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Moral Ambiguity

Posted on 04 November 2021 by Caitlin

The Many Saints of Newark is rated R16: violence, offensive language and sex scenes

With a Sopranos prequel you expect a bit of sex and a lot of crime, cruelty and violence - mixed in with a fair amount of family drama. The Many Saints of Newark does not disappoint. And seeing main character Tony Soprano as a child, his role models and his ambitions, helps us make sense of his future self in the popular series.

I mention sex, crime, cruelty and violence, because, alongside horror, these are the things we look out for when classifying content. But the impact of these things and the motivation of the characters portraying them is often not black and white. In fact film and shows are littered with morally ambiguous characters like Deadpool, Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow. They take the law into their own hands and kill or commit crimes 'for the greater good'. In fact, most superheroes sit in a 'morally grey zone.'

The Many Saints of Newark follows Tony's uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who struggles with his family and professional life. Tony really looks up to him. Dickie is charming, kind and strives to be good. At the same time he is a murderer, a part of the DiMeo crime family and is involved in a lot of illegal activity – not to mention he has a wicked temper.

On paper, it doesn't quite make sense that he is the hero of the film. In our classification decision we note how crime presented with moral ambiguity might confuse younger viewers.

If something is morally ambiguous, it means there is a lack of certainty about whether it is wrong or right.

So what we look out for is a main character who does things that may be wrong or illegal, but the viewers are still on their side. Sometimes you'll see these sorts of characters referred to as anti-heroes.

Viewers tend to look past illegal and violent activity in content they wouldn't tolerate that at all in real life.

People are drawn to characters that aren't 'normal' and who live outside the law.

Batman, Don Draper and Jay Gatsby are all characters who are considered complex and interesting. There's an attraction to characters who can pull off that sexy anti-social or illegal behaviour. Sometimes we can live out the thrill of bad behaviour through fiction without wanting to experience that in real life.

Sometimes it is easy to connect with characters who are more morally ambiguous because they are realistic.

This seems crazy at first after we have mentioned Mafia bosses and superheroes. However, this makes sense when thinking about what it means to be human in general. It is rare to come across someone who is inherently bad or good.

Viewers can relate to characters struggles and choices with their own similar experiences.

While we may not commit serous crimes like in the movies as humans we are often presented with challenges where the solution isn't obvious. If a character discovers that their partner is having an affair, it is easy to compare your emotional response with theirs if you have gone through something similar.

At a stretch, some viewers might feel better after watching something morally ambiguous after doing something bad.

Sometimes these characters are role models. When they are humanised that in turn can make someone feel validated and better about a choice they made in real life.

While watching The Many Saints of Newark, an interesting thought experiment is to think about the characters you are rooting for. Compare them with the ones you aren't supporting. Do they have similarities? Are there other movies or series that you like with morally ambiguous characters? Do you find these characters interesting or do you relate to some of them? What is it that connects you? By asking these questions you are critically thinking about what you are watching and understanding the impact characters and content has on you.

If you are watching films or series with your whānau that have morally ambiguous characters ask who everyone's favourite characters are. Have a chat about moral ambiguity and help your tamariki critically think about why they liked that character and the overall content.

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Help information

At the Office we know that everyone has a line. What might seem like an easy watch for one person could be different for another. If the content of this blog has made you feel uncomfortable, please reach out. Talk to your friends or whānau or you can free call or text 1737 for more support.

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