Do Films Need to Be Moral?

January 5, 2012 — 9 Comments

In a discussion with my friend, Bondo, about a recent indie film I have not yet seen, Bellflower, a question came up. Do we need to agree with a film’s morals for it to be good? It’s a question that will inevitably come up when one delves far enough into films thematically. This, of course, leads to an even larger question: does art need to be moral at all? These are questions that get at the heart of how we approach films and film criticism. Pondering the questions for a little while, I think I’ve settled on an answer. Yes, good film must be moral and morally justifiable, otherwise it cannot truly be called ‘good’.

There are some caveats. First of all, I think it’s important to separate morality and world-view. For example, when considering Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, I had to come to terms with the fact that I fundamentally disagree with what I consider to be the film’s very nihilistic world-view. I’m still struggling with that. How can I say that I’ve enjoyed a film when I didn’t enjoy what the film was saying? Where I landed was that my enjoyment was slightly impeded, but it that was made up for by the amount that the film got me thinking about its themes. All that said, the film’s world-view may be disagreeable, but there is nothing immoral about it.

Meanwhile, take a look at another film from this year: 50/50. It’s a film whose world-view I found completely agreeable, but the way the film treats its female characters is essentially immoral to me. They aren’t just reduced to rote archetypes. The women in 50/50 are drawn so broadly that it actually paints a terrible portrait of modern womanhood, and the way the film sets up its love interest and its “villain” makes it downright misogynistic. That’s a failure of morality, at least in the construction of the film. The only reason I give it a slight pass is that the rest of the film is so good, and the film isn’t outright supporting misogyny. It’s just a miscalculation, but it’s a miscalculation that cost the film a spot in my Top 25 of 2011.

The next caveat is that morality is very much an issue of perspective. I could argue that it shouldn’t be, but I cannot deny that different people find different things objectionable, and over time those things change even more. For example, I might make a film which supports a woman’s right to an abortion, which someone else might consider an immoral act. The film might be incredibly well-made, but that person will likely find the morality of the film too objectionable and so to them it would be a bad film. I would disagree with them, but I would fully understand their position. Judgement of art is ultimately a personal and very subjective thing.

Similarly, I think it’s important to understand historical cultural context when considering a film’s morality. Gone With the Wind is often cited as having very problematic morality. First of all, it completely whitewashes the experience of black slaves in the American South before the Civil War. It’s also a really misogynistic film; much more so than 50/50 ever is. I know numerous people who find it impossible to call the film good in light of these things. This is a completely valid reaction, and it definitely impedes my enjoyment of the film to a certain degree. At the same time, though, I recognize that what the film shows was simply not understood to be immoral by the culture of the time. In this respect I find myself forgiving the film. I acknowledge the problematic morality, but I also see past it to the quality story in other areas. What’s more, I forgive it in a way that I could not with 50/50 because that film was made today, when everyone involved really should know better.

Finally, we must consider propaganda films. There’s even a question as to whether these films even count as art. I would say that they do, but that a lot of them are bad art and unjustified even by the passage of time. I can admire the craft of a film like Triumph of the Will, but I can’t for a second say it’s a good film. In fact, it’s a terrible film, and a vile one. It’s a film whose immorality is not even an unfortunate aspect of its overall construction; it actually advocates and attempts to spread its immorality. Meanwhile, I can look at many of the wartime propaganda cartoons that Disney made and call them great. Their morality is largely good and just and so I have no qualms about just judging their artistic or creative merit.

Getting back to modern films, though, I think we need to be extremely mindful of the morality of the films we watch. Transformers 2 is a terrible film for many reasons, but probably the worst thing about it is its racism and sexism. There’s nothing satirical about it either. It’s simply a stupid film with a terrible sense of morality. This should not be acceptable. It simply isn’t justified.

Or how about the Twilight films? These are films that, in my opinion, do not have any moral regard for the place of women in modern society. They are films that actually manage to make a normal thing like a girl wanting to have sex into something shameful. They are films that contain thinly veiled allusions to abuse against women, but then justifies those moments by having the hot male actor take his shirt off. They are films that I think are not only immoral, but, because they are directed at young girls who are still discovering their self-identities, they are also potentially damaging. Forget the quality of the films’ productions or acting or writing or any of that. Even if those elements were top notch I’d consider them bad films simply on moral grounds.

Art doesn’t need to justify itself as art, but saying something is good art should be justified. The way I see it, a film whose sense of morality is debased can’t be justified. Problematic morality can in some ways be overcome, as it is to a certain extent in 50/50, but films like The Twilight Saga: New MoonSex and the City 2, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and A Serbian Film are bad films first and foremost because of their terrible immorality. There is nothing wrong with expecting a film to be moral. In fact, a film should be moral. A film that justifies immorality really is on its way to being a bad film through and through. If we are to grant a film artistic merit, it should also be reflective of good morals. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.


9 responses to Do Films Need to Be Moral?


    I think I’m very inconsistent in this.And I’m probably more forgiving when it comes to older movies. At least sometimes I can enjoy movies from the 30s-60s without letting the horrendous view on women pull me down. I’m too immersed to care. Or I shrug it off.

    But on other occasions there’s just too much of it and it pisses me off. Which is very unfair since they’re just children of their time. But it takes away some of the fun.

    I think I’m less forgiving about newer movies. But then again I’m very good at avoiding movies that seem to be just too bad from that aspect. I’ve never seen any Transformer movie for instance. So I never have to bother about the view on women in those movies. But of course it contributes to me not seeing them. If the rumor told that Michael Bay did awesome action movies with a new and fresh view on women, I would be more likely to give them a try.


      Well, I am forgiving of older movies as well, but you’re right that sometimes it’s just too much. It becomes overwhelming and that makes it unpleasant to watch those movies. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.


    Like you say, morality is a bit in the eye of the beholder, especially as it relates to one’s reaction to a film. My interpretation of Twilight is extremely different from yours and thus its moral component doesn’t get in the way for me. It isn’t, at the end, saying sex or female sexual desire is shameful, it is saying sex and the often impulsive teen sexual desires are dangerous, danger represented by classical monsters in this case. This overdramatizes the danger beyond what I’d fully agree with, but it is based on a fact, sex can be dangerous, especially if approached irresponsibly as many teens do.

    The degree of the moral flaw will also affect how much it hurts the film. I find it a bit distasteful in Black Swan that Thomas’s sexual aggression toward Nina, at first resisted, eventually pays dividends for him. He both gets a sexual relationship and a brilliant performance from her. Never mind that she is completely destroyed in the process. I don’t really want the Hays Code back mandating it, but I also don’t really like to see immoral deeds on the screen go unpunished because then it starts to feel like the film is condoning them. Still, while this was one thing that hurt Black Swan in my eyes, I still gave the film a solid recommendation because the broader strength of the film won out.


      Well, we just disagree about Black Swan, but in general I think it should be a self-correcting thing. The misogyny in 50/50 actually disturbs me less than the idea that the film somehow made it all the way through the production process without somebody making sure it was fixed.


    What do you think of any Almodovar movie?? Because usually this is the question I ask myself after watching most of his movies. They are brilliant. Yes, very much so. But they always question morality. Especially Talk to Her. I have never grown out of my uneasiness, to appreciate it as much as I probably should.


      I actually haven’t seen enough Almodovar to comment. He’s something of a blind spot of mine. I did see The Skin I Live In though, and I think that while the film explores the immoral actions of the characters, it never condones those actions. A movie presenting immoral acts is different from one whose construction is inherently immoral in some way.


    I’m mostly in agreement with you. A well-crafted film with bad morals is not a film I can ultimately support.

    However, I take issue with seeing a film differently because of the morality of its time. I still find Peter Pan offensive even if it was considered okay for them at the time to depict Native Americans in that light. While understanding the context is important, it shouldn’t shape our moral judgments of a work.


      I’m basically with you on that. I don’t think just ignoring the racism in Peter Pan is the right way to go about it. My approach is more to separate the two. I look at the film and understand that there was a context to the bigotry, but I try not to have it impede on my enjoyment of the film. Then, once that’s over I make comment on the racism. Sometimes this just isn’t possible, and it depends on a personal tolerance for viewing that kind of material. Sometimes the bigotry is so bad that I just can’t get through it.

      One good example of this problem is the “censored 11” Looney Tunes shorts. They each have varying levels of abhorrant racism, and in at least a couple cases it’s almost impossible to look past. But some of them are actually really entertaining outside of the racist elements. The racism is there, as part of the general background, but it’s not crucial to making the gags work or anything like that. Do we completely discount the entertainment value of these shorts? Or is it better to recognize the entertainment, but also make sure to recognize and confront the immoral elements? I tend to side with the latter.


    Nicely written. I have been thinking about exactly this question for a while now and to keep it short:
    Movies are either entertainment where everything goes and they should be governed by parents just like cigarettes, alcohol and first crushes or movies are educational where the actors become teachers (or the other way around) and there is no fooling around with any morals.
    I mostly avoid the typical “I’ve got a bomb and am going to destroy the world” movies but can sometimes appreciate the effects in sound and image. I am with Seuss when he remarks that kids see a moral from a mile.

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