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Posted on Friday 26 February 2016 at 5:36 pm

A Night Manager Moral Dilemma

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A week or two ago, I went with a friend to the movies. A trailer for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the new comedy with Tina Fey and Martin Freeman about a reporter in Afghanistan, came on. When the trailer ended, I sort of sighed and whispered to my friend that I had nothing against the movie in particular but I'm just tired of and done with movies that use the deaths of People of Color as backdrop or props to tell yet another white person's story. Today, out of nowhere, it suddenly popped into my head that that's exactly what Night Manager is. I'm still grappling with how I feel about this and that it took me so long to realize it. The fact I've had a headache all day (actually 3 days now) and took forever to write this post as I had to keep stopping to close my eyes and rest my head probably hasn't helped any.

On the one hand, Night Manager literally will be using the deaths of People of Color as backdrop to tell the stories of some white people, and already has been. It's impossible to get away from that reality and there is far too much of that in our society and it is damaging in aggregate and it needs to stop. The only way I can influence making it stop is to not consume it. Sticking to my morals should mean walking away from this.

On the other hand, there's a lot of reasons to not walk away. I have been looking forward to this for so long. I loved the book. I love the cast. The first episode was amazing. I am excited about this and I've got so much stress in my life right now that I need something that excites me. Also, unlike the light romantic comedy feel of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, this is itself dealing with the hard issues. [Minor spoiler but not really for the first episode follows]: Pine's speech about how being an English man seeing another English man selling weapons that will be used to oppress and kill People of Color makes it his duty to try to stop it, if nothing else, demonstrates that, but is also in itself a problematic invocation of the white knight saving the poor others incapable of saving themselves to a degree. [End minor spoiler]. I don't think it is inherently wrong to ever have a story set in a predominantly not white part of the world or not white situation like the US Civil Rights Movement that is told from the perspective of white people. There are white people involved in these situations and they do have stories that can be told. There just also need to be stories from the perspective (both in story terms and in terms of writers, directors, etc.) of the People of Color most directly affected and there should be more of those. Maybe something like we've currently got 90% white people stories and 10% People of Color but those numbers need to be reversed. Maybe Night Manager is in the 10% of white stories that I find worthy of telling and I just need to make sure that in addition to watching it I seek out more of the few stories that do exist from the point of view of the People of Color involved to get at least my personal consumption balance to have closer to the right 10/90 split.

Back to the first hand: That feels like I'm comprising on a moral issue and seeking any justification possible for that just because I like something. Maybe I have to admit there is no moral principle for me here and I was just getting on a high horse with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot because I didn't think it looked interesting and I could pretend there was something more at stake.

Back to the second hand: I've long maintained with all media that there is an equation to consider between what the art or whatever asks of the audience and what it gives back in return. To go with a classic example: from a modern perspective, there is sexism in every single one of Shakespeare's plays. As a modern feminist, I have to put emotional and intellectual labor into working past or reading against that sexism. When watching or listening to a recent production, I always hope that the people on and behind the stage or whatever have done some of that labor for me and not forced me to bear the entire burden alone, though that's not always the case. The question for me is always one of "Is what the work gives back to me worth the emotional and intellectual labor I am required to put in?" With Shakespeare, for things like Hamlet and Othello, the answer for me on both the sexism and racism fronts has always been a resounding "Yes!" They demand some work from me, but what they give back is far more. For Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice, the answer has always been "Nope." They demand too much of me and give me back nothing that is at all worth it. Maybe that's my answer here too. I do have a moral principle involved that does matter to me but Night Manager gives me enough to be worth the work but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn't seem like it would. It's just far easier for me as a white woman to make that call with a clean conscience on issues of sexism than it is on issues of racism and, again, am I just seeking to justify something I sort of find morally problematic because I like it.

I just don't know.

Please note: I don't mean to judge anyone else in any way. I wouldn't mind starting a conversation about this with y'all lovely intelligent people as I value your thoughts and opinions. I am absolutely not saying I have the answers (clearly) or am trying to tell someone else what to do or even claim that the moral call I'm grappling with here is the right question and that everyone should grapple with it. It's a complicated world and if some or all of y'all have absolutely no problems with Night Manager on the issues I've raised, that's totally fine.


Unsentimental Fool
unsentimentalf at 3:19 pm on 28 February 2016 (UTC) (Link)
I thought the same thing about halfway through the first ep of Night Manager. I didn’t have a problem with it, just an awareness that this was maybe a rather oldfashioned way to tell a story. But then John Le Carre is 84 and has been writing this way for a very long time. To tell him that he can no longer write stories from the point of view of British intelligence officers would be ridiculous.

I tend to the unfashionable view that there are no ethically good or bad works of fiction, just well and badly written ones. Certainly no-one should be obliged to write in a particular way and I don’t think it’s necessary to feel guilty about enjoying anything that’s well done regardless of the viewpoint it’s from. But it’s always good to be aware of how a story fits in with the world and whose stories might be being heard partly because they are privileged and whose perhaps aren’t being told.

I also think there’s an important difference between story and characterisation. If your main characters are upper class, straight and white, that might just be a consequence of the setting of the story you’re telling, but if your non white, non straight characters are all poorly characterised plot devices, or if your characters are all straight and white for no apparent reason, that’s bad writing and people can legitimately call you out on it.

People are obviously a lot more aware now of gaps in coverage when it comes to what reaches the screen, and that's undoubtedly a good thing, but if you watch the Night Manager and think "why don't we see more of the Arab Spring from the POV of those involved", the answer is to push for more of those programmes to be made, not to boycott a perfectly good thriller because it isn't from that viewpoint.

(Edit: for clarification I think the BBC and other broadcasters have an obligation to commission programmes from a wide and representative base, and they should be held to that, but I don't think they have an obligation *not* to commission individual programmes from any given viewpoint.)

Edited at 2016-02-28 03:26 pm (UTC)
failte_aoife at 2:17 pm on 29 February 2016 (UTC) (Link)
I understand that. And your dilemma. E.g. I've decided not to read the Maze Runner series because James Dashner, the author has made some very homophobic (and afaik also sexist) comments and even if those views aren't reflected in his books I still would feel that by buying his books, I'm saying 'I don't mind that you think these things'.
But of course, I can't check out every single author, I'm planning to read, just in case, they once said something horrible so am I really taking a stand here? I honestly wouldn't have been very likely to read the book anyway since I'm not a big fan of dystopias anyway. And so far there was never a case where an author, whom I already read and enjoy, said something reprehensible but if there was I'm not sure if I'd really be able to simply drop a series I really love.

And yeah, there is also the question what kind of stories books/movies/shows tell and how they tell them and sometimes I do wonder if I'm reaching for excuses too quickly (it's old material, they can't make it 'unproblematic' without changing most of the story, it was only really bad in one episode...)
And that I personally might be more likely to say 'enough is enough' when a show does 'evil woman accuses poor innocent man of rape'-plots over and over again than when it does the white savior complex frequently.

This was a very long-winded way of saying that I know what you mean but also haven't really found a satisfactory solution for that problem...
shayrena at 4:15 pm on 29 February 2016 (UTC) (Link)
I have read this post pretty much as soon as you published it, but I didn't comment on it, because I did not know what to say. And I still don't.

I have a dilemma with watching some of the stuff, I love. Biggest example is Sherlock. However, I can't let go of it, I love it too much.

All in all, I don't think that you have to drop the series because of your beliefs. It is a well made thriller, with quality acting and writing. It's almost a classic novel and part of our culture.

Uhm... I don't know what kind of point I am trying to make.

Have you decided, what you are going to do?

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