Morality to most people sounds like an obvious topic. It goes without saying. You have an obligation to be your best self. A good person. That narrative is so prevalent in our society that it is a tension line in many of our portrayals, and it guides our self-reflection.
How can I be a good person?
Even the question: How can I be a good person? You’re not wondering how to choose the best course of actions. This is your identity. YOU ARE the good person, or you fail to be it. Many people think one can even be reduced to one’s actions. Functionally, there’s really no difference right? Since all I can see of you is your actions, how could anything else matter? You are what you do.
Others are not so certain of the answer to the question, or even that the question is the right one at all. Morality in itself is still an open question. What is one to do, and how?
There are several schools of thought, and this piece is not to discuss a possible answer. I will leave the reader to decide this for themselves.
However, we will discuss here how certain aspects of morality are intrinsically linked to other areas of identity portrayal. Specifically, this piece seeks to look at the fluidity that seems to interact across various axes of identity.
But first, let us lay the groundwork.
Normative identities exist as archetypes.
You know what a normal person is supposed to be. Even if you actually can’t really pinpoint a true image or even point one in the streets, you know when you act how far you are from a normative line. We have books and diagnoses meant to act as guidelines within which to act, or more specifically, away from which not to stray.
This being said, you probably didn’t read those books.
You probably integrated norms via media and socialisation. This self-reinforcing cycle created a near infallible template for you to follow without actually making conscious the details of the rules. Beautiful osmosis.
Media has a nifty way of giving you the rules, like it would help a machine learn.
It gives you countless examples, and brands them as positive, or negative (I’m oversimplifying), and you get to infer the rules on your own. The beauty about all of this is that you do it subconsciously, since the examples are niftily hidden in entertaining narratives.
But can those examples truly give you a specific set of rules? Certainly they can’t be that similar?
That’s where archetypes come into play.
Writers can be original, but they use plot devices that are meant to make us understand their intents.
Intelligible codes that allow you to see the underlying messages and follow an action along without wondering if the poetry is about fish or transcendance.
Archetypes are the type example of a concept. Like a perfect bundle, the prototype of a category. They are the most intelligible part of a code, and are thus a self-reinforcing recognizable pattern.
The more recognizable it is, the more it is used, the more recognizable it is. Archetypes are thus attractive methods of representations.
We have many archetypes on different subjects, but usually one at the top of a hierarchy for each.
When writers of a show on TV create their characters, they use those archetypal templates and fill in the gaps with details useful to their plots.
Purity and virtue ethics
The archetypes of interest here are those related to gender.
You’ve probably heard of the Whore/Madonna dichotomy.
Women can be placed within these two (again, this is an oversimplicfication, there are other archetypes) categories, and their associated characteristics will follow the template of structure.
The whore archetype is a highly sexualised character. She is not reliable, and considered to be an object. This type of character is usually very strongly associated to loose or negative morals. Usually, those morals are anti-conformist, anti-traditional, and end up leaving her off with negative consequences.
But she is not outside of the value structure alltogeher. This type of woman is still desirable,and conforms to an esthetic. She willingly partakes in the pleasures. She is still fragile and to be protected, or at least would need it. This type of woman may be against a certain form of purity, but is not necessarily entirely villified.
Whatever happens, this type of character is fixed. The whore is the whore, and cannot be the Madonna. Only a drastic cut can turn her into something different, but more likely than not, the character will stay within the whore paradigm.
On the other hand, the Madonna character is not desired but highly valued. The Madonna exudes purity, conformism and tradition. This is not a sexualised character. Her morals are spotless, and in fact act as a guide for others to follow.
Clearly, these characters embody different aspects of the virtue ethics.
They are people to be or to avoid being. They are good intrinsically because of the virtues they embody, or bad intrinsically because of the virtues they fail to adhere to. The good or bad that befalls them, or even the people around them is not the main focus. The rules they follow are also not imperative. It is what they are.
And so these archetypes integrate morals and virtues in the character itself. In its personnality.
This is where we find the importance of purity.
If a character is pure, they fulfill this most important virtue.
Purity is achieved by certain ideals which are always contextual but considered to be universal.
For instance, virgins are understood to be devoid of sexuality and thus emblematic of purity.
Sexuality is considered to be sullying. For a woman at least.
In this way, morality and gender intersect keenly. Since purity is a state that is supposedly perfect, there is no way to achieve it once it is lost.
You can strive towards it, but it is a constant effort.
You have to constantly strive upwards towards purity if you wish to profess to that virtue. You cannot at once be both pure and impure, but you can tend on a continuum, and people will recognize the striving towards one side or the other, simplifying the state to the intent.
You strive to be pure? Your actions speak to that? Then you are functionally pure.
The same is true on the other side.
Hierarchy of identities, archetypes and morality
The gender archetypes are not just for the feminine side. There are also masculine archetypes.
Those are allowed more variety.
This variety still strives upwards, but it does so over a hierarchical pyramid. Arguably the same is true for the feminine archetypes, but the extremes are much stronger.
This pyramid goes as follows.
The top of the pyramid embodies a certain amount of virtues, all in one big bundle.
There are many masculine virtues such as strength, courage, will, intelligence etc (please note that I am not suggesting women cannot be or embody such characteristics, simply that they are majorly portrayed in media and literature as masculine traits, which in itself is problematic). Sometimes, some of the virtues are a bit contradictory. For instance, a man supposed to embody the virtue of strength should try to rely on this virtue instead of his intelligence in order to resolve a conflict.
So the archetype of the perfect virtuous man can be broken down into subsets of virtues, creating a lower tier of archetypes. The second level of the pyramid thus has men who embody some virtues, but are also lower than the top because they do not have the other virtues. This creates a number of subcategories of archetypes.
This can go on with even less embodied virtues, and thus more subcategories, and levels of the pyramid.
Regardless, if a character is one of those archetypes, he is supposed have these virtues intrinsically, or strive to develop them more. Whatever movement is shown basically just confirms the virtues alsready present in the character.
There is no real movement.
At least, most of the time.
Morality as an intrinsic part of identity?
Morality as the underlying justifying foundation to the hierarchy, illusion of validity.
As we can see, these characteristics are mostly believed to be intrinsic to the character. It is what the character is, not what he chooses for a while.
That’s an easy plot line.
How do you identify good and bad, if they are simply functions of contextual choices?
It becomes difficult to uphold a system if people in themselves cannot be held to morality standards, and their actions are simply those on trial. You cannot punish an action. You can try to stop an action, but you can only punish a person.
Therefore, it is much more convenient to assign the goodness or badness to the person themselves.
We can punish them or value them at will, and easily follow them as examples.
Our hierarchy of archetypes is based, as we saw, on virtues.
Why are these characteristics specifically considered to be virtues?
They are useful. They serve a purpose. To make matters simpler, we say they are good.
As a general rule, we consider someone is good if they are brave. Our hierarchies are not just accepted as. We justify them by the moral structure that we apply beneath it. This whole structure is thus static, because a static structure is more easily intelligble. When things don’t move and repeat, it’s easier to read them.
Set boundaries strongly enforced by society
There’s possibly a social imperative for consistency through time. Iinearity perhaps?
As the archetypes are intelligible, so do our actions need to be.
One single action is not meaningful on its own. Actions and codes are meaningful in a structural frame, in relation to other actions codes. Thus, it builds on itself to go in one directions.
There is more to it than simple intelligibility. There is a strong incentive to keep you in a single category.
Meaning, you are strongly adivsed to be good, but if you failed at some point, you are branded rather permanently, to keep you away from the “good side”, lest its pool be tainted. Since these catagories are supposedly intrinsic, fluidity from one side to the other is a troubling notion. If one can move, then one IS not something. One just does something.
The moral and gendered boundaries are thus strongly enforced.
Where you are on either side of those lines gets integrated in your personnality, and you begin to identify with it and justify it for yourself. Just like Nietzsche proposes, where you are on a side becomes the good side, no matter what flip you have to make to your perception in order to be on the “good” side.
People become ensconced in their positions and enforce others to stay with them on that side. Groups are formed around these archetypes.
Specifically it seems people are either one or another type of morality.
One is either good or bad, and is intelligible in this way.
We respect a criminal with a code (Ocean’s 11, The godfather).
It might be perhaps another way to promote commitment, and reduce social empowerment and mobility. You don’t want too much unrest.
Too much mobility.
Is it possible to move?
But like we should know by now, the human cannot be easily contained.
It is possible as we saw to move within the boundary of a morality line. You can become more of the same thing.
More rarely, you can cross that line once. Either you fall from grace, or you can be redeemed.
But usually, this can only happen once. People will not believe you can be redeemed twice.
“Fool me once”… etc.
Now, once you change, as we’ve seen, you lose your group. Hence strong morality lines serves as cohesive for group membranes as well.
Kegan proposes stages of moral and value appraisal. The first stages are not absolute morals, but they are enacted as absolute rules.
The later stages are a gradual abstraction for morality rules dictated by a group to dictated by the self, until an individual is capable of making decisions without having to rely on a set of rules. Arguably, very few people reach the last level (level 5) within which an individual may in fact mix and match his own set of rules when it is useful to him or to a purpose she sets herself.
Kegan and his 5 stages portray the difficulty to simply adopt a different set of morals, and how different genders are associated with a different hierarchy of morals.*
You can read about Kegan’s 5 stages of development here:
How to be an adult – Kegan’s theory of adult development.
The 3 last stage of kegan’s development are the most interesting ones.
But they have also been criticized for their gendered hierarchical nature.
Indeed, the 3rd stage is the stage during which an individual cares most about the value structure of their own group, and acts in order not to be expelled from the group. This entails that the values themselves are not specifically important, and were they to change within the group, the individual might change accordingly.
This does not often happen, but it may.
This level is associated to pro-social behaviors that women tend to favor. Hence, according to this theory, women are usually at a lower level of development.
In level 4, the individual disassociates somewhat from the pressure of the group and integrates the value structure on its own alleged merit. The individual upholds values because he believes them to be good, and may even draw the ire of a group if it is in line with his moral values.
This is a level associated to potentially anti-social behaviors favored by men.
According to this theory, men are thus higher than women on the developmental scale.
But we are still left with this elusive 5th level, during which an individual may shed the necessity for a strict set of values and make their own set, understand that values are rules that can bend and may be shed when necessary.
We will return to this point.
The most important idea here, was simply to show that the hierarchy of morals was connected to the hierarchy of genders. Usually, these hierarchies and positions within them tend to stay relatively fixed, but the system seems to have built within it the possibility for movement.
So far, we have mostly been talking about normative representations. But what of non-normative representations? Although rare, they do exist and allow for beautiful paradoxes in the system to be highlighted.
Marginality in general is often portrayed in conjunction with rebellion against the mass, and thus with often alternative sets of morals.
Marginal, non-normative individuals tend to be ambiguous in nature. After all, normativity is simply another word for intelligible. The more intelligible a concept is, the more likely it is to become normative. If it does not become normative, it becomes a stereotype, and can thereafter be reinterpreted and owned by the group it targets (take for example the term “Queer”), but nonetheless, it is part of our stated reality. It is normative NOT to be the villified intelligible sides of reality.
On another note, usually, what is intelligible but villified is often erased from public exposure. Invisibilisation is one way that the normative mass may enforce a certain way of being, highlighting once again the importance of intelligibility.
Marginal individuals will tend to stray out of the intelligible in rebellion against the most common discourse. They will embrace novelty. The invisible will become them, and thus they create a new form of discourse. When they are portrayed (however rarely), it can be tricky to make them intelligbible. How do you portray what does not exist as a code to be understood by most. How do you portray “glubnark”, if no one knows what it is? How do you make people understand “glubnark” without minutes of exposition, and weave it into your narrative?
(playing with this notion, Rick and Morty introduce the Plumbus, and leave the audience mystified).
So ambiguity can be presented by mixing around already known codes.
For instance, mixing around codes belonging to masculinity and codes belonging to femininity.
And so we find that when there exists a hierarchy of masculinities, associated with its set of moralities, and femininities, associated with its set of moralities, and that these two system also exist in relation to one another, on a hierarchical stage of morality as well, it can become clear that ambiguous characters do not really permit clear morality lines.
Just like genes swap sides in the formation of sex cells to mix up the arrangements of your parents genes, so do the morality lines associated with each system.
These systems of gender exist structurally, which means only in relation to one another, and not as absolutes. Take the system apart, and it has no absolute meaning, and somewhat starts to fall apart.
Hence, the ambiguous characters exhibit the limits to that system, as though there existed clear sides to morality and only certain people with oddities could exist in the in between.
There exist multiple examples, in various genres, of the sort of ambiguous gendered and moral characters.
We have seen above the wonderful “HIM” from the powerpuff girls, although he is perhaps an exception as he is radically portrayed as evil (Mind you, evil from a very specific moral standpoint, which we will not delve into here).
We can start by looking at the clever Bugs Bunny.
He responds to contextual needs by applying gendered norms appropriately. He will interact in a semi-sexual manner with different genders as suits his needs. But you could not quite label Bug Bunny as a “GOOD” person. He delights in hurting his foes, sometimes unprovoked. He toys with them needlessly. He oscillates from prey to predator in each episode. He will avoid or enact violence as suits his will.
Bugs Bunny clearly shows that his morality lines can shift, enough that he stays surprising to the viewer who expects a constant morality line.
Bugs Bunny has a hierarchy of moral puzzle sets that he can take in and out. Rules within rules that can be plugged in as seen fit. Bugs Bunny is one example of Kegan’s 5th level of development.
Tara, from United States of Tara is another example of shifting morality lines in direct relation to her gender.
She shows it even more plainly since her gender does not simply oscillate from male to female, but also within the gender pole hierarchies as well.
Whe is at times a mother, and at times an adolescent “loose girl”. She can be a loud but overall peaceful man, or a murderous young predator.
Her attitudes towards sex, relationships, institutions, violence and truth can and do shift with her various gendered personalities.
Her character though, is oddly unified.
All these aspects of Tara are contained in one body, and one group relationship, that surrounds the mental health of Tara. She is the ambiguous line shifting character.
Bugs Bunny and Tara are not the only ones. We will not examine them all, but we can still name examples such as Jack Randall from Outlander, or Jessica Jones.
There exist more.
If one comes to your mind, do not hesitate to mention them!
Arguably though, contextual morality might be useful and in fact closer to the reality of people’s actual inner lives. People are not, in fact, truly linear. People most of the time try to bend their own understanding of the rules to match what their innermost desires would want them to do. Or they simply decide that they can sometimes be exceptions to the rules. Simply in terms of gender, people negotiate their own daily, in every interaction and context they encounter, even if perhaps not in extreme variations.
But if you promoted this sort of idea, then you’d need to teach people how to apply their capacity for change, lest they become too uncontrollable. If you think you have leeway (at least through rationalisation) , you might be tempted to make things easier for yourself and reduce cognitive dissonance, align you life constantly with desires, and refuse to follow a social order.
It is thus logical that our mainstream discourse is one that portrays linearity as the common ground.