How to deal with liking problematic media.
Perhaps one of the defining traits of childhood is innocence. When we are young we cannot imagine that there is bad in the world, and so we love things wholeheartedly. If we have a favourite TV show or a favourite book, then there can be absolutely nothing wrong with it. As we grow older, we begin to realise otherwise. We can sit down to La La Land and question the white-man-saves-jazz narrative, or listen to Blurred Lines and think, ‘hey, wait, is this about assault?’. However, when we grow up some of that childhood innocence remains and the things we grew up loving remain untouchable.
‘Problematic fave’ has become a bit of a buzz phrase around the internet, right down to there being a Tumblr (your-fave-is-problematic – depressing but very informative) dedicated to pointing out the questionable things some of our favourite actors and comedians have done and said. However, frequently the phrase is bandied about with any explanation as to its meaning. Basically, a ‘problematic fave’ is when someone or something you love turns out to have some bigoted or downright offensive views. Realising that your fave is problematic is one of the most crushing, painful experiences that you can ever go through, right up there with childbirth and a Hive hangover. Obviously what we consider problematic is definitely not completely objective. While one person may be upset to find out that a beloved actor voted to leave the EU, another person will not care, or indeed may even like the actor more for this revelation.
A major side effect of discovering which of your faves are problematic, aside from several hours spent crying, is that you cannot keep this information to yourself. It’s partly down to wanting to educate others in equality and PC discourse, but also partly down to wanting to make others feel the pain you are enduring. In particular, it is easy to look back on childhood loves and think of them as perfect. Perhaps one of the most obviously problematic pieces of children’s media is Looney Tunes, which has become infamous for its use of blackface imagery and racist slurs, especially in its spin-off Merrie Melodies. Even long-running characters from the series cannot be let off, with the skunk Pepe Le Pew using a scarily aggressive method of romantic pursuit, and Speedy Gonzalez being a stereotypical representation of Hispanic peoples (though many Hispanic people have expressed fondness for the character while reiterates my point about objectivity). Less obviously problematic is Harry Potter. Personally, noticing Harry Potter’s flaws cut particularly close to the bone and was the biggest shock. While the series has always been famed for its apparent inclusivity and message of love trumping hate, it is not immune to being analysed and there are certainly some problems to be found. There are some undeniably cruel moments in the series – the slut-shaming of Ginny Weasley, the sizeist descriptions of the Dursleys, Dumbledore’s invisible status as LGBT.
Now that the question of what is problematic has been considered, we also have to examine what to do next. Should problematic media still be displayed? Amazon has responded to this query by continuing to offer Tom and Jerry cartoons on Prime while adding a written disclaimer stating that while the shorts portray racial stereotyping and prejudice, “such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today”. On the one hand this move has been criticised by some as punishing those from past by holding them to modern morality, while on the other it has been celebrated. Many believe that by continuing to air Tom and Jerry with a disclaimer, racism of the past and present is being confronted rather than ignored or erased from history. Similarly, with the advent of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a long standing criticism regarding the series’ lack of diversity has been addressed through the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a black actor as Hermione. Granted, casting practices in theatre are generally more relaxed than in film and TV as the circulation of live productions is often smaller, but few can deny that this casting is at least a start. Some individuals have gone on to simply apologise for their problematic behaviour. Chris Hemsworth, for example, issued an apology following his appropriation of Native American attire and owned up to his ignorance with a promise to learn from it.
On a more personal note, is it possible to still like something that is problematic? The reluctant short answer would be yes. The longer answer would be yes, but do not ignore their flaws. An important part of finding out about a problematic fave, is using this knowledge to educate other fans and possibly the person or creator themselves.