them “amazing” and McAvoy joked after reading one about him having Fassbender’s baby, “IVF can do incredible things these days” (BBC, 2014).

Fans also have been divided in their opinions of real-person fanfiction. Some argue that it is their right to creative expression and that this a way for them to put their admiration and love for these celebrities into words. They claim that it does no harm as long as it is respectful, described appropriately as “fiction,” and published on the right websites. A now-defunct Reddit user defended real-person fanfiction by stating that “celebrities do have a right to privacy, but most RPF writers aren’t engaging in behavior that the celebrity should find troubling. We don’t stalk them, we don’t approach them in real life and we don’t actually believe that our made-up stories are real” ([deleted], 2018). Other fans who oppose these creations also publicly worry about the potential harms that such stories might spawn: “I’m sure there are quality stories out there, but I think the fact fanfiction deals with real people and, from what I’ve seen around, can also feed delusions about these real people which creeps me out to some extent” (Andy, 2015).

Given that “real” art is often transgressive and offensive, and that it often uses or targets real people, the question becomes: How should we think about the ethics of fan-created expressive works that center on and feature real people who may not agree with such a usage? What are the limits to our thoughts and expressions involving celebrities and public figures? When does fan fiction become a real ethical problem?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical concerns and problems with real-person fanfiction (RPF)?
  2. What ethical values are in conflict when fans create RPF works and celebrities attempt to control their public image?
  3. What are the ethical lines that RPF should not cross? Would these limits apply to professional artists who often base fictional stories on real-life events and figures?
  4. Some art is specifically designed to lampoon, criticize, or embarrass its real-life subjects. Might RPF serve this critical function? If so, how does this impact your judgments of the ethics of RPF works?

Further Information:

Andy. “Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Fanfiction” Seoulbeats, August 14, 2015, http://seoulbeats.com/2015/08/roundtable-lets-talk-about-fanfiction/

Angkras. “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” Fanfiction.net, July 10, 2010, https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6130321/1/Jesus-and-Hitler-A-Romance

Anonymous. “Ms. Brie.” Archive of Our Own, August 19, 2016, https://archiveofourown.org/works/2775158/chapters/6223796

BBC. “Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy’s fan art romance – The Graham Norton Show – BBC”. YouTube, May 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrwnzT8vK0w

[deleted]. “RE: Is writing RPF fanfiction really a bad thing?”August 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/FanFiction/comments/94dn8j/is_writing_rpf_fanfiction_really_a_bad_thing/

Flewelling, Lynn. “Lynn Speaks Re: Fanfiction.” December 11, 2004, https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Flewelling/conversations/messages/17267

Missbeizy. “Taken.” Archive of Our Own, December 12, 2014, https://archiveofourown.org/works/14587089

SapphicAndSarcastic. “The Rape of Jensen.” Archive of Our Own, March 6, 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10120133

Authors:

Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 26, 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 use. 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.

Values Preserved in Stone

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Confederate Memorials

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Jesus Nazario Photo cropped

Photo: Jesus Nazario

In the dead of night of August 20, 2018, the University of Texas removed four statues on the south mall of the campus. Three of these statues depicted the Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan. The statues were removed in response to violent protests over Confederate monuments in Charlotte, Virginia. Two years before these statues were removed, the university took down a prominent statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, stated that these statues were removed because they are depictions “that run counter to the university’s core values.” The men portrayed by the statues were important figures in the history of the Civil War and the United States, but many argue that they stood for a cause that is contrary to the values of our current society. Much debate has risen as to whether figures like these should be presented and honored in our public areas.

Some argue that these statues must remain to remind us of our nation’s history, whether that history is good or bad. They claim that these monuments do not have to represent a celebration of slavery or a commemoration to the Confederacy, but rather as a reminder of our past. For instance, Lawrence Kuznar of the Washington Post argues that “when racists revere these monuments, those of us who oppose racism should double our efforts to use these monuments as tools for education. Auschwitz and Dachau stand as mute testimonials to a past that Europeans would never want to forget or repeat. Why not our Confederate monuments?” In an attempt to shift the focus of these monuments to education, many local governments have chosen to supplement confederate monuments with additional context and information to increase its educational value. For example, a historical commission in Raleigh, North Carolina voted to supplement its confederate statues “with adjacent signs about ‘the consequences of slavery’ and the ‘subsequent oppressive subjugation of African American people.’” Supplemental information is provided to help to relieve the negative effect of the statues while maintaining or increasing their educational value.

To many other observers, however, these statues can only be perceived as a symbolic celebration of white power and racial inequality because of the people they depict. To some, the symbolic significance of the statues outweighs any historical significance. Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University, believes that “no one claims that we should erase the Confederacy and its leaders from the historical record. Far from it. We should certainly remember them and continue to study their history. We just should not honor them.” The men commemorated by the statues in discussion fought to defend slavery. Although the institution of slavery has been removed from the United States, racial divides still dominate much of the social and political discourse. For opponents of these statues on Texas’s campus, honoring these white men who risked their lives and the unity of their country to protect their right to enslave others does not present a positive image for furthering the contemporary cause of racial equality. The historical lesson depicted by these statues could, some argue, be preserved in a museum without the implications of placing a negative symbol in a public area.

empty statue

Photo: Colin Frick

Proponents of the removal of confederate statues often challenge the primary motivations for building these statues. Typically, the statues in question were not created during the Civil War or even during the reconstruction era. The four confederate statues at UT were placed in 1933, nearly 70 years after the end of the Civil War. Some argue that the decision to commemorate the Confederate leaders may reveal more about the statues’ builders’ desires to maintain segregation in the 1930s than the commemorated men’s fight to protect slavery in the late 1800s. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, defended the University’s decision to remove the statues by referencing the historical context of when the statues were built. He argued that because the statues were “erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation” this implied that “the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans.” The statues were commissioned by George Littlefield, a man who supported segregation so strongly that “the inscription on his namesake fountain honors the South’s fight for secession.” Supporters of the removal of the statues contend that the statues do not create a welcoming educational environment for African American students, past or present.

Statues of notable figures as those that dot campuses such as the University of Texas at Austin provide a powerful way to integrate the history of regions and institutions into everyday spaces. But they also enshrine histories that are value-laden, and our moral values change over time. Who should be honored in our monuments, and when should we knock certain figures off their literal pedestals in our public spaces?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the various values in conflict when it comes to monuments honoring confederate leaders?
  2. What role to the motives or intentions of those who installed the statue play in the ethics of removing or leaving in place such statues? What role do our contemporary reactions to the memorialized figures play these disputes?
  3.  To what lengths can communities go in their quest to remove these statues? Is vandalism and destruction of these statues ethically problematic? Why or why not?
  4. Is there any hope for these statues being “reframed” in public spaces? Or is removal the only option?
  5. Are there any ethical issues or considerations that must be dealt with if the removed statues are displayed elsewhere, such as in a museum?

Further Information:

Nelson, Sophia. “Opinion: Don’t Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here’s Why.” NBC News, June 1, 2017. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/news/opinion-why-i-feel- confederate-monuments-should-stay-ncna767221

Kuznar, Lawrence. “I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain.” The Washington Post, August 18,  2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-detest-our-confederate-monuments-but-they-should-remain/2017/08/18/13d25fe8-843c-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html

Watkins, Matthew. “UT-Austin removes Confederate statues in the middle of the night.” Texas Tribune, August 21, 2017. Available at: https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/20/ut-austin-removing-confederate-statues-middle-night/

Somin, Ilya. “The case for taking down Confederate monuments.” The Washington Post, May 17, 2017. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/17/the-case-for-taking-down-confederate-monuments/

Waggoner, Martha & Robertson, Gary. “North Carolina will keep 3 Confederate monuments at Capitol.” Associated Press, August 22, 2018. Available at https://apnews.com/c0cb1c1ed22a4302bb638748a4e62217

Fenves, Gregory (2017). Confederate Statues on Campus [transcript]. Retrieved from https://president.utexas.edu/messages/confederate-statues-on-campus

McCann, Mac. “Written in Stone: History of racism lives on in UT monuments” Austin Chronicle, May 29, 2015. Available at https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2015-05-29/written-in-stone/

Authors:

Colin Frick & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 31, 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 use. 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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