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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.
CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films
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?
- What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?
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
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.
CASE STUDY: 13 Reasons Why and Fictional Depictions of Suicide
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.
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 (13ReasonsWhy.info) 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?
- Should have the creators of 13 Reasons Why written and produced the show in this specific way? Why or why not?
- What are the important ethical decisions that must be made by a show depicting teen suicide and mental health issues?
- What are the conflicts between artistic or aesthetic values and ethical values in this case?
- Must good art always have positive effects? What if an artwork created negative consequences among those watching or listening to it?
- 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?
“Families blame ’13 Reasons Why’ for 2 teens’ suicides.” Fox News, June 27, 2017. Available at: http://www.foxnews.com/health/2017/06/27/families-blame-13-reasons-why-for-2-teens-suicides.html
Jon Blistein, “Netflix adds more advisory warnings to ’13 Reasons Why.’” Rolling Stone, May 2, 2017. Available at: https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/netflix-adds-more-advisory-warnings-to-13-reasons-why-w480108
Katie Kindelan and Sabina Ghebremdhin, “2 California families claim ‘13 Reasons Why’ triggered teens’ suicides.” ABC News, June 28, 2017. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/california-families-claim-13-reasons-triggered-teens-suicides/story?id=48323640
“2 families endure suicides, blame popular Netflix show.” KTVU, June 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.ktvu.com/news/2-families-endure-suicides-blame-popular-netflix-show
Lindsay Holmes, “’13 Reasons Why’ led to a major increase in suicide internet searches.” Huffington Post, August 2, 2017. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/13-reasons-why-suicide-search_us_ 5980808be4b0d6e28a107dbe
Sadaf Ahsan, “Did 13 Reasons Why lead to a rise in suicide rates?” National Post, August 1, 2017. Available at: http://nationalpost.com/entertainment/television/did-13-reasons-why-lead-to-a-rise-in-suicide-rates
Matthew Schwartz, “Teen Suicide Spiked After Debut Of Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why,’ Study Says.” National Public Radio, April 30, 2019. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/04/30/718529255/teen-suicide-spiked-after-debut-of-netflixs-13-reasons-why-report-says
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.
Media Criticism in Turbulent Times: A Panel Discussion
April 25, 2018 (Wednesday) — 3:30-4:30pm — BMC 5.208
What is the role of media criticism in our turbulent political times? How should we react to the messages and myths our movies, news, and politicians attempt to sell to us? Is being “critical” a bad word for democratic citizens? In this exciting Media Ethics Initiative event, a panel of distinguished communication scholars will discuss the role of criticism and critics in navigating all the media we experience in our technological democracy. Drawing upon their work in rhetoric, communication studies, and media studies, our panelists will consider the limits of criticism as well as its importance in tumultuous times such as our present. Confirmed participants include:
Dr. Rod Hart / Communication Studies
Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller / Rhetoric & Writing
Dr. Barry Brummett / Communication Studies
Dr. Michael Butterworth / Communication Studies
Moderated by Dr. Scott Stroud / Communication Studies