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?

Should we be cynical about Kanye West’s turn to gospel? Photograph: Rich Fury/ Getty Images for Coachella

The essays in New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino‘s debut collect Trick Mirror turned over the complicated motives behind contemporary performances of virtue- a question that found perhaps its definitive manifestation in Kanye West‘s turn towards gospel this year. Critics asked whether his religious awakening was merely a cynical attempt at redemption after a distinctly troubled period that saw him endorse Trump and describe bondage as” a choice “. Admittedly it was difficult to accept West slut-shaming his wife in the name of the Lord on his album Jesus Is King, and to take his invite-only Sunday Service worship conferences- complete with merch including a $50 pair of socks and a $225 sweater- as a sign of a true disciple, rather than an untrammelled divinity complex. But in an episode of the New York Times’s Popcast, gospel critics said the community was welcoming of his forays into the genre. If the Christian response to West is one of forgiveness and acceptance, then cynicism itself becomes suspect.

That dynamic, where unexpected circumstances challenged a character’s long-held ideas about what it meant to be good, played out on screen. The two proud nerds of Booksmart are contemptuous of their hard-partying classmates until they learn that the bad kids are, in fact, matching their grades and having fun. Being good has only held their lives hostage. A more X-rated version of that revelation drove in HBO’s Mrs Fletcher. Kathryn Hahn’s titular character, a feminist mother and divorcee, is appalled by her teenage son’s degraded sexual politics. But when he leaves for college, she develops a heavy porn habit that offers her unprecedented liberation.

Robin Hood tale … Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photograph: Allstar/ Fox Searchlight Pictures

Artists further questioned who set the rules around morality and who actually benefits from adhering to them. At the end of Big Little Lies‘ first series, it was Bonnie’s decency that drove her to run at Perry as he was strangling his wife, Celeste, pushing him down a flight of stairs and to his death. That sense of virtue returns in series two: no matter that she killed Perry to save Celeste, Bonnie still killed a man, and she falls apart under the pressure of lying. Meanwhile, her wealthy, white peers disguise the deed beneath the veneer that covers their lives, and carry on as before. The outward appearance of being a good father leadings readers to sympathise with the freshly divorced protagonist of Taffy Brodesser-Akner‘s novel Fleishman Is in Trouble– until his estranged wife eventually enters the frame and offers a sucker-punch view flip.

Even straightforward matters of justice acquired new wrinkles. In Marielle Heller’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me ?, Melissa McCarthy portrays Lee Israel, a biographer on her uppers who resorts to becoming a successful literary forger. It’s a Robin Hood tale: as the breadline recedes into the distance, subterfuge comes to look like a legitimate survival tactic. In Succession, meanwhile, a whistleblower threatens to overthrow Waystar Royco, and we watch Cousin Greg toy with whether to play his ace in service of financial reward or moral fortitude. His privilege- a young white man who has swiftly become accustomed to newfound wealth- means this hapless antihero slyly receives an option that blends both.

It’s a rare circumstance. In Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a wealthy family that telegraphs its liberal credentials through New Yorker subscriptions and conspicuous wokeness becomes outraged when it transpires that the late patriarch, a celebrated writer, has left his entire estate to his Latina carer. Marta, the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, appears to have killed him by accidentally and becomes embroiled in the whodunnit. But as his family members are revealed to be conniving and varyingly complicit, Marta exonerates herself- and exposes the true culprit- by always doing the decent thing. She inherits the estate. But the movie acts as a sort of reverse Get Out, the rub being that the “good” immigrant can never win: not even model citizens are safe from racist attitudes and immigration policies.

From left, Ana de Armas and Katherine Langford in Knives Out. Photograph: Claire Folger/ AP

Even redemptive narrations are tinged with bitterness. In Little Women, Gerwig adds contemporary nuances to highlight how progressive Alcott’s 1868 text already was and to restore some of Alcott’s politics and ambitions that were stifled by her publisher’s ideas of the right path for girls.” What if you felt, when[ Jo March] gets her book, the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed ?” Gerwig has said.” So that it’s not girl-gets-boy; it’s girl-gets-book .”

Delving into the March sisters’ later lives, she touches on Amy March setting up a foundation to support ambitious girls. Gerwig’s film is a comparable yardstick: it’s a testament to her own ambition- to the depth of her research, her renowned care and respect as a director and collaborator- and a cinema whose politics, success and critical acclaim should create more opportunities for women film-makers in Hollywood. Gerwig has done everything right- and yet she’s been overlooked at the Golden Globes, which generally pave the way for the Oscar nominations. In 2019, morals may sell, but their benefits are harder to come by.

Read more:

About the Author