With my last day and a half turning into something of a wash, the last session I attended was a Sunday morning panel sonsored by the ethics section entitled Hooray for Hollywood? Ethics and Entertainment. The session was presided by Elijah Siegler from the College of Charleston, and the panelists included Barbara Barnett from the University of Chicago, Gabriella Lettini from Starr King School for the Ministry, Crystal Downing from Messiah College, Donna Yarri from Alvernia College, and Jennifer Ayres from Emory University. I certainly saved the best for last because this was the most diverse, interesting session I attended.
The first presenter, Barbara Barnett, wrote about the ethical implications of the contemporary remake of Battlestar Galactica on the Sci Fi Channel. Barnett sees the program as a useful tool to teach ethics in the classroom. The overriding question Barnett sees the series raise concerns human dignity. She raised four particular themes for discussion: 1) the grounding of moral norms in a pluralistic society; 2) the plasticity of the category of rights bearer; 3) defining ethical limits in the face of extreme social peril; and 4) the end of morality (what kind of humanity is worth saving). Barnett sees the series as a way to discuss these themes and especially their implications for the creation of a “preferred future.” She noted science fiction’s visions of the “probable” or “possible” future as entres into visions of how the future should be. Of course, the series’ length, complexity, and heavy adult content hamper worry-free classroom use.
The second presenter, Gabriella Lettini, spoke about Children of Men. While I am still somewhat ambivalent about the film, I found her arguments very compelling. Professor Lettini noted the obvious connections between the film’s miracle child and the Jesus story, especially since the film was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day. However, she argues that Cuaron does not necessarily intend for a one-to-one correlation but nuances the situation. The miracle baby in Children of Men needs the ark that rescues her in the end, and the ark needs the baby to create a better future. Lettini was keen to stress the activism that the film inspires, citing Theo’s life-giving involvement in assuring Key’s safety. I part with Lettini’s analysis, however, when she regards Key as a strong-willed positive character. Key is helpless without Theo (note his divine name) and others’ help and is even portrayed as a piece of cattle at one moment in the film as she stands naked in a barn.
Crystal Downing presented the next paper on The Queen, and, in my opinion, it was the best of the conference (at least of those I heard, and I would still welcome all takers). Downing talked about the process of “traditioning” in the film and noted its implications for negotiating traditions in religious communities. When do we give up particular traditions? When do we adapt others or adopt new ones? These kinds of questions were clearly raised by Princess Diana’s death and the royal family’s reaction to it. Downing gave an absolutely brilliant cinematic critique of the film, noting Frear’s miraculous camerawork, and weaved it seamlessly to support her thematic analysis. Her most telling point was that both Blair and Queen Elizabeth must betray their closest colleagues to practice “traditioning” (Blair’s defense of the Queen and the Queen’s ultimate defiance of her husband and mother). Dawson notes the implication of treason in all forms of tradition(ing) and the resultant broken ideological comfort zones.
The fourth presentation was on The Sopranos but the author, Donna Yarri, was not present, and ironically, one of her colleagues who disagrees with her arguments and is not a fan of the show (as an Italian American, he is offended by the series’ racial stereotypes) had to read it. This was the weakest paper on the panel with very shallow analysis. Yarri looked at representations of the mafia and real families, women, religion, and the pursuit of the American dream. Unfortunately, there was nothing original to report.
The final presentation by Jennifer Ayres centered on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Ayres questioned the ethical implications of these programs and asked whether these films form citizens or cynics. Thankfully, she included clips of both programs that illustrated John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s different, yet complementary, styles. She also discussed the uses and differences between satire and parody in critiquing power structures. Ayres, and Lettini agreed, emphasized the danger of complacency from this type of programming and stressed the necessity of getting off the couch in pursuit of action to effect positive social change.