Sometimes, with little regard to unlawful actions, an audience will be solely captivated by the moral integrity of a character fighting for what is right. But what happens when storytelling takes on real-life tales while still favouring the criminal’s viewpoint? Should a media enterprise blur the line between truth and fiction in order to sell the audience a fascinating story?
The birth of common culture’s fervent fascination with criminals as individuals is perhaps effectively signaled by the attraction that surrounded the mysterious figure of Jack the Reaper, and his concealed identity in the late 1800s. Newspapers and, more importantly, tabloid reporting, found in their readers a new irrational, but feasibly human, necessity to gravitate towards the understanding of macabre and villainous transgressing. However, what is the result of the buzz that envelops these figures, if not an unreasonable clouding of the criminal’s offences and a disregard towards the victims? What are the ethics of any form of media that today favors creating an icon out of an outlaw?
The beginning of the 20th century saw the reemergence of the ‘lawful’ criminal in literary form with Robin Hood-esque characters such as Arsène Lupin. Similarly, the character tropes found in current popular culture, such as in the famed American heist movies stemming from 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven, bring back the idea of individuals whose wrongful actions are interpreted as righteous once their code of conduct and contextualized position in the story is revealed. In particular, the idea of ‘fundamental goodness’, inherent to these characterizations, enables the overturning of any initial judgement, while also paving the way for the creation of charismatically captivating personalities. In this way characters become worthy of the viewer or reader’s support because of their allure rather than explicit actions. The audience seems to be let into a secret duplicity of character, where lawlessness is overpowered by moral standing, or where the simple ideal of ‘settling scores’ earns a moral virtue.
The great reversal of the good and the bad within characters, where robbers become ‘gentlemen burglars’ and victims ethically worthy of being so, is an ingenious turning block in the way we tell stories. However, one could argue that some forms of media today have taken this to an extreme level. This is particularly embodied by the so-popular ‘true crime’ genre which general goal is to shine a new light on real-life criminal cases, sometimes bordering on the notion of possible wrongful conviction of the criminal. The attention to this genre spiraled out of a 2014 podcast: ‘Serial’. The main inconsistency in the reception, more so than in the intended telling, was the issue of reducing human beings into characters, with a particular insensitivity that continued in relation to the victims. The reality is that it is all fun and games until you run into real people, and not creations of the mind.
The much larger ethical question was raised: how could any media enterprise deal with a real-life style of storytelling when the tale we are being told has become an artifice to attract an audience?
Today’s embodiment of this unsolved issue is Netflix’s ‘Inventing Anna’, in which real people and faux-facts merge, blurring the lines between real-life and fiction. The story treats the character of scammer Anna Delvey/Sorokin as a girl-boss type just doing what is necessary to seize the ‘American Dream’. She is portrayed in a much too favorable light, likened to a modern Robin Hood as she becomes a victim of the system rather than the mastermind of a very intentional crime. Nothing in the story brings the audience to question the point of view it expresses, when it is in true ironic fashion that the audience becomes the victim of a dishonest retelling, while Anna Delvey is getting paid $320,000, from prison, for the rights to her story.