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The Moral Obligation to Moralize Pop Culture

I recently got into an argument with a friend about if The Wolf of Wall Street glamorized the life and times of Jordan Belfort.

Of course many people have been having this debate, and my friend touched on the common talking points: not only were the consequences of Belfort’s criminal actions never shown, but there even seemed to be upsides to Belfort’s drug use, such as when getting high allowed him to save someone’s life.

Putting aside this particular film, the real issue is what kind of responsibility do filmmakers have to clarify right and wrong for their audience when making a movie about an antihero.

As I see it, as long as the crimes and immoral behavior are not being advocated for, then the filmmakers are off the hook. Whatever conclusions the audience comes to says more about themselves than the movie.

It’s a bit ridiculous to even have this debate about Wolf given popular culture’s obsession with antiheroes. One of our most beloved genres in film and TV are mafia stories, with arguably the greatest film and TV show being about the mafia: The Godfather and The Sopranos.

The fascination and appeal of mafia themed entertainment is pretty obvious. The characters live like kings, get to have girlfriends while married, and despite their crimes, they live by code — the only people who get hurt are other soldiers.

Of course real-life mobsters do hurt ordinary people — it’s not just banks and other faceless entities that they’re stealing from.

A typical trope in mob movies is that there are good and bad mobsters, and we root for the good ones. 

In The Godfather, the Corleone family is the principled mafia family — all the events in the film stem from Vito’s refusal to sell drugs despite the huge financial upside. He may shake down Hollywood producers, but even he has his limits — heroin hurts a lot more people than Johnny Fontane’s acting career. (And let’s not forget that the movie begins with how Vito will provide justice for a rape victim that the legal system was unable to administer).

Or consider Goodfellas. Henry is a mensch compared to Jimmy and Tommy. He would never kill someone for disrespecting him (Spider), or even accomplices who might get him arrested.

But if you watch these films and walk away thinking that a life in organized crime is the way to go, that you can some how live a morally sound life while being a criminal, you’ve missed the point. In both the lifestyle catches up with the protagonists. They may not go to prison, they may even continue to have a pretty posh lifestyle, but their personal lives are destroyed.

And in The Godfather especially, the very obvious point is that the more powerful Michael becomes, the more isolated and alone he is. He would have been happier if he stayed out of the family business.

Maybe this point is too subtle for some people, but that’s art. These movies aren’t made to be polemics. They’re about the tradeoffs people make to be rich, and the value of money vs. family. And because they’re art, the filmmakers should be given a lot of leeway.

You can play out this thought experiment with any movie or TV show about antiheroes.

Did Breaking Bad glorify methamphetamines because we never see the tens of thousands of lives destroyed by Walt’s blue meth? We already know that many people watched the show and concluded that Walt was an owner and Skyler a bitch, but is that the fault of Vince Gilligan not pointing out enough that meth is bad?

To return to Wolf, yes the film isn’t explicit with the consequences of drug use — nobody overdoses or dies — but the critics are not seeing the forest for the trees. A huge part of the movie is about how Belfort’s day-to-day life centers on his drug addiction.

With the scene in question where getting high allows him to save someone’s life, it follows a lengthy and ridiculous cleansing ritual Belfort undergoes so he can maximize the high he’ll get from Quaaludes — it’s all part of a bigger picture about the extent of his addiction, that getting high is one of the few things that brings him pleasure.

If anything merits criticism for glorification in popular culture, it’s how violence is aestheticized into something pleasing to watch, and is a solution to our problems.

Consider how so many if not most TV and movies about law enforcement officers are marketed with pictures of guns blazing — apparently this is what police work involves, how police resolve the issues they face. If you want another thing to praise The Wire about, in it only one police officer ever fires his gun, it never solves any problem (no bad guys are brought to justice thanks to a fun), and two out of three times he uses his gun it has negative consequences, including killing another cop.

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