Fantasy and Morality

Some months ago, I wrote that the film version of Interview With the Vampire was an immoral movie glorifying and justifying violence against women. Since then, I have had many hurt and angry letters from Anne Rice fans; the common theme is, "Get off your high horse; its just a fantasy."

I have two things to say about my "high horse." First, the whole point of writing and publishing The Ethical Spectacle is for me to make sometimes high-handed ethical judgments with which my readers may not agree. Don't like it? Don't point your browser to More seriously, I believe that the remark "Get off your high horse" typically may be paraphrased as follows: "Your ideas irritate me because I cannot easily counter them, or do not wish to be bothered. Therefore, I will criticize you for having them."

Let's examine the proposition that calling something a "fantasy" exempts it from having any bearing on "morality." I think J.R.R. Tolkien, progenitor of modern fantasy literature, would have been quite shocked by this idea; after all, the Lord of the Rings is the quintessential morality play, the battle of light versus dark. In fact, most fantasy writers would be surprised by the assertion that labelling something fantasy means that it should not be construed to communicate any moral ideas.

First Amendment case law is not directly on point here--we are discussing morality, not law--but sheds some light. The First Amendment protects the expression of ideas, not just good ones, not just ideas we agree with, but all ideas. It is clearly established that virtually every written word is First Amendment-protected, for the simple reason that every written word communicates an idea. As Catharine Mackinnon has observed, the idea communicated by pornography is the subjection, humiliation and even destruction of women. Nowhere are these ideas more clearly expressed than in the film Interview with the Vampire, which is why I called it a form of pornography in my essay.

The theory of memetics also supports the idea that ideas replicate themselves through human brains by way not only of scholarly books but via folktales, films, fantasies and all other forms of entertainment. The meme--the idea--communicated by Interview is that superior beings exist who have a right, by virtue of their superiority, to humiliate and kill other people, especially women.

Of course, by saying that the film was "only a fantasy," the people who wrote me may not be saying that the film communicated no ideas; they may only be saying that no-one takes such ideas seriously. But, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "every idea is an incitement." One man wrote me to say that he thoroughly enjoyed Interview, yet had never beaten his wife in eighteen years of marriage. But I think we are entitled to evaluate the ideas contained in a film--and the morality of those ideas--without needing to prove that a particular viewer committed a particular act as a result. Movies, along with the rest of the popular culture, are the ocean we swim in, and the ideas communicated are the plankton we feed on as we grow. We are the sum of all the choices we make, and the choices are based on the information we receive about the world; a large part of that information is in the ideas we ingest from popular culture. To say that there is no nexus between movies and morality--that movies are not meant to respond to our hunger at a given moment for moral or immoral tales, and then confirm us in our moral or immoral judgments--is patently false.

There has been an unsettling evolution in the moral structure of our films. Since violence appeals to the darkest part of us, and is inherently entertaining, movies have always dealt with the question of how to satisfy that hunger while containing it within a moral structure that would satisfy the Hayes Office of old or the rating system of today. This led to an equivocal, hypocritical balance in which we participated in and enjoyed the violence, but were pardoned for our enjoyment by the eventual destruction of the malefactor. Nowhere is this balance more clearly expressed than in movies about violence against women, where the audience is invited to enjoy the rape--frequently very erotically, enticingly portrayed-- and then the later killing or punishment of the rapist. The eventual punishment of evil was not required by the morality of the creators of films--who want to give the audience whatever it will pay to see--but was only a sop to the externally imposed censorship of Hayes or the rating system. Now, as public standards of acceptable entertainment have slipped, Hollywood is beginning to give us stories of superior beings who have a right to kill--the protagonists of Basic Instinct, the vampires of Interview, and the sociopathic lovers in Oliver Stone's unsuccessful attempt to stand the genre on its head, Natural Born Killers (which ended up becoming what it intended to lampoon).

Self-styled "fantasy" or "horror" or "science fiction" movies frequently use their unreal settings as an excuse for amorality. (Thus "Its only a fantasy" is as much an excuse of the creators as it is of the consumers of this genre.) The spectacle of Harrison Ford relentlessly hunting down and killing a half-clad woman in Blade Runner was justified by the plot device that she was a murderous android without feelings; but we were still watching a actress playing a character who ran, dodged, tried to survive, and (as I recall) bled when shot. Numerous movies since then have shown graphic and grotesque assaults on women, on the asorted grounds that they were really men (Ace Ventura), were inhabited by aliens (The Hidden), or were shapeshifters (Star Trek VI). The fantasy setting, rather than releasing us from any moral implication, is actually an excuse to satisfy deep desires for violence without taking any responsibility for them. The catharsis (itself immoral, incomplete and unsatisfactory for civilized beings) inherent in the eventual punishment of evil-doers has been replaced by the justification that the woman in the story wasn't really a woman, or was not even human. It is not a big step from there to the concept that women in general (or any other class of human beings standing between us and a desire) are not human.

I watched the O.J. Simpson verdict live with thirty people in my company's offices, and found that a twenty-three year old man sitting next to me-- who can talk volubly about Postman, Barthes, Baudrillard--thought Simpson was guilty but was glad he got off. Although longing to be a Nietszchean superman, beyond good and evil, may be particularly a flaw of the educated young, it is not exclusive to them. My young colleague is probably representative of millions of others who are glad that, even if they cannot do it themselves, someone else can slash a woman's throat and get away stone free. Movies like Interview pander to this desire.

Please don't construe this--some certainly will, no matter what I say--as a call for government or even private censorship. Interview is absolutely First Amendment-protected; I am not even calling for an industry rating system that would exclude it from theaters (though I would like to see an end to the hypocrisy that rates sexual violence acceptable for younger audiences than sex).

If there is any censorship, it can only occur in the artist's mind, and it should occur because of the artist's own judgment, not because of any threat of government intervention. Not everything that I think about you will I say to you; not everything that I daydream will I tell you about. Not every story is worth telling. If we recognize that an artist is constantly making choices, why do we regard the moral domain as being wholly unconnected to the artistic, and moral choices as absent from the menu from which the artist selects? Every picture tells a story, and every story has a moral. An artist deciding not to tell a story because it may do more harm than good is no different than my deciding not to express an opinion to you because it will harm more than help.

Of course, criticism by others is not the same as censorship. I would like to see more voices raised against movies like Interview; for this to happen, recognition is necessary that words and images matter, that every movie communicates an idea, that every idea is an incitement, and that "its only a fantasy" is not an excuse.