Moral of the story: 2019 ‘s boldest culture asked what it means to be good
At a hour when deceit is trumping decency, artists from Kanye West to Greta Gerwig and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have taken it upon themselves to pose questions about virtue and privilege
In Greta Gerwig‘s new adaptation of Little Women, a haughty publisher dismisses Jo March’s stories as unfashionable.” Morals don’t sell nowadays ,” he tells the aspiring author.” People want to be amused , not preached at .” Hopefully the statute of limitations has expired on spoiling a 151 -year-old story: March- an avatar for her creator, Louisa May Alcott- proves him wrong. As has Gerwig, resuscitating Little Women in a year where a great deal of culture has considered the question of what it means to be good when the answer is less clear than ever.
A decade of consciousness-raising via Twitter and Tumblr has complicated the questions, often by employing culture and its manufacturers to arbitrate issues of morality, from culture appropriation to micro- and macro-aggressions. Even the concept of cancel culture ended up getting … cancelled: debunked by critics, often of colour, who pointed out that nobody who had been cast aside for their misdemeanours had gone away or lost much as a result. If so-called cancel culture was actually effective, then Donald Trump’s history of sexually degrading commentaries( and alleged sexually degrading behaviour) and racist business practices would have impeded his path to the White House- an idea that seems increasingly like a fairytale as the far right mount a successful pushback that has resulted in a moral void in world leadership. Politicians and lower-level scammers have proven that deceit seldom get in the way of success or power. It’s fallen to children to hold adults to account for the decades of irresponsible, selfish consumption that has accelerated the climate crisis.
Art became a space where these matters could be litigated, and tangible alteration is likely to be reassuringly felt. It was inevitable that the question would resurface in culture, a longstanding concern pressed into new shapes as artists reach for the certainties of family, religion, self-respect and nature. The problem is that there appear to be diametrically opposed positions on what constitutes goodness, who decides those standards and who benefits from them. At the start of 2018, New Statesman critic Anna Leszkiewicz wrote about what she called ” morality TV “, exploring why” characters on screen are more anxious, guilty and self-hating than ever “. The protagonists of shows including Search Party, Bojack Horseman and The Good Place were preoccupied with whether they were good or bad people, she wrote. Almost two years later, that binary has become infinitely granular: not about being good or bad per se, but more the existential its examination of these qualities. At the start of series two of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character offers a supercut of the virtuous things she’s done to get her life back on track: exert, smoothies, sobriety. She is a better person than the mascara-smeared mess who kind of killed her best friend in series one. But- astonish!- all the” new year, new you” tropes can’t fill her cavernous existential pits. Fleabag’s second coming asked that great Russian novel question: how can you live a good life at a time of great suffering when there may or may not be a God?
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