Last night I watched the Oscars. I always like to watch them, mostly for the fashion and sometimes because I’ve seen a film (or two) nominated for an award. This year I was pulling for La La Land in every category for which it was nominated because I had seen it and loooooved it.
Often it’s frustrating, though, to watch the Oscars because I learn about all these movies with enlightening, empowering themes, just to find out the film is so laden with sex, graphic violence, and offensive language that I’ll never see it. And ratings don’t tell the whole story either. Ratings don’t even exist for books, so you have to kind of dive in and hope there won’t be any garbage bad enough for you to shelf it.
My very last class as an English major discussed this exact topic: the ethics and morality of literature and what makes a book “worth reading.” For our final project, we had to write a personal code of ethics, a gauge we could use to judge all art. And basically my professor was asking, “How much smut or how much darkness will you tolerate to get to the good stuff, the stuff that makes you a better person?”
The truth is, goodness doesn’t exist in a bubble. Goodness doesn’t exist surrounded only by goodness. Instead, goodness is enhanced when flanked by badness. Light shines brighter in darkness. So sometimes, oftentimes, we have to tolerate the bad to get to the good.
The assignment was a long essay, but I could sum up my own code of ethics this way: I am willing to endure the bad in a book (or movie, play, or song) if a) the theme is wholly uplifting and insightful and b) the inappropriate parts are not gratuitous.
Take Les Miserables. The story is shrouded with darkness—prostitution, thievery, revenge, murder, child abuse. But I will read that book, attend that play, and watch that movie over and over again because the message of redemption is life changing. But yeah, it’s a story of prostitution. The lyrics of the songs aren’t entirely wholesome. However, it’s not so gratuitous or detailed that I start to feel dark inside.
Compare this to when I read Snow Falling on Cedars. I loved the way it was written, and the story was compelling. But I had to put the book down when I was on page 215 because a sexual scene was written in great detail, and I was not okay with that.
A sexual reference in a book or movie does not have to be spelled out (or shown in detail) to be effective. I would even say an implied sexual encounter can be more effective; by leaving out the details, the reader can fill those in herself with just as much detail as she is comfortable imagining. In that way, her own standards aren’t violated, and each reader makes the story her own.
So I guess I’m encouraging you to identify your own personal code of ethics as a guide for what you view and listen to. Your family could also create a code of ethics, though it might be stricter than your personal code, based on the ages of your children.
There is so much beauty out there, and sometimes you find the greatest beauty among a whole bunch of mess. But having your own standard of ethics determined ahead of time will help you decide which things are edifying and which things will only drag you down. •