How to be a fan of problematic things

I like things, and some of those things are problematic. I like Lord of the Rings even though it’s pretty fucked up with regard to women and race (any narrative that says “this whole race is evil” is fucked up, okay). I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though its portrayal of people of colour is problematic, and often I find that its in-text condemnation of patriarchy isn’t obvious enough to justify the sexism displayed. I like the movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World even though it is racist in its portrayal of Matthew Patel, panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace, and trivialises queer female sexuality in its portrayal of Ramona and Roxy’s relationship. For fuck’s sake, Ramona even says “It was a phase”! How much more cliche and offensive could this movie be? Oh wait, remember how Scott defeats Roxy, his only female adversary, by making her orgasm? Excuse me while I vomit…and then keep watching because I still like the rest of the movie.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff.

Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it. It is a unique irritation to encounter a person who point blank refuses to admit that something they like is problematic. Infuriatingly, people will often actually articulate some version of the argument “It can’t be problematic because I like it, and I’m nice”. Alternatively, some fans may find it tempting to argue “Well this media is a realistic portrayal of societies like X, Y, Z”. But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots. Um, yikes. YIKES, you guys.

And even if you think that’s true (which scares the hell out of me), I don’t see you arguing for an accurate portrayal of everything in your fiction all the time. For example, most people seem fine without accurate portrayal of what personal hygiene was really like in 1300 CE in their medieval fantasy media. (Newsflash: realistically, Robb Stark and Jon Snow rarely bathed or brushed their teeth or hair). In real life, people have to go to the bathroom. In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.

Especially do not ever suggest that people not take media “so seriously”, or argue that it’s “just” a tv show. The narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others. That’s why creating imaginary fantasy and sci fi worlds that have more equal societies can be a powerful thing for marginalised people, who mainstream media rarely acknowledges as heroes. But even if you don’t think that media matters, there is still no reason to focus exclusively on unequal or problematic fictional worlds and narratives. If it doesn’t matter, why don’t YOU stop taking your media so seriously and stop fighting us on this? You with your constant demands for your narrow idea of “realism” (which by the way often sounds a lot like “show me naked skinny ciswomen, and gore”). If in your framework tv shows aren’t serious business, why does realism matter? Why can’t you accept that it would be totally cool to have AT LEAST ONE BIG MEDIEVAL FANTASY EPIC WHERE WOMEN AND POC WERE LIKE, EQUAL TO WHITE MEN AND STUFF. STOP TAKING IT SO SERIOUSLY.

Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements. Okay, so you can admit that Dune is problematic. But wait, you’re not done! You need to be willing to engage with people about it! It’s not enough to be like “Ok, I admit that it’s problematic that the major villain is a fat homosexual rapist, but come on, let’s focus on the giant sandworms!”. Shutting people down, ignoring or giving minimal treatment to their concerns, and refusing to fully engage with their issues is a form of oppression. Implicitly, you’re giving the message that this person’s feelings are less important than your own. In fact, in this case you’re saying that their pain is less important than your enjoyment of a book, movie or tv show. So when people raise these concerns, listen respectfully and try to understand the views. Do not change the topic.

Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like. Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found it more problematic. For example, consider the scene in Game of Thrones where Drogo rapes Dany (which he does not do in the books). One of my friends feels that it was portrayed like rape fetish porn, sexualising the act and Dany’s pain. But I feel that the scene focuses on Dany’s pain and tears in a manner that is not fetishising them (though even so the narrative is still totally fucked up because Dany and her rapist then go on to have a good, sexyfuntimes relationship…uh, no, HBO). I don’t agree with my friend’s interpretation but I recognise it as a totally valid reading of the scene.

Also, as a fan of problematic media, you need to respect the fact that others may be so upset or angered by media you love that they don’t want to engage with it at all. In fact, one of my best friends won’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones because of the racism and misogyny. That’s a completely legitimate and valid response to that tv show, and me trying to convince her to give it another shot would be disrespectful and hurtful. If you badger others to see what you see in something when they are telling you it’s not enjoyable for them, you’re being an entitled jerk. You’re showing yourself to be willing to hurt a real person over a television show. That really is a sign you’re taking things too seriously.

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.

Author: Rachael

Rachael is a queer, nerdy, aneurotypical, white cisfemale with a bachelor's degree in economics and a give 'em hell attitude. She has a culturally unacceptable amount of body fat but sometimes "passes", and she accesses some forms of thin privilege but not others. She believes in leveraging the privilege one has in order to smash the kyriarchy. She is a big geek, an atheist, a skeptic, and a fan of science. In her spare time she enjoys meditation, going to therapy, and shouting.

248 thoughts on “How to be a fan of problematic things”

  1. I agree with Olek. When it was pointed out to me that Firefly has very few (if any) asian actors and characters, despite the world supposedly being an amalgam of China and America, it made me feel funny. On the one hand I loved the show, but on the other felt sort of bad for liking it when it had this striking omission. But you’re right, acknowledging and engaging with these problematic things is best – I think if it were pointed out to Joss (and if the show had continued), he might have rectified this, because he is not a bad person, just maybe seeing through one type of privileged/blinkered lense.

    1. Thanks! I have heard that about Firefly, although I’m not a fan of the show myself. As an outsider, the experience of interacting with fans who are willing to engage with that issue is really different to interacting with those who try to make excuses or change the subject. Interacting with that second group is hard for an outsider because when you ask questions you are often made to feel like you’re attacking them or being really rude, when in fact you’re just seeking information. I think these attitudes make fandom more tense, and less enjoyable.

    2. Regarding Joss Whedon and Firefly, it pains me to say (as someone who dearly loves his work) but I don’t have a lot of confidence that he Would rectify it. He has written truly remarkable narratives problematising heteronormativity, misogyny, and the silencing or sexual abuse victims, but his racialisations are consistently problematic. Over the course of four television series’ and a feature film – all with large ensemble casts – he has had six major roles of colour: three of those were black men with short tempers and propensities towards violence (two heroes and one villain), a pliant and servile east Asian woman, a wise old “magical negro” man, and a “masculine” (by television standards) black woman with a strong sex drive. And all of these, All of them, are characters I love – I don’t think they are one-dimensional stereotypes, but the fact that they fit so nicely _inside_ their stereotypes and the general lack of critical awareness surrounding race-narratives in concert with the really overtly problematic episodes (Anyone remember the “Thanks Giving” episode of Buffy?) makes it difficult for me to believe that he’s even slightly done the work to be ethical around racialisations.

    3. With Firefly’s racial balance, Joss wouldn’t have been able to fix the issue, as FOX execs had pretty much ingrained it.

      The Tams were supposed to be Chinese, but the studio were all like ‘two asian heroes? and neither of them does kung fu? (until the movie)… naah, and history has shown that they were looking for ways to get out of funding the show before it even began as it was. So, weak on the issue, but not actively racist in this instance.

      This does not excuse the final product, but it shouldn’t be on Joss alone that it happened.

      1. So, weak on the issue, but not actively racist in this instance.

        Yes actively racist, but perhaps not intentionally so. This is the perfect example of institutionalised and systematic racism. Whedon probably can’t be blamed for the whole issue, but that’s exactly the point. Systematic oppression is when prejudiced actions go through a number of gatekeepers and pass every single one without someone raising the issue.

        1. Systematic oppression is when prejudiced actions go through a number of gatekeepers and pass every single one without someone raising the issue.

          This is an excellent definition. I shall be making reference to it elsewhere, I have little doubt.

      2. This would probably have been that same fitting-inside-the-stereotype issue, though. Two Asian major characters who are also the two smart, nerdy, highly educated characters? Um.

        1. Well, in the case of Firefly, the show was already pushing it’s luck by having two prominent minority cast members (who actually had something to do other than being a minority) anyway. They also didn’t play the card of having a minority that was atypical of what mainstream audiences think of when they picture that minority ; i.e. Keanu is “part- Asian”, so he can be a Meiji era samurai. It also had strong female characters, and more than one. Yeah, lack of any strong Asian presence, especially given the premise is noticeable, but one show can’t solve all ills, which we tend to want movies, books and art to do. It’s a problem all creative people deal with in a society like ours where there is such a startling omission in the representation of certain cultures in media. If the show were bad, basically no one would care, but if it’s halfway decent it will get slammed for not being progressive enough.

          1. I almost didn’t approve your comment but considering the amount of Firefly apologism I’ve been hearing lately, I’d like to point out that your argument is essentially “This show is not as bad as it could’ve been and that makes it okay” which is a terrible line of argument. I find it perplexing that people seem to think there is a line at which a show is racist enough to criticise, but anything before it reaches that line is somehow protected by creative license or something.

            And FYI I actually mostly like Firefly.

          2. Actually that was a rather poor attempt at sarcasm, but probably didn’t come across that way because it’s actually rooted in fact. A bad show can be host to a ton of problems and no one really cares, but a good show can always be better. For instance, BSG can be said to be a Sci Fi blessing for giving a Latino actor a role as good and iconic as Captain Adama; however BSG gets lambasted for it’s depiction of Blacks. Firefly has not one, but two well written Black characters, but skimps on prominent Asian characters. Thing is the lack of Blacks in BSG and the lack of Asians in Firefly are both problematic, but in Hollywood it would have been very easy for either of those series to have gone the route of least resistance and given the viewing public what they expected which was no Blacks, and no Latinos in prominent roles.

            Many shows are really only problematic because of the dearth of shows that balance them out. People for instance don’t get bent out of shape about films without a LBGT character in them (even when chances are such a character would be there), because now you can find shows with such characters if you look. Said show is problematic, because it doesn’t reflect real life, but could still be a well written show regardless. Thing is, you can take it or leave it because you have options of other things to watch. It’s only when the options aren’t there that the spotlight falls on the few gems, and we notice the flaws.

          3. I understand what you’re saying, but people are singling out Firefly in particular because it’s been explicitly stated that the fictional world is one where China and the USA have merged into one government. Not only are there a great many visual elements from Chinese culture, but the characters frequently speak (very mangled) Mandarin. Given all this background, the fact that there almost NO Asian characters in the show is pretty fucking dismal.

            As this video demonstrates.

          4. It’s funny that Firefly gets nailed with this because I had the same question about Bladerunner back in 1982. Ridley Scott’s, Bladerunner seems to take place on an Earth where some Asia has clearly become the dominant culture, yet there are no Asian replicants, no Asian scientists that we see. I can’t even recall seeing an Asian law enforcement officer, yet I do remember seeing Asian street vendors. None of this is in the book, it was added because I guess the production designers thought it would look “cool” and exotic, yet they didn’t follow through with the idea to it’s logical conclusion. I still like Bladerunner, as it’s a superior example of SF filmmaking, but Scott loses points for the Asian omission.

            Still I have to say looking back over all the media I’ve watched over the decades while I find obvious omission problematic, I’ll take being blatantly omitted from a story where you’d expect to see more of my culture than being included with a stereotypical and dismal portrayal. Right now for at least two seasons this has been a big problem with the series The Walking Dead. Set in Atlanta, you’d expect there’d be a lot more people of color as survivors (or even zombies for that matter). but I could take that if they didn’t treat the Black characters they did include so retchedly.

            Thing is there are few shows that are not problematic in some ways, but the point of this article is really about how you/me as a person who likes the show deals with it when someone brings up the issue. If the issue is valid, you really can’t debate it, and 99% of the time the issue is completely valid. I find that fans of Sf/fantasy seem to be pretty lacking in this ability to admit that a show/movie they like has issues to the point of being belligerent, and hostile. Just look at all the crap Anita Sarkeesian went through just because she made a statement that a lot of video games were sexist. This is fanboyism taken to an obnoxious level, yet since the time this article was written, I’ve noticed that it’s increased and not decreased. I’d really like to know if any of the people reading this might have any idea as to why that is?

    4. Sadly, it has been pointed out to Josh… more than once… at least once in public at a convention… by an Asian person. His response: “Well, those were the actors we hired.”

      I’d love to see him rectify it. I’d love to see a second season full of Asian people — because then I could watch the first season, which I haven’t out of respect for how much it hurts my husband to see a show that is all about everything in his culture except him.

      1. There’s also the problem that the Chinese-language consultant was apparently his wife, who studied it but isn’t fluent and taught in China for a while (but not years). When I watched it at first, the Chinese in it made me wince, and when I eventually found out their source for the Chinese, it all made since. I think that was something controllable. I do think it reflects a lack of investment in the Asian aspects as anything other than window-dressing or flavor in the show, and discussing this with other fans has brought me nothing but kneejerk reactions and excuses that reflect no willingness at all to really think about it. It’s frustrating. “I like something that’s flawed, and that doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person” is hard for people to accept, and I think that “A f/sf work is flawed, but that doesn’t mean it has less merit than a similar mainstream work.” We genre fans are often very defensive. Combining a whiff of “does this mean I’m racist/sexist?!” with “does this mean it might be bad?!” is too much for a lot of people to handle. We need to work on it!

  2. Thanks for this! I always feel guilty about being a fan of something problematic, and after having read this article, I will now think about why I feel guilty and hopefully transform that guilt into a productive dialogue about the media’s portrayal of oppression.

  3. Thank you, thank you. So much. The worst is when people act like the WORST thing that can happen to their shows is for them to be called racist/sexist/etc. They don’t understand that real people get hurt.

  4. Could you explain to me, please, how Scott Pilgrim “panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace”? I’m a gay man, and Wallace resembles many people in my community. To me, he was a character, not a stereotype.

    1. I mean, the reason I ask is that many times, portrayal of particular types of gay men will be tarred as “stereotypical” when particular other types — often more privileged ones on oppression axes — are not so tarred despite how well or how poorly the characters are fleshed out.

      1. Thanks for bringing this up! Wallace is my favourite character too and I don’t think he was just a stereotype, but it was pointed out to me that Wallace’s having casual sex with multiple partners buys into one of the big stereotypes about gay men. So portraying the only named gay character (Jimmy is maybe bi?) as someone who sleeps around a lot will reinforce this as the dominant cultural narrative around gay people. Not that it’s problematic to sleep around of course, but it’s harmful when only one narrative is woven around a group. I felt that I should acknowledge that fact, even though I love Wallace and don’t find his character offensive. I think you make a good point though (although I have to admit I’m very ready to jump on board with that because, like I said, big fan of Wallace).

        1. This is really the problem I have. Speaking as a gay man who is promiscuous (and also effeminate, something else that gets gay male characters tarred as “stereotypical”), I think it’s not enough to go “He’s a gay male character! And he’s promiscuous! That means he’s a stereotype!”

          By that logic, the only gay characters who are permitted to exist are non-promiscuous ones, though we might grant a dispensation to promiscuous ones as long as they’re accompanied by a non-promiscuous one to take the curse off.

          (If anything, I would find that kind of Will-and-Gracey shit more stereotypical than the alternative.)

          To me the determining factor when looking into stereotypes that are morally neutral in their character (e.g. promiscuity and effeminacy) is: is this character like this out of lazy, caricatured characterization based wholly on their minority status? Or is this character like this because they’re like this, because they’re an accurate and well-brushed depiction of real people who are like this? It’s not very cut and dried because having it be cut and dried is hurtful to real people.

          Here’s some discussion of this w.r.t. effeminacy, another characteristic that gay characters are frequently attacked as ‘stereotypical’ for having:

          1. I’m not saying no homosexual men should ever be portrayed as effeminate and promiscuous – I don’t think that’s the endgame of the logic.

            The logic is that there is an overabundance of these portrayals and that we are dangerously close to building a single representation of gay men in mainstream culture and that’s not acceptable: we need more representations that are diverse. Wallace isn’t contributing to the diversity we wish to achieve. (I agree that neither are Will and Jack from Will and Grace, who are both somewhat promiscuous and have feminine traits played for laughs.)

            The fact that it is reinforcing the dominant narrative, and that there should not be one single dominant narrative, is really the only criticism – there’s nothing wrong with who Wallace is or with portraying gay men that way. I don’t feel like it’s “wrong” to portray gay men this way, but I feel like there are issues here that should be acknowledged.

            I hope that I’m communicating this correctly because I really don’t want it to seem like I oppose representations of gay men as promiscuous and effeminate. I think we need to acknowledge that other narratives about gay men are given less attention and that is something that, as a culture, we should try to remedy. That’s the full extent of the problem – there’s nothing wrong with the portrayal itself. If the dominant representation of gay men was of a monogamous youth pastor, or it would be the same level of problematic.

          2. Thanks for bringing this up Llyr and also for the link you provided! I definitely see your point, which I think is that we require more positive representations of effeminate (and possibly promiscuous) gay men in the media to counter the real world marginalisation that effeminate men experience. And I agree – especially with respect to how many people seem to take the notion of a “sassy gay friend” seriously (SATIRE PEOPLE, IT’S SATIRE).

            But I don’t think that’s necessarily inconsistent with an examination of the trends of how gay men are portrayed in the media over all. I can wish for both better portrayals of effeminate gay men specifically, and also a better variety of portrayal of gay men generally.

          3. I’m gay as well and I totally agree with you! I didn’t find Wallace stereotypical at all. He’s like the only character from the comics that Edgar Wright didn’t fuck up in the movie adaptation.

          4. Just commenting to say that there are some excellent points being made here, and we want to thank everyone for their contributions. It’s often difficult to voice nuanced dissent even within SJ circles. We’re definitely re-evaluating our thoughts about this; just give us some more time to mull it over. 🙂

          5. @Rachel: As a femme-slut-fag myself,I really really don’t think there’s an overabundance of Wallaces in the media. On the contrary, seeing an f-s-f who is intelligent, self aware, ethical, and confident is definitely in the Unicorn range of frequent-sightings. The cautionary tale provided by mainstream media is that f-s-fs are pathetic imbeciles (jack) or lifeless accessories (queereye… *shudder*), and the only way to save ourselves from being that is to butch up and go monog. We’re supposed to whine interminably about not having a boyfriend, but then cheat on him when we get one because we can’t keep our legs closed, but then have pathetic (and hillaaaaaarious) “girly” melt-downs over the inevitable break up, diet like crazy, possibly get plastic surgery, and go out slutting again in search of a man… lather rinse repeat until we get Herpes! *Laugh track!*

            Also, the butch-monog-fag is not a non-existent image, it’s the stereotype of the _Acceptable_ gay man. We prove we’re allowed to exist by saying it’s possible for us to “straighten up and fly right.” And yes, some of us _Do_ have normative-masculinity privilege, some of us do have relationship patterns that are more acceptable to dominant cultural mores, but promiscuity and variation in gender performance have been crucial rallying points in the formation of our culture, these aren’t wholly externalities being imposed on us. It was the drag queens and sex trade workers who fought for all of us at Stonewall. It is our sex that dominant Western culture has tried to erase and eliminate, so it’s the sex we have that became such an important site of resistance. We are othered because the sex we have is not gender-normative, so the ways we “fail” to be gender-normal have become our sites of identity and resistance. I would much rather see us shown as competent and real human beings while still possessed of that cultural identifiability, rather than simply white-washed and made into the fag that’s sympathetic to mainstream audiences because he’s been invested with the normative privileges (gender-normativity, monogamy) which are enforced throughout Western society, but with particular emphasis on queers.

          6. Thanks for this awesome comment. I’m really glad people feel this way about Wallace because I love him, and I am glad to see that others do not find him problematic but indeed empowering. I am not sure that the dominant representation of a gay man really is butch and monogamous though – it’s hard to think of many except maybe that dude from Six Feet Under, and I guess Will from Will and Grace was usually monogamous but he wasn’t really butch. Jack was femmeish and promiscuous (and also an idiot, yes), so was the character played by Zach Quinto in So NoTorious…actually, you’re definitely right that femme and promiscuous is not close to being the single narrative. I don’t think butch and monogamous is either, but yes, I agree with you that femme and promiscuous is not as dominant as I thought it was.

            The other thing about Wallace is that he’s the only character who has his shit together (well, his boyfriend/s also seem to have their shit together) so that’s pretty great.

          7. Um, so, first of all, THIS IS GREAT. Like, this discussion, the blog, everything. I just discovered the blog today (I already forgot how, that’s the power of the internet) and it’s bookmarked. I especially liked this post and will be linking everyone to it. So, THANKS FOR BEING AWESOME. Basically.

            Then I wanted to add my two cents!
            Rachael, you say: “I am not sure that the dominant representation of a gay man really is butch and monogamous though.”

            I think the tension in this discussion is that there is a growing gap in representations of gay men on TV. On one side, you’ve got the promiscious effeminate fag, we shall call him Comic Relief because that’s basically his #1 purpose in the movie/show/comics. He’s been around for fucking ever and we’re tired of him because we’re tired of being told fags are hilarious when in real life, being a fag gets you beat up after school.

            In response to this caricature, there’s been an increase in media representations of Real Gay Man (TM). I think you’re right, Rachael, that they’re still fewer of them (Comic Relief has a long history of being popular so he’s not going to go down without a fight… after all, we do still love to laugh at gender nonnormativity). But the strength of Real Gay Man isn’t in numbers – it’s in how much every liberal LOVES him. It’s in how much many people (on the more liberal end of the spectrum, granted) WISH he was the more popular representation. He’s the portrayal of gay people that hetero people, the masculine guy who Just Happens To Be Gay and reassures us that gay people really don’t have to rock the heteronormative boat. Ever. I think the Real Gay Man is especially common in ‘gay rights’ discourses – amongst people who (most likely) self-identify as liberal and have a basic understanding of ‘stereotypes are bad’ so they love patting themselves on the back for loving “non-stereotypical” representations of gay men. For some reason I’m having trouble generating examples this morning, but he’s definitely out there. Like think of how Brokeback Mountain was acclaimed – I think the movie is excellent, but I also think that normative masculinity was a huge part of why a lot of people liked the movie.

            Ironically, instead of helping us explain why Comic Relief is a problematic representation, Real Gay Man often continues the work started by Comic Relief of demeaning effeminacy and promiscuity, except it judges it instead of mocking it. Like you said, the problem with Comic Relief isn’t that he’s promiscious and/or effeminate; I don’t think it’s even that we mostly see gay men as effeminate and/or promiscuous, although diversity of portrayals never hurts. The real problem with Comic Relief is that he’s a joke; if his character himself isn’t a joke, his effeminacy and promiscuity definitely are. To respond to Comic Relief by wanting more of Real Gay Man has done little to challenge heteronormative standards; I’d argue it’s probably reinforced them, by confirming that they are what we’re striving for. That these heteronormative standards are ‘real’ representation.

          8. Wow, maybe I should check out the rest of this site. I am really impressed by this comments discussion. Now re-evaluating my thoughts about “stereotypical” portrayals.

        2. Sorry to jump in here, but nobody else has pointed this out: Wallace is not the only named gay character. (Aside from Roxy, and I may never forgive Edgar Wright for what he did to Roxie.) His boyfriend, Other Scott, is also gay and named. They sleep with other guys and then have threesomes with said other guys, are in the back of group shots checking out guys and clearly discussing who they’d have a threesome with. I’m not saying that Wallace isn’t promiscuous, he is; I’m not saying he’s not somewhat of a gay stereotype, because he is, somewhat; I just didn’t want Other Scott to be ignored in this discussion. Especially since their relationship is the only one I’ve ever seen in a movie that reflects my own. (Well, I’m in a triad and there isn’t cruising for casual sex, but two of us do talk about guys we’d love to have threesomes with, so it’s close enough. And we date outside the triad, so. Hooray for positive depictions of poly relationships, is my feeling on Wallace and Other Scott.)

          (Also in the comics [SPOILERS!] Stephen Stills is gay, and there’s nothing in Mark Webber’s performance to negate that, since I’m pretty sure Bryan Lee O’Malley told him. [/SPOILERS!])

          1. Other Scott wasn’t his boyfriend. He’s his best friend. They weren’t having sex when they were together in the bed since Scott was there and is averse to seeing other people’s penises.

      2. The issue for me (moreso in the comics than the film) is that Wallace’s sexuality is highly tokenised. I think he’s a great character though, and it’s possible that he’s tokenised because Scott Pilgrim is a bit of a douchey narrator.

        1. I would agree, Scott is a douchey narrator. I would also suggest it’s part of the whole point. Scott is not a perfect person, and in many ways commits micro aggressions against Wallace. I believe Wallace is tokenized, but I also wonder if it’s because of the writer, or the way he is understood by Scott. (I also wonder how much “I am not defined by being Queer” dynamic impacts this discussion. I find myself very troubled by “I am gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer but I don’t let that define me” kinds of dialogue, in that I don’t feel it speaks to the experience of myself, and actually devalues that experience as a whole. To explain a bit more clearly, many times this dialogue arises out of “treat me the same as someone not gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer” and that if we were to be highly impacted or defined by our queer experience, we would be somehow less good. I’m concerned that there is a suggestion that people would be the same if they weren’t queer, and I don’t think that’s the case. If I wasn’t queer, I wouldn’t have the politics I have, the job I’m interested and the kinds of relationships I’m interested in having.

          1. While obviously extremely against the idea that being highly impacted by our queer experience some how devalues us, I’ve never actually read “I am gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer but I don’t let that define me” in that way.
            I think people like to categorise other people. To put them in boxes, fix labels and think they’re done with all the necessary understanding. I think “I am gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer but I don’t let that define me” is an attempt to stop that, to demand that you see the whole person. To quote Whitman “I contain multitudes” and I refuse to be defined by only one. I am not just bisexual, a feminist, blonde or a bookworm, I am all of them and more and I’d like to be seen as that.
            On the other hand, I recognise your point and I too think there’s something very wrong with the fact that queer people even need to ask to be treated the same as straight people. There shouldn’t be a difference.

      3. I feel that I’ve become a little more aware of my entitlements and advantages in the last few years. I’ve had a number of d’oh moments and I’m glad for this. I hope to continue expanding my understanding, but I doubt I’ll ever be anywhere close to just-society acceptable.

        Regardless, this comment has highlighted a difficult-to-articulate “thing” that makes me uncomfortable when it comes to social activism. Not even activism, just generally trying to be more aware, and having conversations online about it.

        I can’t help but see, underlying much of the dialog, the idea that the advantaged group can’t add much to the conversation. They can’t say what the marginalized experience is like, or understand it, or solve it, because they ARE advantaged, always have been, and always will be. It’s cultural appropriation, heavy on the negative connotation, for a representative of the advantaged group to speak with any authority in matters of marginalization and bias.

        So how is it acceptable for me to be “offended on someone else’s behalf.” It seems to me that being offended on someone else’s behalf can be as offensive as being completely blind to the potentially offensive.

        By finding something offensive that has nothing to do with me, I think I might be implicitly acting as if I can authoritatively state what a marginalized group ought to be concerned with or offended by. Which seems, well, smugly advantaged.

        Catch-22 or just being advantaged and missing the point?

        1. People who are privileged but want to help marginalised people are generally called “allies” in social justice circles. I would suggest Googling “How to be an ally” and reading the resources that pop up there, and hopefully they’ll provide an answer to some of your thoughts.

          But to address your concern specifically, the issue is not really one of “offence”. We use the word “problematic” here a lot because “offence” suggests a kind of deep emotional reaction, whereas, to be completely honest, some of the most problematic representations of marginalised people make me feel kind of empty because I’ve just seen it so many times. “Problematic” on the other hand gets to the heart of the matter – that a representation in some way creates problems for marginalised groups and that’s why it’s bad, not because people have a strong emotional reaction to it (ie. people often use the defence of being offended by swearing as a reason to not consider these issues, but swearing on the whole is not something problematic).

          That way you can discuss the ways in which a representation can be detrimental to a marginalised group (which is a lot more objective) and hopefully you won’t feel or seem as if you are appropriating marginalised experiences.

          1. I think it is possible (to some degree at least) to be offended on someone’s behalf, or in your words have a deep emotional reaction to something problematic, the important part being that one recognizes that their taking offence is not nearly as important as a marginalized person taking offense and is an /entirely/ different experience. For instance, I as a white person may have a strong emotional reaction to something racist that affects my friend who is a POC, but it’s important for me to recognize that it is their feelings, not mine, that are at issue, and that because it does not affect me directly, there is more of an escape, so to speak, for me than there is for them…..So, yes, perhaps “offense” isn’t the correct word to describe negative emotional reactions of allies, but there certainly isn’t anything wrong with being emotionally affected by things that don’t apply to you as long as you keep in mind a reasonable amount of perspective about where your feelings sit in the grand scheme of things.

  5. Great post! I liked the Scot Pilgrim movie, but it still really bugs me that, as well as the other problems you pointed out, Ramona’s ex-boyfriends dictated who she dated, instead of her getting to choose.

    1. I disagree. Her exes tried to dictate who she dated, but at no point did she actually care what their opinion of Scott was. She dated him ’cause she liked him, and dumped him ’cause he was a douche.

      The exes’ objections were soundly ignored by Ramona the entire time.

  6. I love this article! As someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I admit I still have this fondness for the Brady Bunch and Little House on the Prairie and CHiPs. I also watch a lot of old movies. On the one hand I really enjoy these things, and on the other, well, do I really need to point out the sexism, the racism, the heterosexism and the speciesism involved? (fur coats and old movies go together like Beavis and Butthead — which I also watch.)

    I’m really glad you wrote this, in fact, because I sometimes get actually stressed out by the fact that I do enjoy some of these things, and I am very aware of many problems in them.

    So thank you!

  7. Re: Game of Thrones. Drogo does, in fact, rape Dany in the books – it’s not the wedding-night scene, but there’s a couple lines (the only time this is mentioned) that states that he basically raped her every single night until she sort of got used to it and started feeling it was pleasurable. And that’s half the problem I had with their relationship right there.

    1. Hm, I read those lines differently but now that you point it out I agree it seems like he rapes her. Though he doesn’t rape her the first time (although of course she’s under a huge amount of pressure, it’s consent under duress) in the books. But yes, I think you’re right about this on the whole.

      1. Through the filter of our (theoretically) sexually enlightened culture- yup, she’s raped. Through the filter of arranged marriage? Not so much.

        Doesn’t make it any less non-consentual, but a woman in that situation is likely to be thinking ‘cultural expectation of wifehood’ rather than ‘I’m being raped’- and their actions reflect that.
        So when we look at it though our filter of ‘it was rape’- we can’t understand how Dany could develop love and respect and a comfortable sexuality with her rapist, it just doesn’t happen in our conceptualization. Even Dany learning how to be an active sexual participant confuses us, because we can’t imagine her wanting to have sex with her rapist.
        But, it really is possible that a marriage that started out as an arrangement with an unwilling, confused wife and a dominant male could develop into a consenting sexual relationship- it has happened, it still does happen in cultures where arranged marriages are still the norm. I’m reminded of the scene in Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye asks his wife if she loves him; you learn they first met on their wedding day- obviously she was a scared, probably unwilling virginal girl. 25 years later, they have a settled domestic life. Did she cave in to her rapist, or did she adapt to what life expected of her? Should we be outraged that she didn’t hate him forever?

        1. “Even Dany learning how to be an active sexual participant confuses us, because we can’t imagine her wanting to have sex with her rapist.”

          I haven’t read any of the books. I assumed that Dany was trying to take some control of her life. It also looked like she fell in love with the people and her husband because even after the raping they still treated her better than her brother did, in the arranged marriage kind of context. She did what she had to do to survive.

          Also, baby dragons, squeeee!

  8. I’m sorry, because I like most of this, but parts bugged me. Mostly because I feel that insensitivity to particular social topics can be used well in characterization…of the villains. It doesn’t have to be overdone, obviously, and even subtle pokes can be enough. But sometimes it is necessary.

    What I always use as an example is Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. Despite being the hero, he’s the antagonist, and has to be characterized as such. So Mr. Whedon writes him as an insensitive, egocentric oaf. Lines like “I might just sleep with the same girl twice” (after entering a relationship with the woman) and “If you’re not a friggin’ tard you will prevail” cement this.

    Was it necessary? I’d argue it was necessary for insensitivity of some kind. How else can you make a hero the bad guy?

    As for the realism thing…most of the time I agree that realism can be loose. It just has to be visually realistic in what we see, as long as there isn’t to much important action offscreen. But in Medieval stories, I’d argue that it IS necessary for the women and POC to be unequal to white men. Because that’s what happened, that’s reality. However, that’s not to say there can’t be strong women present. Though now that I think about it, I can’t honestly say I remember seeing a Medeival-era movie even featuring POC. But, a fantasy story, as you said? There I agree, there’s no reason not to have women in power. Though any POC typically have to be travellers, since most fantasy is knights/castles/dragons in Europe inspired backdrops; and it’s my hope that that’s the only reason there aren’t important POC in most fantasy.

    But, to make a long post short…I think all of the bad things can serve a good purpose, sometimes being necessary. And that to me is progress, even. When it’s the bad guys who are rapists, the bad guys who are sexist, racist, cissexist, mysoginistic, the list goes on, when these things are constantly present in movies but they are the bad guys, I think that’s a step forward. Before we can move on from something, be in a place where it can be so ingrained in us that hating a particular person for being a different colour, a different orientation, is bad, we have to be in a place where we’re being shown that it’s bad. Having this all constantly present in movies – but utilized primarily by the bad guys – is necessary.

    1. I agree that when the narrative shows bigotry as being the trait of a bad person, it is effectively condemning the bigotry. I think this can mean that such a portrayal is in fact beneficial!

      However sometimes I feel like people are trying to do this, but because their audience actually is racist/sexist/heterosexist/ableist etc, the narrative condemnation is not strong enough to be able to stop the audience from liking the bad character and thinking they are great. So that can be a problem, although it’s not the author’s fault.

      1. Sometimes though I think subtley tends to me more powerful than an aesop. Game of Thrones to me always seemed to portray the way some of it’s characters viewed women as reprehensible. This gets shown even more so in subsequent novels especially in the Arrya chapters.

        1. Usually I’d agree – and definitely from an artistic viewpoint – but I think sometimes in the case of systematic prejudice sometimes a subtle message against it won’t actually penetrate the consciousness of those who are mired in the prejudice. So for we feminists, we perceive the subtle feminist messages of ASOIAF, but a sexist can ignore them very easily – it’s less easy to ignore an aesop. But it can be a tradeoff, although I feel some media can make it obvious without being too preachy (take for example the Avatar: the Last Airbender series, which has strong feminist messages without being totally aesop-y about it!).

    2. I’m actually in the midst of writing a post about this. In short: just because a character in a show is bigoted doesn’t mean the show is problematic. However, the bigoted character and their actions needs to be clearly condemned by the narrative and the other characters for the media to be sending the message that bigotry is not okay.

      1. Yes, of course, the most important thing for art of any kind is to Send A Message!!! Fuck subtlety or moral ambiguity, right?

        1. This is completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Whether a book or film intends to send a message or be morally ambiguous and subtle is clearly unrelated to whether it is problematic. Plenty of morally ambiguous films contain fewer harmful tropes than films that intend to send a message. That distinction is really not what this post is about.

          Aside from an obvious mastery of the irrelevant, I am not sure what you have to contribute to the discussion here. Future comments in this vein will not be approved.

    3. Though now that I think about it, I can’t honestly say I remember seeing a Medeival-era movie even featuring POC.

      Does “Men in Tights” count?

    4. I really don’t mean to sound judgmental here, but it jumped out at me quite strongly when reading your comment that you chose to highlight the one passing ableist line in an /entire song/ whose purpose is to illustrate Hammer’s classism, in which he calls homeless people scary and says they smell like poo.

    5. “Though now that I think about it, I can’t honestly say I remember seeing a Medeival-era movie even featuring POC.”

      Costner’s ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ had Morgan Freeman playing Robin’s sidekick, Azeem. Though there he was largely playing the Magical Negro.

      But yeah – I’m struggling to think of another. Even ’13th Warrior’ which is ostensibly about an Arab in Viking lands had Antonio Banderas playing Ibn Fadlan.

  9. Beautiful article and very helpful. I had to think about this a lot because most media is still pretty problematic, even media that claims to be progressive.

    By the way, while Scott Pilgrim, both the books and the movie, do suffer from the problems you mentioned, I just wanted to note that in the books, Roxy and Scott actually had a very decent sword fight, he even had to get over being too ‘moral’ to fight women. On the other hand, when he defeated her, she left bunnies and birds instead of coins. Yeah -_- The whole orgasm thing was used by Ramona against Envy in the books.

    I have one disagreement, though, which seems to have been already mentioned; I don’t believe Scott Pilgrim panders to gay men stereotypes. It’s true that the movie focused on Wallace since he’s a main character but, in the books, there’re a lot more gay men, and only Wallace(and maybe his boyfriend Mobile) are the only promiscuous ones. I completely agree about the portrayal of women queernes, though.

    I might be wrong about this but, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard is an example is an example of a medieval fantasy that has women as real equals and queer sexuality as normal.

    1. Yes! I was hoping someone would mention Scott Lynch. His series is part of a new movement in fantasy to bring an end to the tired old tropes of medieval-era European fantasy – for one thing, his books are actually set in a Renaissance era, and POC and non-hetero characters abound. Another example is the writing of Patrick Rothfuss’s – he deals pretty directly with racism, class elitism, discrimination and misogyny. Hetero chacters are everywhere, but there are a few gay and bisexual minor characters, and it’s Not A Big Deal, Guys.

      It’s really heartening to see my favourite genre moving in such a progressive route. We’ve come a long way since the days of Grandpapa Tolkien!

  10. The most problematic thing about Wallace in the Scott Pilgrim movie is how he says “I don’t make up the gay rulebook”, implying that stealing your friend’s boyfriends is totally okay for homosexuals and he just has to follow the rules. Still love the movie though. (The comics are more problematic, but in a sexist way, and therefore I like them way less)

  11. This was really a fantastic post to read. I’ve been considering similar concepts myself for the past year and a half or so. My husband and I have set out to watch every movie we own (~640) and review them all. Watching things with a more critical (and more aware of privilege) eye years after first seeing them and enjoying them has been an interesting and sometimes troubling experience. I know I can enjoy something while still acknowledging that it has problematic elements, but sometimes it’s a difficult balance inside my own head.

  12. This is a great post. I’ve been writing an original fantasy story for my NaNo, and one of the things I’m trying to be conscious of is how gender and inequality are handled (in my society, people aren’t treated differently based on their gender, but rather on how their magic manifests), as well as different cultural portrayals in my story. And the idea that the culture some of my protagonists hail from has issues just as problematic as others in the story. It’s a challenging thing to balance sometimes, but I hope by reading posts such as this one I can be aware of such things.

  13. Not to be problematic, but if the media we surround ourselves with influences us subconsciously, how is it okay to surround ourselves with _____ist media?

    1. Being influenced and surrounded by (problematic) media is a fact of life. One way to be aware of subconscious media influences is to engage in dialogue and talk a lot about it. Short of living as a hermit, no one can get away from the kyriarchy and the products it produces. And just because media is problematic in one way doesn’t mean its devoid of all artistic merit. It may actually have good things to say in one particular area of marginalisation (intersectionality!). (There may be some media that are devoid of all artistic merit because they only contain problematic things but I would say these are a minority of cases.)

      1. I understand that all media is a mix of positive and negative. However, since some things are more positive/progressive than others, wouldn’t it be better to leave behind, say, Eminem and Scott Pilgrim, and focus on things that don’t reinforce the status quo so much? Why not *minimize* the amount of negativity around you?

        1. How do we gauge “progressiveness”? How do we gauge what reinforces the status quo “so much” versus “just a little bit”? Even consuming media that is devoid of outright stereotypes and problematic elements, if we’re consuming something with a protagonist that is privileged in some way (white, straight, cismale, able-bodied, etc) then we’re probably reinforcing the dominant narratives of privilege in some way, simply due to the fact there aren’t as many narratives about marginalised people. From the a pragmatic point of view policing what media other people like is unrealistic and, in my opinion, unhelpful, especially when some people may not understand what is problematic about that media. On the other hand, creating spaces where works can be critically discussed is highly educational and more likely to succeed, because fans love discussing media.

          1. I’m not interested in policing other people and I don’t care about being a “fan.” I’m just pointing out that if media affects us on a subconscious level, then we should take some control over what type of media we consume. It’s pretty simple. Yes, talk about what is offensive in the work, but, hey, if the movie/song/book isn’t chocked full of stereotypes and negativity, there’s less crap seeping into our brains.

            Clearly, individuals have different tolerance levels for intolerance and ignorance, and mine tends to be kind of low. Do I love gaming culture so much that I’m willing to inundate myself with the isms that are tied to some of it? Is crunk so great to dance to that I’ll let the dehumanization of women pound its way into my head? Is the entertainment value of Pulp Fiction greater than the de-valuing of human beings it propagates?

            I understand that most entertainment contains isms and phobias. That doesn’t mean I should drown myself in that sort of thing. There is some media out there that isn’t so bad. And, actually, there is life outside of media.

          2. At this point I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make that hasn’t already been covered by my previous comments.

            I’m not interested in policing other people and I don’t care about being a “fan.”

            Considering this post is about being a fan your advice about having a life outside of media comes off as extremely condescending (and in fact, policing of what other people should do with their lives and free time). Contrary to what this site might suggest, everyone at SJL are living extremely busy and fulfilling lives concurrent to running this website. Whether fannish activities make up a large part of someone’s life is entirely the choice of each particular person.

        2. Most people who consider themselves to be progressive *do* make some effort to ‘leave behind’ the negative stuff and focus on the positive, don’t they? It’s impossible to do completely, as almost everything has some problematic elements, but speaking for myself I avoid films and TV shows without any decent roles for women, for example, or which are overtly misogynist, racist and/or homophobic.

          As Connie has said, it’s not an either/or though. Many programmes do very well in some areas and not so well in others.

  14. There is something that deeply bothers me about this post. Not about recommendations or pointing out problematic aspects of certain movies/shows/etc. Yes, I’m a fan of pointing them out and talking about them. In no way do I believe these topics should be glossed over or avoided. It’s more a reaction to two things: (1) how to interact with people who think differently from you; (2) the nature/purpose of art.

    Maybe it’s just my perception, but I found it a bit hypocritical to implore people to respect being hurt by something while at the same time telling them “don’t make excuses” and “don’t change the subject.” Shouldn’t discussions of something problematic have a certain amount of back-and-forth? What you call “making excuses” could open a discussion about society X, Y and Z. I agree that trying to silence someone when they point out something problematic is not the right approach – but why not try to engage the reaction instead of simply telling someone not to react that way? It seems to me to be just as much imposing your views on someone else if you don’t try at least to understand their reaction.

    Also, as an artist, I find some of the hidden and not-so-hidden assumptions about the purpose of art extremely troubling. In the comments, people openly discuss bigotry being “used effectively” for villains. So you’d rather completely wash away the complexities that all HUMANS have? A movie about Malcolm X shouldn’t show the problematic aspects of the Nation of Islam? A movie about FDR shouldn’t discuss the internment camps? But more fundamentally you seem to be assuming that media in the broad sense should be used to educate people and advance the cause for social justice, asking for one fantasy epic that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes/inequality. Maybe this isn’t an audience that will agree with me, but I say this is ONE purpose for media – one in which you participate and that you enjoy. It is also a way to express some of the darkest and least flattering parts of what it means to be human. This is the art that I personally find compelling. Violence, inequality, subjugation – they are all both real and powerful. It is possible to have a desire/drive and disagree with it on moral grounds at the same time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that EVERYONE experiences this or is lying to themselves. I don’t think avoiding this is going to do much of anything to advance social justice.

    1. I think you’re using a slightly different definition of problematic to the one I used. I don’t think displaying the cruelty of which humans are capable is problematic. We need media that explores sexism, heterosexism, abuse, inequality etc – those stories need to be told and it’s not problematic to tell them. What is problematic is when they are told without fully exploring the traumatic consequences of these horrible things, and thus, without giving full weight to the victims. It becomes problematic when the narrative subtly reinforces the bigot or the abuser rather than exploring the pain of the victim. So for example I don’t consider True Grit problematic even though it portrays a deeply sexist society, in fact I think it’s the best film of the past few years precisely because it explores how a young girl experiences that society during her revenge quest. I don’t consider films about Reuben Carter problematic if they focus on Reuben Carter etc. I feel like we probably agree on this as a whole.

      I also agree that a back and forth can be part of this as long as it’s respectful. It’s definitely fine to listen to the other person and then say “That’s interesting, I think that’s a totally valid reading of the text, here’s how I read it…”. But don’t say “No you read it wrong, here’s why they did this!” – that’s making excuses. I don’t see how this is hypocritical?

      1. …The question that arises, Rachel, and I ask this sincerely, is…

        …what if you think they -are- reading it wrong? What if it IS a totally ridiculous assertion? Are we supposed to simply decide “ok, something is problematic and thus Bad” the moment that -anyone- gets upset by it?

        For example. I was recently playing the PSN game Journey. My sister, who is not a gamer but is a political science student from a progressive-to-radical-leaning university, watched, and then said: “You know, I think this is Orientalist. Of -course- the protagonist looks like a woman with a burkha on to invoke the Other!”

        I found this quite ridiculous, and frankly at best a misreading. Am I not allowed to say, no, it was an aesthetic choice?

        1. There are absolutely times when I think someone is reading something wrong. In that case, I find it best to say something like “I do not understand how you read that from the text, but I respect your interpretation of the text as problematic.” After all, I do not suffer from a crushing need to force everyone to agree with me (contrary to what my detractors would say, I think!).

          However, there’s something else at work here. It is possible that you can’t understand someone’s interpretation of the text as problematic because your privilege blinds you to the messages being sent by the text. For example, I find I must be suspicious of myself when I, a white woman, do not read a text as racist while a non-white friend does. Is it really likely that *I* am a better judge of racism than a POC? No. In fact, as a white person, I am socially conditioned to be blind to racism. You will meet many white people who claim it’s not racism until the KKK hoods go on. Don’t be that (white) guy. This is a general problem, I’m just illustrating with my own example.

          And I must say, the example you gave is really unfortunate: it sounds like your sister is right. Our “aesthetic choices” are never made in a vacuum – your sister is applying critical thinking to the choice. And what is more, a burqua is a highly politicised item of clothing, so I very much doubt it appeared in a video game *purely* as an aesthetic choice anyway.

          1. Having seen the game in question, I think the anecdote about James’s sister is fascinating– as is your willingness to accept his sister’s reading as clearly “right” on the basis of a single sentence.

            I thought the game clearly referenced Islamic art and culture in it’s visual style, in a way that had a flavor of “this is exotic and Other!” and thus could be inherently problematic. But there was nothing to indicate the sex or gender of the protagonist (or any other character), who never speaks and is always fully covered in pants and a knee-length cloak topped with a neck scarf and a cornered hood which shadows the face but was, to me, little reminiscent of the round silhouette and draped face of a burqa in particular any more than any number of desert garments intended for sand exclusion and shade.

            The Otherness was, to my eye, created by the speechless, wordless design of the game, and by its nonviolence, and by the completely ambiguous presentation of the protagonist (which seemed at times catlike), and– more problematically, depending on your reading of the game and of the value of creating Otherness with elements drawn from reality– by its mostly-desert setting, architecture full of pillars and complex geometric windows and meshes, and by the ambiguity of the setting, which changed seamlessly between snow and sand and water, and color scheme maybe meant to be reminiscent of native North American art bolstered by the occasional woven blanket tapestry motif.

            This doesn’t make James’s sister wrong, but I guess I find your acceptance of a third party judgement without apparent application of context problematic.

            For reference, here’s a screenshot of the game, since I’m not sure my description is sufficient:

            I know this is more detail than was necessarily merited, especially so long after the comments were posted, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts about this imagery in its own context, if you have thoughts to share. I’m fairly torn myself on the apparent equation (and amalgamation) of desert peoples with the project-your-own-deep-meaning feel I got from the game, and with what felt like haphazard mixing of disparate, tenuously related cultural signifiers, but I really liked the ambiguity of the game and its conflicts and story.

  15. This is one of the most well-worded, expressive, thoughtful pieces I’ve read in a long while, and I loved every bit of it, from the post itself to every comment and discussion.

    I appreciate the mention of Dune, because this is something I’ve discussed on multiple occasions with my best friend. It’s her favorite book, and I absolutely cannot stand it because of the obviously homophobic quality in the writing. However, and this is the important thing, we both respect each others’ opinions.

    I wish other people would realize that, just because someone else might find something offensive or hurtful in something you might love, doesn’t mean that you should become defensive or even ashamed of liking it, as long as you understand where the other person is coming from.

    All it comes down to is understanding.

  16. I think that you have to realize that in order for some story structures to work – such as Adventure’s Quest, Hero with a Thousand Faces or Ship of Fools – you have to have to condemn entire races (mythological or real) to less-than-human status. If you don’t then you end up with Star War’s droids as the enemy.. Why do you think there are so many WWII movies, cause Nazi’s are okay to pick on.

    1. I’m not sure which story structures you mean since I haven’t heard of any of the ones you mentioned, and I’m finding it hard to understand why any story structure would need an entire race of people to be evil and subhuman. I mean, Star Wars is a great example of a narrative that didn’t do that! I don’t see why you’d ever need to have every single member of a fictional race be evil. In LotR it certainly was not necessary and the story would not have fallen apart if there had been a few “good orcs” or even a lot…or in fact if Sauron’s army had been made up of men, elves, dwarves etc as well as orcs.

      What structure are you referring to?

      1. Sauron’s army was not a race, it was constructed from parts of dead people from other races, hince why they were called “orochi”

        1. This comment makes no sense on any level, and I am publishing it so everyone can gaze upon it in wonder.

          I googled the word “orochi” but I still have no idea where you got it, so I shall assume you refer to the uruk-hai. If so, they are indeed a race! They are bred by Sauron and then later bred to be even stronger by Saruman (the “fighting uruk-hai”). They are not constructed from dead parts of other people.

          Indeed, their name does not hint at them being constructed from dead people, but rather highlights that they are part of the orc race because the word “uruk-hai” means “orc folk” in the language of Mordor. And what colour are these evil monsters? Black. And what colour are our heroes? White.

          Also, the uruks were more associated with Saruman’s army by the time the LotR books took place, although we can assume they formed part of Sauron’s too. Sauron’s army was made up of orcs (uruks and others) for the most part, although it also included trolls and “evil men”. [So I was wrong before when I said there were not men in his army]. Still, my major claim is that in LotR the trope “this whole race is evil” is true of the orcs, and that’s a problematic way to represent race.

          1. Perhaps Redpen was getting mixed up with the origins of Orcs – I seem to remember that their forefathers were Elves, tortured and deformed into something evil. Uruk-Hai were Men who had undergone the same process, hence why they were stronger and faster and able to withstand the Sun (as this work is all about the ending of the age of Elves and the beginning of the Age of Man, which we are still living in.)

            There are so many ways that could be discussed in terms of race – but Redpen’s comment doesn’t really seem to fit into any of them. =/ They must have got mixed up with something else.

          2. no, id agree that orcs were essentially “tortured and mutilated” elves, and you could mix uruk-hai into that as well.

            you have the black and white issues, largely because of shadow/night and light/day, BUT the descriptions of uruk hai were basically dreaded and with descriptive that would describe black men in an unflattering way. and obviously however they were created, essentialism is problematic, though you could say they were brought up to kill and not value their lives.

            what i do find problematic is that the “bad guys” or the men most likely swayed into evil, time and time again, are those of the southern and eastern origin. in the films, it seems like there was an effort to make the ababian/oriental look combined with western paleness for balance, but i think thats the bigger issue. obviously if you read the silmarillion books you’ll see its due to a mix of which gods they interacted with and their racial qualities (can be read as cultural) but its still problematic that there’s a strong romanticism about the west and the white fair folk.

          3. I always thought of orcs as a species, not a race, and didn’t find their portrayal problematic in and of itself.

            However all of Tolkien’s bad guys come from the south and the east (on his maps), and they are definitely imbued with real life details from South East Asia, the Middle East and India. The kind of army they have (oliphants are clearly just…big elephants) and armor they wear and all the dudes riding on them in eyeliner- far more problematic than the goblin-y orcs in my opinion.

            Redpen is confused and needs to re-read their Silmarillion.

            Orcs = evil Elves.
            Uruk Hai: Orcs :: Marines : Army.

            /super LOTR geek-out

            Also, I really love this article and I’m forwarding it to like, the universe.

    2. Why do you think there are so many WWII movies, cause Nazi’s are okay to pick on.

      You do realise that “Nazis” are not a race of people right?

    3. I’m not sure why you imply that any story structure would require an entire race be condemned. Can you explain why in clearer detail? Pretty much any story could leave room for ‘good’ members of a race, a culture, or even mythical creatures. Many stories don’t, for a few likely reasons:
      1) It’s far easier to just demonize the race/creature/culture because you need to write less, and only have to outline the bad characteristics and deeds. Paining with a broad brush is easy.
      2) It keeps stories shorter and more concise, because the writer won’t have to expand on secondary characters, or work to fit in exceptions into the narrative. This reason seems to me to be the likeliest.
      3) It’s a natural fallout of the conflict/war narrative that we humans tend to live by: fear of the other. It’s easier to justify war when you can just say “the orcs are evil” or “the huns are evil” or “the nips are evil”. See what I did there? Easier to get a platoon of men to open up on the “Huns”, than on Dieter, Frank, and Hans.

      Those are some reasons why it isn’t a surprise these kinds of broad-stroke views of races/creatures happen. Easier storytelling, trained tendencies, etc. It does not mean that those techniques are at all necessary for a good story.

  17. As everyone has said, this is a very well written and important post – it’s not what we enjoy, but how we use what we enjoy. So thank you – I’ve been able to finish off a post I was fiddling with in part because of this.

  18. only criticism of this article, although i haven’t seen the show GOT, as far as I’m aware a grown man (drogo) having sex with a 13 yr old girl (dany) is rape whether it’s portrayed like it is in the books or not.

    1. An excellent point! I should have said this in the blog post. Thanks for that very important reminder…I’m rather sorry (and shocked!) that I did not think to include this in the post.

  19. I think you agree with me on this point, but I wanted to reiterate: there’s an important distinction between bigotry in fictional characters and society and bigotry in a narrative itself. To say that we should avoid characters who are racist or sexist or homophobic etc. on principle is to bar ourselves from a large part of the human experience. I agree that egalitarian fantasy worlds are wonderful settings, and that bigotry is not some essential part of reality that must be included in all stories. Yes, “but the bigotry’s only realistic!” is used as a cop-out all the time. Yes, there should be dialogue about prejudiced characters. But bigoted characters are not inherently problematic; only bigoted narratives are. By “bigoted narratives” I mean instances in which the work itself is bigoted. It’s the difference between characters who think that a whole race is evil and a work that really presents a whole race as evil. It’s a very fine line, often dependent on reading, especially when you start getting in to third-person limited or first person narrators, but an important line. There should always be dialogue and acceptance of different readings, of course, on everyone’s part.

    Thank you so much for saying that fans need to acknowledge when their fandom is hurting other people, and there also has to be acceptance of people who acknowledge that they like problematic things. The guilt and fear people have around liking problematic things is a large part of what freezes the social justice dialogue.

  20. Simple take away for me was, be reasonable and balanced, weigh up the over all value of the media & tackle the wrong in a non reactionary way.

    I like

  21. “You need to be willing to engage with people about it!”

    No, actually, I don’t. Internet social-justice warriors don’t get to dictate to me what I can and cannot enjoy, kthx.

    1. You’re right, of course. I was trying to dictate to you what you can and cannot do. This post was a clear attempt to create pop culture Einsatzgruppen that come to your house and force you to engage with social justice issues.

      Actually, as I’m sure you’re aware, this post was a list of suggestions for how to enjoy problematic things without hurting other people. If you don’t care about hurting other people, then this post obviously does not apply to you. Thanks for the site traffic anyway!

  22. Thank you for writing this. My main fandom is Firefly, and I have spent much time on the fan forums and at fan gatherings and conventions and the like, and just want to say in defense of Browncoats, that we talk about Joss’ failure to cast Asian actors quite frequently. We adore the show and the movie, but also give it the MST3K treatment in acknowledgement of where it becomes…problematic.

    There are many fandoms I subscribe to (Firefly was just my gateway drug) and they are all problematic, as someone above said. And the more I view them and the more I discuss them and consider them, the more I understand where they could improve, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them. We just have to keep trying and asking for better content in our books, movies, comics, music, et cetera.

  23. Actually, nowhere does Lord of the Rings say “This whole race is evil”. It was actually a topic that Tolkien gave a lot of thought to.

    Originally he had planned for the Orcs to be Elves that had been kidnapped and corrupted Morgoth (the original enemy to whom Sauron had been but a servant) but this conflicted with Tolkien’s concept of free will, and he was trying to come up with origin that better fit his beliefs when he died.

    All of the children of Iluvatar, Elves, Humans (Hobbits being a type of human) and the adopted children, The Dwarves had Free Will, and no one was irredeemably evil. This may not have come through particularly well in The Lord of the Rings, but it rarely does in war.

    1. Regardless of Tolkein’s intentions, the narrative clearly condemns the Orcs as an entire race. There is not one single Orc who ever does anything good or kind. All Orcs are evil. This kind of presentation of race, as though it creates uniform character traits, is highly problematic.

      When you add to this the fact that the Orcs and Uruks have dark skin – in fact, in many cases they have black skin (all Uruks do) – and it is clearly racist regardless of the intentions of the author.

      1. Orcs are also a problem from a classism standpoint. They are a metaphor for the moral degradation war and industrialization inflicted on soldiers and workers, including English workers and soldiers – many depictions of orcs seem to have cockney accents. (To be sure there is no misunderstanding, the idea that the orcs represent the English working class of cities and armies rather than an Other of Color does not ameliorate the problem of using racist imagery to characterize them.)

        While war and industrialization certainly have those effects, Tolkien was really unsympathetic to the class of people who ended up as the orcs in having them be irredeemable and wholly evil. Tolkien identified with the agrarian middle class of the towns and villages (as should be obvious from the whole idea of hobbits) and apparently the urban poor were as big a threat to his ideal society as the forces that created them.

      2. One aspect I never see brought up when talking about Tolkien racism is the fact that all the minorities who appeared in the story were mercenary invaders. Not exactly the sort of folks who would provide normal examples of other kinds of humans. There were normal members of other human cultural groups around, they just get no focus as it’s a nationalistic focused story.

        Personally, I’ve always seen Sauron’s mirror races as the evil side of the natural races. Orcs represent the worst in elf, Uruks the worst in humans, etc. Also keep in mind black skin means black, not human brown. There’s a bit of svartálfar in their description, which makes sense in regards to the light/dark polarization. Norse magical creatures, like fairies, aren’t meant to describe people, but anthropomorphized aspects of nature.

        1. It is one hell of a big coincidence that among the anthropomorphised aspects of human nature, the bad orcs had black skin and the good elves have white skin. Except of course that it’s subconscious racism, not a coincidence at all. And no, it doesn’t matter what the exact colour swatch of the orc skin is.

          Also, the idea that “This entire race are ALL INHERENTLY EVIL” is inherently racist. It encourages readers to see race as a natural and sensible divisor of people, and will therefore enhance and entrench real-world racism. It doesn’t matter what kind of allegory this idea is being used within. It’s harmful and also frankly it’s boring.

  24. Just to throw my two cents in. I thought it was a great article and I agree with it entirely. I do however believe it could have been worded better. Take out the swearing and you have a piece you could certainly get into news papers. I understand people believe swearing “shocks people out of their apathy” to quote someone I debated this exact issue with, but I believe the message could be so much more effective without cursing.

    1. Kyle, your point may have been valid in 1992, but today no one is trying to get published in newspapers because they’re all pointless and stupid. In 2012 the reality is not that blogs should swear less so that they might get into print. Oh no. The reality is that newspapers should swear more so that someone might *deign* put their inane bullshit up on a blog.

      P.S. Fuck.

      1. It’s wonderful to know I can count on you to defend my love of profanity. <3 We should get you a little wordpress icon of a bulldog or something.

  25. I believe that my point is still valid today. #1 i never suggested that bloggers are trying to get into print. I was mearly trying to enphasize the quality of this article. #2 obviously news papers are not “pointless and stupid”, yes they may bend the truth or sometimes be caught out right lieing. But they are still an excellent source of information. #3 The reason there is no cursing in news papers or magazines is because it offends people. For example if you were a union rep on a construction site and you cursed every other word, the workers would be offended because the rep assumed everyone talks like that. Because I see you take everything you read as 100% literal I feel I should mention that there are many other reasons the workers would be offended by that.

  26. I just realized that comment might confuse certain people. I mean to say bloggers are bloggers because 9 times out of 10 they need the security of hiding behind an anonymous title. Again I feel I have to explain, the author of this one is not the subject of my comment being I believe she wrote an article that was completely accurate. Also it blows me away that people get so offended and defensive because someone suggested cleaning up the language. Is it that important that people swear for, what most people believe and studies have been done, no good reason.

    1. Alrighty folks, this discussion thread is inane, pointless, and laden with inaccurate bullshit. It is now over, and no further comments on this subject by anyone will be published.

  27. Love the article! I’ve thought about this topic a lot myself, but I’ve never been able to articulate some of those thoughts as well as you did in this post. I’ve especially considered comedians who utilize identities in their jokes, and heteronnormative R&B music that I love.

    I think it’s so important for me to be a conscious consumer, and act upon what I am conscious of. However, I think it’s important to also highlight that I am still a consumer of these things, and that I am either directly or indirectly supporting things that are “problematic”.

    So that’s where I still have a dilemma. I can be conscious about Ne-Yo’s heteronormative lyrics and engaging with my fellow R&B lovers about it, but if I’m listening to his music on Pandora or buying his album on iTunes, I’m supporting him generate even MORE heteronormative music.

    That’s all I’ve got for now. I’d like to keep engaging in this conversation and broadening my thought about this topic. Thanks again for the post!

    1. The problem is that we make so many microtransactions and decisions every day and we cannot properly evaluate whether we are transacting with “ethical” people or entities. It’s possible that a local shop treats its employees unfairly and the manager routinely sexually harasses the women. The problem is that I simply don’t have the time to find out and research the background of the shop if I’m going to be buying groceries there every so often. And even if I found this out, it may require a long time for me to research an alternative shop – or perhaps I don’t have the transport or time to go to an alternative shop. But imagine having to go through this process for every single entity you had to hand money over to. It would be impossible.

      People seem to be more concerned with “conscious consumerism” with respect to art over other products such, say, vegetables (although of course there are some people that are very particular about the latter as well). In one sense, art is, at its heart, about ideas and more intangible concepts which may be more closely related their attitudes towards marginalisation whereas a vegetable is pretty much going to give you the same nutrition no matter where you get it from. So I suppose giving money to artists sends a message that condones the beliefs of the artists moreso than buying vegetables.

      Ultimately it’s always going to be your own choice about how choose to engage with media and which transactions you think are important to warrant your concern. However I think it’s also important to acknowledge that other people may make different personal choices and that conscious consumerism is not an activity that can be applied to every facet of a person’s life.

      1. Well said. I was recently thinking (and blogging) about how hard it is to live ethically, and how an ethical life is not one size fits all, but more about making the choices that you feel are most meaningful and sustainable for your life and lifestyle.

        Also, Rachael, this is a great post, and I’m glad somebody wrote it, because I think about it all the time but couldn’t say it as well as you did. If we never watched/read/listened/engaged with media again as soon as we found something problematic, not only would we be totally media-less in about a week, but it also wouldn’t solve the problem. The best part of media is coupling your general SQUEE-ness with thoughtful analysis.

        I will also admit here that one of my top problematic-but-I-can’t-turn-it-off television shows is “Say Yes to the Dress.” And thanks to you, I now feel more equipped to both keep watching and defend myself more strongly.

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  29. “As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people.”

    Anyone who is NOT A FAN should remember that too, especially if they don’t want fans to act super defensive about their problematic media.

    Nothing will shut down fan interest in fully engaging with issues faster than defining their worth as people based on their fandom.

    1. Unfortunately in some social justice circles engaging with social justice critiques becomes an excuse to feel morally superior to people who are fans of problematic media. I feel this is actually pretty detrimental because it encourages oppression Olympics and complacency in examining in the media that the person does consume.

    2. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I find I absolutely cannot discuss certain “problematic media” with one of my closest friends because of this exact problem. To her, anyone who likes said media is clearly stupid and worthless as a human being so anytime we discuss it it automatically puts me on the defensive because I feel like I have to argue my own intelligence. Grar.

  30. As a fan of many, many problematic things — do you know how difficult it is to explain your love for Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS? — I must say: Bravo.

  31. I like #1 and #3, but I’m unsure about #2. I’m perfectly aware that a lot of the things I like are problematic and have made my peace with why those things are problematic, but I really dislike the idea that I have an obligation to engage in conversation about those problematic elements with anyone who wants to whether I have the energy to do it or not. I don’t care if other fans of the things I like want to have their own conversations about those elements and I certainly wouldn’t stop them, but I’ve had people try to derail my own conversations about elements I liked in the series with comments about the problematic elements of the series, and it’s frustrating. Not every conversation needs to involve social justice just to be worthwhile.

    1. I see what you’re saying, and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to work themselves to death constantly engaging in an emotionally draining activity. Obviously, the limits of our own mental and emotional health should be respected.

      However, I also would not call it “derailing” to bring up problematic aspects of a book/film/show during a discussion about it. Calling it “derailing” makes it seem like you think you’re the victim in this situation. A person constantly complaining about how they are systematically erased and degraded in our culture and that this is expressing itself yet again in this film/book/etc is not victimising other people. They’re not the aggressor, they are reacting to being the constant victim of oppression by our culture and our media. If our mental health allows it, I think we owe them our time and attention.

      For example, as a white person, I think that as long as POC have to live in a world where the media constantly marginalises them, then I live in a world where I should at least listen to them talk about the war of attrition that is being ceaselessly waged against them. That’s not to say that I do so until I am an empty shell with no emotional resources left, but I certainly try to devote a portion of my emotional resources to supporting and listening to POC. I recognise this as part of being an ally.

      And it is to say that if your friend woke up every day and received a punch in the face, and you decide that they should only complain about this for X number of days before it’s now a drain for you to hear about it, you’d be in the wrong

      1. Thanks for this.

        I’ve ended up in the situation of “I know [thing] is problematic but I really just can’t face this discussion at this time” before, and I try to be un-derailing about it but I feel like I sometimes fail to properly articulate “I know this is a problem, but can the active discussion occur in another time/space”. Is there a good way of going about that?

        1. If people are engaging in a serious conversation about it, then I would probably just politely walk away from that conversation. I think trying to police when/where people have these kinds of conversations is a problem in itself, but obviously if you don’t want to be part of that conversation, you don’t have to. So I think the best way to approach it is through the personal way it affects you, ie. “I agree it’s a problem, but I’m not feeling up to discussing this now. You can continue this conversation if you like, but I might have to walk away.”

  32. Very observant and practical! People often get confused and angry when there is support for a show or movie that portrays certain groups in a way that they don’t like or deem to be destructive or inappropriate. There are lots of people out there that have no choice but to live their lives in crappy situations- and it is my opinion that part of the reason we like stories like these is that we are intrigued by how the characters interact with their crappy worlds… but our perception is fundamentally altered by our current states of need. Are we seeking sympathy and understanding? Do we feel threatened? Who do we identify with? It is unfair and simply ignorant to dismiss other people’s concerns, because yes, that ultimately means we are invalidating that their need states are real and deserve attention.

  33. Thanks for this. This was such a good read. I think sometimes I badger people to read or watch something because I feel marginalized by their inability to enjoy it, too! And while it might offensive, sometimes I think what upsets me so much is that these very people find it BORING and uninteresting. I’m not trying to be an asshole, I’m just hoping I can connect with another person about a particular movie I really love–and it comes from a good place, I swear.

  34. I like this! But I do have a problem with a couple of your arguments in the first section.

    “But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots.”

    Well, no. It’s just saying that if you want to tell a story that reads as genuine about a certain kind of society (and, in the case of GRRM, how awful it was), you have to include most of the major elements of that society. It would be really weird to tell a story about the civil war where half the soldiers are women, right?

    “But even if you don’t think that media matters, there is still no reason to focus exclusively on unequal or problematic fictional worlds and narratives.”

    I completely agree with this. But who actually says we should do that? Saying “I don’t think Game of Thrones is sexist, it’s just a portrayal of how nasty a sexist society can be” (whatever the merits of that argument) is entirely different than saying “all fantasy should show sexist societies”. What we have is a sexist trend–but the existence of a sexist trend doesn’t mean that all items that are part of that trend are problematically sexist. Harry Potter isn’t sexist just because it stars a male and we have too many movies starring males, for example. This argument moves from saying “Mad Men is problematic”, which may or may not be true, to saying “If everything in the world was like Mad Men, the world would be problematic”, which clearly is true. Those are distinct ideas.

      1. That was interesting, thanks! I do think the question of how explicit a work needs to be to be problematic or not is interesting–particularly when you see a divide between the objective, textual meaning of a work and the totally backward interpretation that is *somehow still more common* simply because it plays to people’s preconceived prejudices. (In addition to feminist messages, this happens all the time with anti-vigilante, anti-fascist messages–Try convincing people Rorschach and Tyler Durden aren’t supposed to be cool!)

  35. Good article. Totally sharing. I’m a fan of a lot of problematic things (because I’m a geek and it’s hard not to be), and I went round and round with my wife about Batman: Arkham City for about a week before I finally realized I could have it both ways: Yes, the game is a lot of fun. Yes, the portrayals of every woman in it make me want to find the designers and force them to work rape counseling hotlines for a week.

  36. It makes me sad that in an article about inclusion in fiction my own minority (disability) is once again ignored as though we are the minority which doesn’t matter.

    1. While we at SJL recognise that intentions aren’t magical, this post was not made with the purpose to canvass every area of marginalisation, but rather as a guide as to how to approach, well, problematic media generally. The examples Rachael gives are just examples and certainly were not meant to be taken as an exhaustive list of marginalisation and privilege; for instance, you’ll notice that we also left off transphobia, fatphobia and classism from the examples as well. Unless, of course, we’ve overlooked ableism in the media mentioned in which case we would be happy to be called out on our oversight (I think primarily it’s Scott Pilgrim, Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, Dune).

  37. I feel the need to point out that while Drogo didn’t “necessarily” rape Dany in the books, she was under immense pressure to “consent” and she was certainly far from enthusiastic that first time.

  38. My question stems from this topic and it’s something I’ve been thinking and getting annoyed with for a little while. Rape scenes in films. Why are we being shown them? I’m happily watching a film and then…oh bam! He’s going to rape her.
    Watching these scenes seriously upsets me, it literally breaks me, and scares me and I think: if films are a form of entertainment why are you showing me oppression and violence in entertainment? What kind of message does that give out?
    Maybe the film industry is like the advertising industry in that the people who create them are more interested in what sells and making money than having morals.
    A particular scene that affected me was the one in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, but this is a depiction of a true-story, so it would be wrong to leave it out?
    There are many films where the rape scenes don’t seem necessary though, I wondered if you could share your thoughts on this…

    1. Assuming that’s directed at me (I’m too tired right now to read the other Allie’s comment), that was what I was saying

  39. “If you badger others to see what you see in something when they are telling you it’s not enjoyable for them, you’re being an entitled jerk. You’re showing yourself to be willing to hurt a real person over a television show. That really is a sign you’re taking things too seriously.”

    Paying attention bronies? That’s some good advice your little cult should follow a lot more.

  40. Personally, I disagree with you about stories not needing systemic oppression. When people white wash history and have “wasn’t America grand in the 1800s” for example, I am very annoyed. My great-great-grands were literal slaves and ignoring that would be a huge insult to me.

    Same with other oppressions. Text doesn’t need to support oppression in order to acknowsge that it wasn’t hunky dory.

    And it still isnt.

    1. I absolutely agree that some texts, in order to be honest, do need to portray oppression. Of course historical fiction falls into this category. It is not my suggestion we white wash our history. It’s hugely important to tell those stories.

      My criticism is of fantasy and sci fi texts that dare to imagine worlds completely different from ours, but which can somehow never imagine a world where women are not seen as weaker than men, and POC are not there to be foils for the big important white people etc. I was focussing on this aspect of the debate mostly because I noticed that in response to that, people usually claim that we will not recognise “human society” without these entrenched prejudices, and so they “need” to be in there so the world “feels” real to us. I wanted to highlight that this claim is terrifying because it suggests the person literally would not recognise a human society where women and POC are equal to white men.

  41. First, great post.

    Second, regarding The Lord of the Rings – I got a sense in the movies that Peter Jackson was aware at least to some degree of how problematic the Orcs as an entirely evil race are, which is why he foregrounds the fact that they have been massively brutalised: Saruman’s speech about the origins of the Orcs, which he makes when the Uruk-Hai are being bred, is one example of this, and the other for me is when Frodo and Sam wind up in the camp full of Mordor Orcs in Return of the King, in which it’s made clear that the situation the Orcs are in is GRIM. So I read the Orcs in the films as being a race who have had to live with horrible levels of brutalisation from the start, and actually have some sympathy with them. Of course one element of this which is still problematic is that it ignores the fact that many real world cultures have been horrifically brutalised in history, yet still manage to produce decent and noble people, but I think PJ *was* trying to avoid the ‘Orcs are JUST EVIL’ thing as much as he could without having to actually create some ‘good Orc’ characters.

  42. Hi there. I wanted to ask a question, and I hope it isn’t out of place. I’ve been wondering lately about how to be a fan of problematic “elements” within your media rather than specifically “things” (the media as a whole).

    For example, I’m an anime fan. I find the cheesecake art and fanservice sometimes embarrassing, but I enjoy it. I wouldn’t want to see it all disappear but I recognize that it is problematic and rooted in problematic ideas about women as something to consume or ogle. Despite this I can’t deny that I like some of that.

    Is it hypocritical to understand that criticism of those elements and to empathize in it but at the same time still derive an enjoyment from it?

    As another example, say, modeling magazines. Can a person conscientiously consume that kind of content, despite the issues it has about women’s health and bodies? Or is it necessary to avoid them?

    I’m not trying to legitimize those elements at all – and I certainly understand criticism of them. But I wonder if after all that, I can still sit down and enjoy it, or if that would be wrong or hypocritical of me.

    1. You might be interested in reading our micro & macro problematic article.

      Basically it is important for us to separate what is non-problematic on an individual level but what may be problematic on a systematic level. Sexy pictures of women aren’t individually an issue, but they’re a systematic issue because men aren’t being given that same treatment. Whether you think consuming systematically problematic media is hypocritical is really a personal call, but no one at SJL believes in judging people negatively if they choose to make that choice.

    Wow, I forgot D&D existed. Jeez, I feel terrible.

    1. Glen Cook’s The Black Company, comes pretty close. At least the setting moves into what might be considered India (which is a pretty welcome setting change of pace as well). Then people from that region become some of the major players. It’s pretty cool, and thus will probably never get the Hollywood treatment.

  44. I recommend Steven Erikson’s “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” for a high fantasy epic with a much better portrayal of women and people of colour.

    1. I’ll be sure to check it out, thanks! Always looking for books to add to my very, very (very, very, very) long tbr pile.

  45. Thanks for this article! It describes so many discussions I’ve had with people, usually about tv shows or movies. Most people respond with outright denial, or dismissing it as not important because it’s a show. I’ve really noticed this while talking to people about Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. The scary part isn’t that people like these things for their enjoyable qualities, it’s that they don’t see the sexism in it at all.

  46. I think it’s important to remember that all good engagement with media will involve critique, both in with- and against-the-grain reading. Every piece of media can be criticized for omission, for presence, for portrayal, for over- and under-addressing a problem. Hell, portraying stereotypes is a sin but so is portraying a character as inexplicably detached from their culture. I think the idea that there is any media which isn’t in some way problematic is a difficult one for me to believe.

    That’s not to excuse this kind of problematic material at all, just to say that it’s not so much that we’re saying that our media is problematic as it is acknowledging problems to the degree that they exist. Clearly “Birth of a Nation” is problematic on a different level than “Lord of the Rings.” That said, we need to acknowledge and engage the problems of both.

  47. I come at this from a totally different perspective: Software.

    People enjoy using a lot of different software, because it can be useful. For example, the author of this blog apparently uses Twitter. Many people I know use Microsoft Windows.

    But I don’t. I use free software.

    The problem is, most people just aren’t cognizant enough to understand that what they do is problematic. When someone says to me “I’ll send you a Word document”, I say “please don’t, send an ODT instead”, and they say “oh, just open it and read it, the format doesn’t matter.” But the format *does* matter, just maybe not to them at that time.

    Point: I imagine most people, watching TV Show X at home with their movie-theatre popcorn and Big Gulp, don’t have the mental capacity to realize that there’s something socially wrong about a TV show that noticeably leaves out an important race/gender/sexuality. They just want to watch something cool.

    1. Or perhaps they do posses the mental capacity to realize there’s something wrong, it’s just that when someone has the chance to explain it they’d rather just mock them. Like right here. You could have explained to me or the person who wanted to use a word doc why the other one is a better choice, but instead you just walk away and then call us stupid for not understanding why you prefer one over the other. If we’re going to improve as a society we have to talk about improving and teach others, not sit in high towers and sneer at people.

  48. Thanks for this article, it was super useful! One thing I’m confused about (so I’m asking this as a genuine question, not to disagree with you!) – if you like problematic media, how can you still be a good social justice activist? Isn’t liking it condoning it…?

    Thanks if you reply. 🙂

    1. If you acknowledge the elements of the media that is problematic, then I don’t think you’re condoning it at all! If you say “Hey, X is a great show but this thing they do on it is NOT cool” is pretty far from condoning it because you’re engaging with the media critically. I think there’s room for a lot more nuance in conversations about social justice (and all conversations in fact) than just X is bad, and Y is good.

  49. Thank you so much. I really hate mildly pointing out that something is problematic only to have everyone pile on saying “OH YOU JUST HATE EVERYTHING, YOU JOYLESS PC HUSK, LEARN TO ENJOY LIFE FOR A CHANGE…” But enjoying life (and lots of stuff) to the fullest and recognizing that shit is fucked up are not mutually exclusive; in fact I think they’re mutually dependent.

  50. Thanks for this, what a great read! I’ve been thinking about this a lot….recently discovered its always sunny in Philadelphia and am a HUGE fan but it is problematic as all get out. The same goes for 30 rock as well. Anyway, great article.

  51. So no one ever goes through a homosexual phase, and it’s offensive to even suggest that they might? Your position sounds a lot like intolerance of bisexuality.

    Seriously – I agree with 90% of what you say, but that last 10% makes you sound no better than the media you criticise.

    1. Sexuality can be very fluid, but the trope of queer experiences being “just a phase” is highly macro-problematic because of its prevalence in media to treat queerness as an outlier or exception (ie. a person who “experiments” remains “straight”), which adds to the Othering.

      Your comment is also highly biphobic and misunderstand bisexuality. A person who is bisexual does not “go through a homosexual phase”; they remain bisexual and queer regardless of the gender of their partner(s). Just because someone who is bisexual has a partner of the opposite gender, doesn’t make what they do suddenly “straight”.

  52. I need to print this entry out. I so agree with you. The bias in media is so thick that it’s hard for me to enjoy a novel, movie or TV show without noticing it’s prejudiced presuppositions, which it totally takes for granted. Though being able to see a work of fiction’s tired tropes and cliches from a mile away has jaded me as well.

  53. Pingback: Ugh | THEN AGAIN

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