As we begin another semester of crafting classes that interestingly address complex and engaging topics related to media ethics, we share these three ideas as starting points for facilitating classroom discussion. Our goal is to share some specific teaching ideas that are easy to incorporate into the classroom setting: to perhaps reinvent or revitalize a lesson, update content, or teach a concept for the first time. Obviously, there are many other ways to achieve this goal, and we’d like to hear about them.
The Lego Movie and Consumerism
The Lego Movie (Warner Brothers, 2014) is a full-length, mostly animated, feature about a Lego minifigure named Emmet who embarks on an adventure after being misidentified as an “extraordinary” figure who has the ability to save the Lego world from the evil Lord Business.
The majority of the film takes place in the Lego universe—until a scene change where it becomes evident to the viewer that the Lego world we had been watching actually has been imagined by a little boy, Finn. Finn sees his father as “Lord Business” because the father likes to keep all of the Lego sets in the household intact and built strictly according to instructions. The conclusion is a realization by the father that imaginative uses of Lego bricks from various Lego sets to create original constructions is important and valuable to his child. This realization ultimately changes the narrative of the Lego world adventure as well. The film is clever, funny and the recipient of numerous positive reviews; the Rotten Tomatoes Web site notes a 95% “fresh” review among movie critics.
While one could make the argument that The Lego Movie is a one-hour-and-forty-minute commercial for Lego modular toys, this is perhaps too simplistic. More interesting might be to bring questions about marketing and children to a deep analysis of the effects of sequences in the movie that occur when the film changes to live-action from animation. At this point, the viewer is taken to Finn’s home and witnesses discussions between Finn and his father about using pieces from a collection of Lego sets to create newly imagined buildings, characters and vehicles. As anyone familiar with Lego knows, once specific Lego sets are built, they are later dismantled and the pieces are incorporated into new creations that are, in turn, later dismantled and re-re-appropriated, leading to a home containing boxes and bins of mixed-up Lego pieces.
The Lego Movie inherently celebrates this process by privileging Finn’s imaginative creations over the prescribed constructions of individual Lego sets. This message is perhaps refreshing to parents, given their experiences with piles and containers of Lego pieces that accumulate as Lego play evolves at the pace of their children’s imaginations. It is reassuring that the Lego voice of the movie script is not privileging the company’s way of building over a child’s. This might allow parents to feel better about these bins of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Lego pieces that may be in their child’s play spaces.
At the same time, however, Lego continues to prioritize their own building sets in stores rather than selling packages of diverse Lego pieces that don’t form a specific scene. In fact, there are more than a dozen The Lego Movie Lego sets available so that users can build parts of the film—but there is no The Lego Movie Lego product that is a collection of pieces from a variety of Lego sets that suggests that the child him/herself decide what to build.
Of course Lego is going to produce and sell toys in ways that encourage as much commerce as possible; the distinction here is that the film suggests a different message about what to build.
Does Lego have a responsibility to echo the ideas of imaginative building present in the film in their product creations and promotions—or vice versa? This question and others can be explored within the framework of “children, advertising and commercialism.” Students in ethics classes can screen and identify contradictory messages, about Legos and about play, from the film. They can discuss the message of the film itself and contrast it to Lego products and promotional messages. Finally, this topic can be used as a springboard to discuss other issues related to Lego media and other aspects of a “consumer society.”
Nurse Jackie’s Representation of Medically-Assisted Suicide
It can be challenging to include single episodes of television programs in media-oriented classes. In today’s world of long-form television drama, viewers of a single episode of a program they do not regularly watch often need to be provided with considerable context to understand the episode. And yet, given the wide variety of television programs, there is also rich material available in many programs and series to engage students in meaningful discussions and analysis.
Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (2009-present) offers an opportunity to discuss the ethical, and perhaps ideological, representation of medically-assisted suicide in episode six of season one, titled “Tiny Bubbles.” Because this episode occurs early in the series, students are able to watch the less-than-30-minute episode after being prepped with some basic background knowledge about the setting and characters. “Tiny Bubbles” focuses on a former nurse, Paula, who returns as a terminally ill cancer patient to the hospital where she had previously worked. She asks Jackie to help her end her life. Over the course of the episode, Jackie does just that by collecting otherwise surplus (presumably prescribed and dispensed, but not administered and no longer needed) doses of morphine from other nurses and a pharmacist. When Paula decides her time has come, she drinks a glass of champagne that contains a lethal dose of the drug.
In this episode a number of the elements that complicate the debate around medically-assisted suicide are either absent or addressed simply. For example, Paula is depicted as clearly cognizant and mentally stable. Her former profession as a nurse suggests she understands her condition. Additionally, she is positioned as a woman without family, so she is making this decision on her own with no one to challenge her and no one to leave behind. Her cancer is terminal and advanced; confirmed in the program by a doctor, and also by Jackie who looks at an X-ray of Paula’s diseased lung for herself. Discussions of palliative care are dismissed easily; Paula expresses her disgust for hospice care and asserts that she’d rather die with dignity on her own terms and schedule. The show is framed in a way that suggests Paula’s choice is the “right” one and aligns the viewers with her perspective. The only challenge to the medically-assisted suicide plan comes from Zoey, a nurse at the beginning of her career who is positioned as naïve and inexperienced—and uncomfortable about what is going on. Her character functions as the one who poses questions about whether Paula’s (and Jackie’s) approach is correct. However, her awkwardly phrased questions (her character is drawn as an awkward woman) about what is going on are shut down quickly and patronizingly by another character and instead of reporting what she knows to a hospital administrator, Zoey is present when Paula drinks her final cocktail.
Minus credits, screening this episode takes little more than half of a 50-minute class period, and subsequent discussion could focus on the ideological portrayal of medically-assisted suicide and the elements of this sensitive and complicated issue that are missing from the episode itself. Standard ethical frameworks can easily be applied to the scenario—both in the way Nurse Jackie portrays the issue and the issue itself. Directing students to look at this storyline from the perspectives of Aristotle, Kant, and Bok can engage them in deep critical thinking while giving them practice in applying ethical lenses. Given the national disagreement over issues surrounding medically-assisted suicide, students could discuss whether Showtime has an ethical responsibility to highlight the complicated areas brought up in this program. They could engage in debate whether it is ethical to not present specific religious opposition to this practice, given that the story takes place in “All Saints Hospital” and viewers are made aware of its religious affiliation. They could discuss how their own personal opinions, beliefs and experiences may inform their ethical assessments. Note: Professors may want to highlight the sensitive nature of the program before showing it to students, and possibly allow students to be absent.
House of Cards Focus on Assault and Abortion
Some of the most challenging topics to discuss in any setting—including a college classroom—involve women’s rights, especially topics involving sexual assault and reproductive freedom. Emotion and personal experience in this area can prevent objective discussions about ethics, probably making a concrete, common frame of reference valuable in grounding debate. When media texts include narratives that represent components of these issues, discussion can focus on the ethics of the character’s choices, as well as the ethics of depicting those choices—or even the subject matter—in fictional programming. Either or both approaches will work with a particular episode of Netflix’s hit political drama, House of Cards (2013-present).
Season 2, Chapter 17, offers an interesting lens through which to begin such a debate or conversation. In the episode, Claire Underwood, wife of political shark Frank Underwood, is interviewed live on CNN. The interview forces her to address rumors that she had an abortion, a fact she admits under duress from her persistent interviewer. Never one to be taken advantage of, Claire makes the most of her revelation about the abortion to further reveal the fact that she had been raped when she was in college. Her rapist, she tells the interviewer, is a man who now holds a powerful military position. Essentially “outing” her attacker on national television, she goes on to claim that she became pregnant as a result of the rape and had terminated the pregnancy because of its origin. Regular viewers know that, while Claire did have an abortion (in fact she has ended three pregnancies in service to her career), it was not related to the rape. Rather, in a quick-thinking move, she distracted her CNN audience from the fact of her abortion with the fact of the rape. Not only this, but in falsely linking the two events, Claire “justifies” her choice to abort her pregnancy, thereby putting to rest any public scrutiny about her morality. By the end of the interview, Claire has confirmed to viewers “in the know” that she is a liar, even as she appears to be a sympathetic and vulnerable character throughout the interview.
This interview is interspersed throughout the episode, which can be assigned for homework or watched in class (total time 48 minutes). The interview can then be used in many ways to discuss ethical issues because it asks viewers to consider all kinds of issues about situational ethics involving rape, abortion, victims and perpetrators, truth and lying. Some background information on the series and Claire’s character may help students view the scene, but it can stand on its own as a complicated moment in which gender, violence, and power intersect. Is Claire justified in naming her attacker? Is her public outing of him the most effective way to hold him accountable? Is she to be admired for admitting to the abortions or is she a heartless woman who ends her pregnancies to further her husband’s (and therefore her own) political career and pursuit of power? Should she be criticized for telling only a partial truth? Critics (Friedersdorf, 2014 and Whitney, 2014) have had heated debate about whether the episode makes Claire a new feminist hero or an anti-hero who is no more—and perhaps even less—ethical then her husband and the episode is sure to engage students in similar discussion. Should media texts depict such content at all? Do fictional depictions such as this one undermine the difficult ethical issue that faces real men and women? (If “real” examples are needed, this fall’s news would be a useful “peg” on which to hang discussion, such as comparisons of the plots of Claire’s story with the University of Virginia and the Bill Cosby scandals). Whatever the question, House of Cards, Season 2, Chapter 17 is a current, complex episode that will engage students in ethical discussion and analysis. Again, the professor may wish to warn students of the subject matter in advance, since some of them may be justified in having strong emotional reactions.
Abbate, A. (Executive Producer), & Lord, P. and Miller, C. (Directors). The Lego Movie [motion picture, 2014]. Distributed by Warner Brothers.
Dobbs, M. & Davies, A. (Writers), & Foley, J. (Director). (2014). “Chapter 17.” [Television series episode]. House of Cards, Produced and distributed by Netflix.
Dunksy, E. & Brixius, L. (Writers), & Zisk, C. (Director). (2009). “Tiny Bubbles.” [Television series episode]. Nurse Jackie, Produced and distributed by Showtime.
Friedersdorf, C. (February 20, 2014). “Feminism, Depravity, and Power in House of Cards.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from: www.theatlantic.com.
“The Lego Movie” (2014). Review by Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved from: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_lego_movie
Whitney, E. (March 5, 2014). “How Claire Underwood and ‘House of Cards’ Changed the TV Antihero Forever." Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/05/house-of-cards-tv-antihero-archetype_n_4899440.html