Stage Left: The Long-Promised Post on Liking Problematic Media

As promised when I wrote about [title of show]

And when I wrote about next to normal

And also when I wrote about Nine, just this week…

I am going to be talking about something that pretty much everyone I know has struggled with: feeling like a bad feminist/activist/organizer/person because you like a piece of media that has really problematic elements. Lord knows this is an internal battle I’ve fought, and continue to fight. All three of the above-named musicals are shows I like and/or love. They have compelling plots, or fantastic scores, or are hilarious. Yet all three have significant issues from a social-justice perspective: I wrote about those in Nine and next to normal, and while my [title of show] post was more complementary, there’s some really problematic humor in the book for the show (the part of the script that isn’t sung, non-musical folks). I could easily list another half-dozen musicals that fall into the same category for me. Not to mention books, video games, movies, television…

So what do we do? I don’t know about those reading this, but for my part I have real trouble just “turning off” the analytic part of my brain—I know people who can, but I’m not one of them. Even when I’m really enjoying something, oppressive elements jump out at me, like a sour note or bad chord would. But given the sheer prevalence of bigotry and thoughtless marginalization in our societies, I can’t commit to only consuming media that is wholly unproblematic—there is so little of it, if any.

How do we juggle the competing parts of our brain? Strike a balance between “I just want to enjoy myself” and “this is harmful”? For me, at least, there is a tipping point—I can watch and enjoy Nine, but Glee on television leaves me completely cold. I want nothing to do with it. I don’t know what that point is, but somewhere a line gets crossed. I suspect everyone has one, a point beyond which any entertainment you derive from a piece of media doesn’t make up for the oppressive BS you have to wade through to get it. Everyone’s line is in a different place, or based on different things—some can consume intensely problematic stuff and still enjoy certain elements, whereas some are extremely sensitive to the alienating effects mainstream portrayals of marginalized groups seem to have.

So how do we reconcile that? To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure we can. I know I don’t have any easy answers for how I balance it. I just know some things I can manage and some repulse me. A lot fall somewhere in between. In a perfect world, this would be a non-issue—the viewpoints espoused by the media we consume wouldn’t further contribute to the marginalization and exploitation of oppressed people. Heck, in a perfect world, marginalization wouldn’t happen! I have no idea what a world with no harmful media would look like. I don’t even know if I can imagine it. But that world is not the world we live in, and so we have to make sacrifices, to compromise our principles. And so I put the question to you, readers:

How do you reconcile that?

by Dorian J-----
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10 Comments Have Been Posted


I totally agree. It's hard to reconcile and I don't know if it's totally possible. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable bringing up something that bothered/offended me when in a group of people who don't share my views, and other times I feel uncomfortable laughing at or enjoying something that I know is problematic. I kind of agree with you that there's an undefined tipping point: I found the movie I Love You Philip Morris really offensive to the gay community, yet many of my gay friends loved it. I definitely enjoyed ridiculous movies like Team America while also thinking about how wrong so many of the jokes were. I don't know if there is a solution to reconcile the feelings. What I think would be a great step in the right direction, though by no means an easy one, is educating more people about feminism so that conversations could be held. In a better world, I would be able to discuss a movie after viewing it with others without worrying about alienating, confusing or offending them with my thoughts. After all, problematic elements in popular culture won't be changed in we don't first start conversations about why they're problematic. As long as people continue to blow off feminist ideas or issues with "You're just too sensitive" or "Just get a sense of humor!" we can't really get anywhere.

I run into the same problem

I run into the same problem with my friends and family all the time. And I can understand why - when you really love something, and then somebody comes up to you and starts telling you why it's offensive then you feel defensive, because if you really love it then you must be okay with the offensive stuff, even if you didn't notice it.

This is, in a nutshell, why I do not talk about Glee with anyone anymore.

I've gotten more and more

I've gotten more and more sensitive about this over the years. One offensive joke can ruin an entire movie for me now, and I can't tell you how many times my friends and family have rolled their eyes at me about it. But when I do come across something that I like in spite of its problematic parts, I try to enjoy it as much as possible without supporting it economically. Which usually means illegal downloading, haha. Good thing this comment's anonymous.

Pop culture is mass culture.

Pop culture is mass culture. As such, it’s always going to reflect mainstream values, which are too often oppressive/misogynistic/racist values. That said, we shouldn't underestimate the consumer’s ability to subvert pop culture narratives to their own ends. Fan fiction, slash pairings, fan sites, selective canon – these are all ways that we take the problematic media we’re given and make it our own. Look at how some feminists have embraced/reclaimed pulp fiction or bodice-ripper romances. It’s possible to do feminist work, or take feminist pleasure, from fundamentally flawed or anti-feminist narratives. Hence my love of Twilight. ;-)

This is why I feel it’s important not to be too judgy about other people’s pop culture diets and where they draw their personal line in the sand. I need another self-proclaimed feminist lecturing me about how my Twihard tendencies (which come from a carefully-analyzed, feminist place) make me a bad person like I need a hole in my head.

respond, discuss

I work in the theatre, and I think about this issue quite a lot. If a show is problematic, but also has some merit (artistic or message-wise), I may still watch it, and then discuss my thoughts & reactions with other viewers. Not only watching critically, but also encouraging others to do so is useful. Also important is responding thoughtfully to the work. That may be in the form of a letter to the creators of the artistic work, an essay or blog, or perhaps athrough another work of art. I think, if one is going to criticize the problems, it's also important to recognize and affirm what the artists got right. It is also important to think about what the artists are likely trying to accomplish with their work.

In short...

For me, the only way <i>to</i> reconcile enjoyment of media with recognition of its problems is to accept that they will always coexist. If we're going to be responsible consumers of media, there's no "turning off," and I find that being able to engage critically just makes pop culture more gratifying anyway.

Problems are Opportunities

No human product is perfect. And lots of human products are pretty darned imperfect. I for one still see the inherent value in every perceptive experience I have. I do not struggle to reconcile a nuanced reaction to another person's work product (their "art", if you will). I never ask myself, "How can I possibly like that?" Instead I ask, "Why do I like it? What does that say about me? What will I do with this new self-knowledge?" Similarly, if I find some thing or some part of a thing to be objectionable, I still benefit from the exchange. I learn that I find that thing objectionable and go back to my earlier question: "What will I do with this new self-knowledge?"

Philosophical kinship with another person is not a prerequisite for appreciation of their art. I quite enjoy disagreeing fundamentally with people. Frankly, I find it narrow minded to employ appropriateness litmus tests for what art I permit myself to perceive – or worse – permit myself to admire. There is striking beauty to be found within even deeply flawed people; the same is most certainly true of art.

Art shares an intimate dialogue with its perceiver. It doesn't matter what motivates or informs the artist. What matters is what I take away from the dialogue. That is my fundamental power.

As I think many here are, in

As I think many here are, in one way or another, saying, is that if we are consuming media with problematic elements, the best we can do is talk about those elements. It's not an all or nothing situation -- we can point out what is good, what works, what is worthwhile. Then we can point out what failed, what is harmful, what is problematic.

We don't have to lash out in blind rage every single time -- it's not always merited, and it's a sure way to lose the attention of many because, really, if everything causes a rant, people turn off. Some things are completely rant-deserving, even rant-requiring, and those will be different for different people, which is why no single voice has to (or should) be the only one critiquing the media we have. Everyone will have their thing, their triggers, their hot points. They will also have things that just aren't as big a deal (not to minimalize any issue as being less, just reflecting that it's very hard to hold ALL the issues in equal time and attention) and don't trigger.

It's work. It's a big deal. For instance, I'm particularly sensitive to portrayals of women and men, of the LGBT community, of people of size, and of mental illness. I'm less sensitive to/attuned to issues of race and ethnicity, of ablism, and religious bias. I'm positive there are marginalized groups of which I have little to no knowledge and so am not sensitive to in portrayals. I try to pay attention to my weak sides and not guilt myself about them because I can only pay so much attention to everything. What I can do is be respectful when I'm called on something, and put my energies where I can in calling attention to the issues that have the most importance to me. I can be supportive of those who are working the areas I can't work on (who may have blind spots of their own, for that matter). And I think we can combine our various knowledge to critique the media we see and give the producers and creators new ways of looking at what they are doing via the lenses we possess.

Really, sometimes it isn't evil intent, but blindness, ignorance, "never thought of it that way". And what you do here, what all people who consume media critically with an eye toward these topics do, is to teach and give opportunities for better stuff to be created.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm

Maybe it's just me, but I'm very good at tuning things out when I don't think about them. And that's what I tend to do. The media today is very problematic, but it's something we still have to deal with. As you've said, there's a so little of unproblematic media around us. Yes, we have to keep fighting to change these standards the media portrays, but until then we'll just have to deal with it.

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