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Written In Only to Be Excluded?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Screenwriting and Diversity in Game of Thrones

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asoiaf-daenerys-targaryen-dothraki-game-of-thronesHBO’s Game of Thrones was one of the most popular fantasy shows in recent memory, with the finale to its last season boasting tens of millions of viewers. While dedicated fans had some things to complain about concerning the series, such as the careless accidental inclusion of a Starbucks coffee cup in a dinner scene, there was a more serious ethical issue that stood out for many. In the third episode of the season, the show depicts a long-awaited battle between an army of undead zombies and the collective forces of the living, officially led by Queen Daenerys, who are defending a major northern city in the show, Winterfell. At the beginning of this epochal night battle, all of the surviving warriors from the nomadic group known as the “Dothraki” bravely charged in the first wave against the approaching army of the undead. As might be predicted, this first wave was wiped out. This frontal assault of the Dothraki occurred without any real support, even though the writers had given the human coalition some of the best air support available in the fictional world of Westeros: two giant fire breathing dragons. After the battle for the north turned south, the army of mostly white-presenting human warriors retreated while the “Unsullied,” a mechanized and efficient group of slave-soldiers played by black actors, covered the retreat with almost-total decimation of their numbers.

Amidst all this drama, many viewers attentive to issues of race and media were not amused. As Native American Dr. Adrienne Keene tweeted after the episode aired, “I’ve always felt like the Dothraki were portrayed like the … indigenous people in [Game of Thrones] and damn did they prove me right tonight. Just got rid of them. All. In the first 10 minutes. Totally disposable.” Another Twitter user, R. O. Kwon, exclaimed, “Did they…really…just…kill off almost all of the POCish [People of Color-ish] people in the front lines of this battle, then turn them into zombies, then kill them all over again?” Godzilla Thee Stallion tweeted “Can we just take a moment to talk about how Dany’s Brown Coalition was placed at the front of the formation? The expectation for them to not only die first but then hold the line for the northern wypipo to retreat was f[—-] up given the fact that they are the ‘outsiders.’” Airea D. Matthews put the lesson succinctly in a post-episode tweet: “Please know I noticed that all the brown and black soldiers died first (Dothraki and Unsullied). Lesson? Don’t march North to fight in wight wars under any circumstance” (Rodriguez, 2019).

Regardless of the narrative steps and missteps in Game of Thrones, a significant ethical issue was raised by this episode. While there are fewer all-white casts in films about all-white characters, Hollywood still faces an “epidemic of invisibility” when it comes to the inclusion of diverse groups and ethnicities in films (Deggans, 2016). Some films, however, strive to live up to ideals of diversity and inclusion by involving more people of color as characters and as actors in their fictional worlds. But they face a new challenge: how should the characters played by actors of color, or closely resembling living people of color through their narrative details, be treated by writers, directors, and film makers? Are these characters to be major or minor, virtuous or viceful, pure or evil? Each choice brings with it potential objection given the cultural complexity of race and film.

One potential problem that has happened time and time again is portraying people of color in film, when they are included at all, through disabling “simpleton narratives.” Zahra Mohamed describes this sort of use of characters of color: “an example is that these characters and their stories that are often told through a Eurocentric lens, where they are ‘assisting’ or ‘tagging along’ with a white character.” In the case of Game of Thrones, this worry seems relevant, considering that the Dothraki (and the Unsullied) followed one of the main characters, the white-skinned and blond-haired Queen Daenerys, acting as her bodyguards and her loyal subjects until the gruesome end. To some, it seems like careless or even pernicious writing when these longtime characters are killed off so quickly to advance the story and to give more screen time to the main—and mainly white—characters. However, some might hold that it does not make sense to devote much time in an episode to secondary characters, those of color or not, and instead to focus on the main characters that the viewers watch the show for; perhaps the larger fault was the casting of so many main characters as white or as played by white actors, instead of how characters of color were treated in this specific battle scene. Another common problem with film is that they too often portray minorities or people of color as evil or as the narrative’s villains. The Dothraki and Unsullied were not portrayed as villainous in Game of Thrones, but instead they seemed characterized as brave and loyal warriors. Was it a fitting move to have them bravely—and perhaps foolishly—charge into an epic battle they could not win? Or should the writers have stayed away from a situation that seemed to render the non-white characters as disposable pawns in a one-sided battle between equally-pale living and undead nobility?

Diversity in characters, and in actors, meets a new level of ethical complexity when we begin to consider how these characters are used or abused. Artists should have the freedom to create their art however they see best, but viewers and critics are also free to attend to the racial dynamics their works create, maintain, or seemingly promote to rapt viewers. Should characters of color always be good or powerful? Under what circumstances is virtuous conduct that erases them from a narrative—like the Dothraki and Unsullied—an ethically good feature of a film or series? As more diverse actors and characters are written into our cherished films and stories, questions about how they are to be treated and written into complex storylines will only proliferate.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What values were at conflict in the reaction to the Game of Thrones battle scene and the actions of its characters of color? Do you agree with one side in this controversy?
  2. What ethical standards or limits should filmmakers and writers be attentive to when writing characters of color into their works?
  3. Should writers and filmmakers be limited to positive portrayals when incorporating people or groups traditionally left out of major cultural narratives?
  4. Are there any circumstances where it is allowable to use actors of color or characters of color in roles that might cause offense to some viewers?
  5. Why should writers and filmmakers consider real world implications for works of fiction like Game of Thrones?

Further Information:

Deggans, Eric “Hollywood Has A Major Diversity Problem, USC Study Finds” NPR, February 22, 2016, Available at:

Makarechi, Kia, “Hollywood’s ‘Race Problem’ Is Worse Than You Think” Huff Post, Updated December 6, 2017. Available at:

Mohamed, Zahra “Indigenous Representation in Media”, December 15, 2019. Available at:

Rodriguez, Angeline “The biggest casualties at the Battle of Winterfell were people of color” The Daily Dot, April 30, 2019. Available at:


Aiden Kanuck and Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 11, 2020

Image: Queen Daenerys Leads the Dothraki / Game of Thrones / HBO / Modified

This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.


To Release or Not to Release

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Glorifying Violent Histories in South Asian Film

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Theatrical Release Poster

On October 31, 1984, two of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguards assassinated her. The political killing came four months after the Prime Minister ordered the raid and siege of a shrine in the Punjabi city of Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex. Sikh separatists controlled the temple and Gandhi sent the Indian Army to oust them from the holy site. Hundreds died; an Indian Army general called it a “killing ground” (Raj & Najar, 2014). The two bodyguards and a third co-conspirator were Sikhs who sought revenge by killing the Prime Minister. Following their ambush of Gandhi, one was shot dead by police in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, and the second was hanged in 1989 for the crime alongside the third. The assassination provoked nationwide violence, with the communal retaliation resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 Sikhs.

Thirty years later, a film titled “Kaum De Heere”—which translates to “Diamonds of the Community”—was on the verge of opening in India. It would not be the first film to deal with Prime Minister Gandhi’s life, legacy, or death, but it would be the first to center on her assassins. In 2014, days before it was slated to be released the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) reversed its clearance of the movie and blocked it from distribution after Home Ministry objections that it could create religious tensions. Leela Samson, the CBFC chairperson, said “the problem lies in the fact that [the film] eulogizes things it shouldn’t … like taking the law into your own hands” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Religious tensions were particularly high when discussing the film, furthering Samson’s concern that it “puts a community or religious group above the interests of the nation” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Citing similar tensions, intelligence agencies warned the film could spark violence among religious communities within India. Youth in the Indian National Congress Party lobbied the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to ban the film because it allegedly glorified the assassins.

One of the producers, Pardeep Bansal, countered these criticisms, stating that “it is a completely balanced film wherein no religion or sect has been belittled” (Raj & Najar, 2014). Another producer, Ravinder Ravi, claimed to have spent time with the families of the two assassins—Satwant and Beant Singh. He argued, “films have been made about political assassinations all over the world, so why can’t a film be made” about Prime Minister Gandhi’s (Biswas, 2014)? What’s more, the Revising Committee screened the film multiple times before originally granting clearance adding to speculation that the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party called for the reversal. By October 2014, the producers had filed an appeal of the decision.

Fast forward to 2019 and the film is finally slated for release. Justice Vibhu Bakhru of the Delhi High Court, which overturned the CBFC ban, argued once the body clears a film, they cannot use law and order as an excuse to halt its release. Bakhru also stated that the board improperly used the unconstitutional Section 6(1) of the Cinematograph Act to justify their decision. The now illegitimate section “enable[d] the Central Government to exercise revisional powers in respect to decisions rendered by CBFC,” and in this case, the procedure dictated by the now defunct policy was not even followed properly, per the high court (Press Trust of India, 2019). The court’s finding supports the producers’ appeal, which argued there was “no factual or legal basis for withdrawal of certificate” to release the film (Press Trust of India, 2019), dismissing concerns of renewed violence as either immaterial or improbable. None of the speculated violence behind the CBFC decision has come to pass since the court cleared the film for release at the end of August and the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party have not mounted significant protests, yet religious tensions are still simmering.

Meanwhile, a new web series on Prime Minister Gandhi is under production. Actress Vidya Balan, who will play Gandhi, claims the series “is not about any political party, [it] is about an individual who goes beyond the party” (Indo-Asian News Service, 2019). Perhaps it too will run into trouble clearing the CBFC; after all, Balan’s argument could just as easily be applied to the Sikh bodyguards as the Prime Minister she’s slated to portray. How can the values of free speech, artistic freedom, and communal safety be balanced in the turbulent media environment of India?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What issues are at stake in dramatized retellings of contentious history, such as the events of Gandhi’s administration or her assassination?
  2. What consideration, if any, should the CBFC—or similar bodies elsewhere—give to political and cultural climate when making censorship decisions?
  3. When making a movie about historical events, is there an ethical responsibility to condemn—or at least not to encourage or valorize—violence and its perpetrators?
  4. More broadly, how do ethics relate to artistic products? Are there subjects that are simply not suitable for art?

Further Information:

Soutik Biswas, “Indira Gandhi assassination: Controversial film blocked.” BBC News, August 22, 2014. Available at:

Indo-Asian News Service, “Vidya Balan on why she decided to make web series on Indira Gandhi.” India Today, August 28, 2019. Available at:

Press Trust of India, “Delhi HC clears release of Punjabi movie ‘Kaum De Heere.’” Business Standard, August 29, 2019. Available at:

Suhasini Raj and Nida Najar, “Film about Indira Gandhi’s assassination is barred from Indian Theaters.” The New York Times, August 22, 2014. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 22, 2020

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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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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:

Harvilla, Robert. “‘The Ted Bundy Tapes Can‘t Put You In His Head. Be Grateful.” The Ringer. January 29, 2019. Available at:

Moore, Suzanne. “Ted Bundy was deeply mediocre – so why are we romanticizing him?” The Guardian, January 28, 2019. Available at:

Obenson, Tambay. “Ted Bundy Biopic Director Joe Berlinger Says His Film Never Glorifies a Killer.” IndieWire, January 28, 2019. Available at:


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

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).


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

Goldberg, Eleanor. “Group Behind ‘Kony 2012’ Closing Because Of Funding Issues.” December 6, 2017. Retrieved from

Kanczula, Antonia. “Kony 2012 in numbers.” April 20, 2012. Retrieved from

Marcus, Caroline. “Kony 2012 campaign a giant flop in Sydney.” April 21, 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from

Smith, David. “Kony 2012 video screening met with anger in northern Uganda.” March 14, 2012. Retrieved from

Curtis, Polly & McCarthy, Tom. “Kony 2012: What’s the real story?” March 8, 2012. Retrieved from


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

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 Ethical Study of Digital Fan Culture

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Cloak of Invisibility:

Perceived Privacy and the Ethical Study of Digital Fan Culture

Dr. Suzanne Scott

Assistant Professor of Radio-Television-Film
University of Texas at Austin

March 26 (Tuesday) ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  CMA 5.136

What ethical challenges arise when scholars research the passionate fan communities that surround popular films, games, or books? Because many academics studying fan culture self-identify as fans and also participate in the fan communities they study, there has long been an unspoken “fans first” policy governing approaches to ethics in the field. But what happens when we ethically feel we owe our research subjects more protections than those required by our Internal Review Boards (IRB), and if so, what motivates this and would these protections meaningfully look like? This presentation will contextualize ongoing ethical debates around whether fan discourse and forms of textual production (like fanfiction or fanart) should be conceptually approached as “texts” or “people.” Through a survey of these histories and core ethical debates, we will explore several interrelated issues ranging from the perceived privacy of fan communities to the ethical best practices of researching industry/fan interactions through contemporary case studies.



Dr. Suzanne Scott is an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research and teaching interests include fan studies, media convergence, digital and participatory culture, social media, transmedia storytelling, comic book culture, and gender studies. Dr. Scott’s current book project, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (NYU Press, April 2019), considers the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as demographic tastemakers, professionals, and promotional partners within convergence culture.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.


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” ( 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:

Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at:

Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at:

The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at:


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

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.

Suicide, Fiction, and Ethics

CASE STUDY: 13 Reasons Why and Fictional Depictions of Suicide

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

On March 31, 2017, Netflix aired 13 Reasons Why, an unconventional show that centers on the suicide of a 17-year-old character, Hannah Baker. This character takes her life and only leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, each one naming a person in her life and explaining how they caused her to commit suicide. The students addressed on the tapes spend the entirety of the 13-episode season trying to come to terms with her death. The show was quite graphic in its portrayals of teen tragedies: it featured an instance of horrific sexual abuse, and the finale ends with a two-minute long scene of Hannah slitting her wrist in the bathtub, later to be found by her parents.

Red Heart On Railway Stop Teenager Suicide

Photo: Max Pixel/CC0

In a case of life potentially imitating art, 15-year-old Bella Herndon committed suicide three days after she binge-watched 13 Reasons Why. Her dad, John Herndon, told reporters that Bella has been bullied since middle school and has struggled with depression. However, a few weeks before Bella’s death, her dad said, “She was doing great. We put her in a new school. She had new friends. They were coming over. She was interacting with them, it was very positive.” Bella’s dad felt that the show was a trigger for his daughter because it seemed to present the idea that suicide is a justified response to the difficulties of bullying. Pleading with the show’s creators, Herndon said, “Stop this. This is wrong. You’re making money off the misery of others.” The producers responded to the Herndon family and other outraged parties with this statement:

Our hearts go out to these families during this difficult time. We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show. We took extra precautions to alert viewers to the nature of content and created a global website to help people find local mental health resources.

Part of the worry over this show concerned a dispute of exactly what effects its gripping depiction of teen suicide had on real audiences. Was its attempt at realism and dramatic portrayal effective at reducing the allure of suicide? The writer of the show, Brian Yorkey, claims, “What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.” Selena Gomez, the co-producer of the show, stated that they “wanted to do [it] in a way where it was honest and could hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option.” Gomez and the show’s other co-creators thought this fictional narrative would spur depressed and suicidal teens to reach out for help and support, making such challenges a matter of serious discussion. Gomez issued another statement saying, “I think that stuff is uncomfortable for people to talk about, but it is happening and hopefully it opened the door for people to actually accept what’s happening and actually go and change it, talk about it.” 

Many mental health advocates and psychologists voiced concerns that this show would only produce more “copycat” responses of suicide. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that after the show aired there was an increase in Google searches using such search strings as “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself.” These searches far exceeded other search terms during this time for strings such as “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention.” Though searches for both pro- and anti-suicide search strings increased after the airing of this show, the worrisome “pro-suicide” searches were 17% higher than searches aimed at preventing suicides.

Connected to these worries were important choices by the show’s creators regarding aesthetic matters of realism and emotional impact which sometimes conflicted with more ideal—but less gripping—ways of depicting suicide. Some psychologists expressed concerns with how suicide was depicted in the show’s fictional narrative. For instance, after Hannah committed suicide, her high school locker was turned into a memorial. While this seems like a very possible reaction of her peers, some psychologists pointed out that this is not a constructive way for schools to react in response to a student’s suicide. Such an action may be understood by some students as glamorizing an act of suicide. Even the central narrative device of Hannah leaving tapes explaining how she was mistreated by students and peers was also criticized, since it seemed to display suicide as a possibly legitimate or effective form of revenge. Given such concerns, suicide prevention specialists had advised the producers to not release the series.

The first season aired despite these complaints, and plans were set for another season of 13 Reasons Why. This second iteration added a viewer warning before the show’s first episode in addition to its existing TV-MA (mature audiences only) rating, and graphic warning signs were placed before the episodes containing depictions of sexual abuse and suicide. Netflix has also launched an accompanying website ( that contains information for viewers struggling with suicide and mental health issues.

Recent studies exploring the effects of both seasons of 13 Reasons Why have added oxygen to the controversies surrounding this show. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed a 28.9% increase in suicide among Americans ages 10-17 in the month following the show’s release (Schwartz, 2019). While this study cannot prove that the show caused this increase, this finding is worrisome for the defenders of the show’s positive effects. The empirical results are not conclusive, however; a Netflix spokesperson pointed to another study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania which found that viewers of the second season aged 18-29 “reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all.” This second study also found that those who ceased watching the second season of 13 Reasons Why before its end “exhibited greater suicide risk and less optimism about the future than those who continued to the end” (Schwartz, 2019).

The series’ co-producer, Selena Gomez, admits that “the content is complicated, it’s dark and it has moments that are honestly really hard to swallow.” But questions remain about potentially limiting film and art in general if they turn out to be harmful. Critics of this show continue to ask—is such a realistic and gripping narrative the best way to address the tragedy of teen suicide most effectively?

Discussion Questions:           

  1. Should have the creators of 13 Reasons Why written and produced the show in this specific way? Why or why not?
  2. What are the important ethical decisions that must be made by a show depicting teen suicide and mental health issues?
  3. What are the conflicts between artistic or aesthetic values and ethical values in this case?
  4. Must good art always have positive effects? What if an artwork created negative consequences among those watching or listening to it?
  5. How should an artist balance the value of creativity with concerns of social benefit? What if the most realistic depiction of some phenomena wasn’t the best way to prevent future cases of it?

Further Information:

“Families blame ’13 Reasons Why’ for 2 teens’ suicides.” Fox News, June 27, 2017. Available at:

Jon Blistein, “Netflix adds more advisory warnings to ’13 Reasons Why.’” Rolling Stone, May 2, 2017. Available at:

Katie Kindelan and Sabina Ghebremdhin, “2 California families claim ‘13 Reasons Why’ triggered teens’ suicides.” ABC News, June 28, 2017. Available at:

“2 families endure suicides, blame popular Netflix show.” KTVU, June 26, 2017. Available at:

Lindsay Holmes, “’13 Reasons Why’ led to a major increase in suicide internet searches.” Huffington Post, August 2, 2017. Available at: 5980808be4b0d6e28a107dbe

Sadaf Ahsan, “Did 13 Reasons Why lead to a rise in suicide rates?” National Post, August 1, 2017. Available at:

Matthew Schwartz, “Teen Suicide Spiked After Debut Of Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why,’ Study Says.” National Public Radio, April 30, 2019. Available at:


Morgan Malouf
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
May 6, 2019

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 use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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