Problematic media exists- and it needs understanding, not scorn.
Allow me to share a story about internet lingo.
Ever heard the phrase ‘your fave is problematic’? It’s a notorious part of Tumblr history. A blog- called Your Fave Is Problematic existed to post ‘receipts’ on celebrities. This was done to convince the reader that the celebrity was actually a bad person, because being problematic is the ultimate fandom sin. Problematic Media, needs to be ‘fixed’ by a culture cop, a sensitivity reader or a critic.
Here’s why I’m not a fan of that.
In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about problematic literature from the perspective of a writer. However, in this blog post I will be looking at this discussion from a critical standpoint.
I’ve been watching alot of YouTube videos- such as video essays, or booktube reviews, etc. They ‘deconstruct’ books and movies by highlighting the problematic parts. Maybe there was a racist moment. Perhaps their wasn’t enough diversity. Or maybe a character said something upsetting, or the film promoted the USA military or something like that. These video essays- from users such as Pop Culture Detective and Lindsay Ellis- are not bad. They are well made and researched.
However, there videos are often used in arguments of why we should highlight problematic aspects of media, and perhaps be more ‘critical’ of them. This makes me suspicious. ‘Critical’ often (but not always) manifests in outright condemnation and blame. To be honest? That makes me sad.
As someone who is engaged in fandom discussion, I often see people calling out JK Rowling on her ‘problematic’ aspects in Harry Potter. To be honest, it saddens me that people look at Harry Potter– a series that has brought so much joy to the hearts of children all across the globe- and argue that it needs fixing. JK Rowling is not a perfect writer, yet she has every right to stay true to her voice as a writer.
I’m currently rereading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a fantastic novel, brimming with dark moments. Yet it’s also very politically incorrect. McCarthy has no problems using the N-word in his prose, or portraying the Indian characters as capable of violence. Characters are treated poorly. McCarthy, is well, problematic. But Blood Meridian is a masterpiece. Every scene, character, line and quote exists for a damn good reason. It’s sad- when you have a rich novel like Blood Meridian– and your one take-away from it is how problematic it is.
I just want to make something clear. My pro-free speech, pro author stance does not diminish the awful problems the world faces in terms of sexism, racism, etc. What I find to be discerning is when literature has to be tailed in a certain way to appease others. From a critical point of view, I want to read something exciting and groundbreaking. Can a novel or film be truly that if it’s passed twenty sensitivity readers?
The only thing worth discussing is that people disagree on what ‘offensive’ material is. A fantastic example of that is Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Critics took issue with Stone’s supposed glorification of violence. Yet for others- Stone’s film was biting critique on how media creates a culture of sensational narratives. I quite like Natural Born Killers, and I wouldn’t want Oliver Stone to change anything in his original film. My point is that people disagree on what is ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ all the time.
I think authors who want to avoid upsetting people with their work should trust their intuition and do research. If you are open to this, you can always ask for a close friends opinion. For me? I belong in the ‘someone is going to get offended regardless, I might as well write whatever I want.’ That stance may seem confronting and insulting, but only if I actually wrote harmful literature. (i.e a defamatory, dishonest book). Well, I don’t do that.
Personally, I want to form my own critical theories and analytical frameworks. I don’t want to break down literature into tiny parts, I want to bring it together and celebrate it. I study literature under the presumption that literature is a powerful tool that can enrich peoples lives. Under no circumstances would I support any suppression of free speech.
To conclude this blog post, I urge people to think twice before they shout on Twitter that a book must be ‘fixed’ or should be cancelled. Let’s appreciate literature and its wonderful quirks. Discussing how problematic Jane Austen was, is quite frankly, a bit tiring.
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