#hotgoss redux: What do you do when your fave is problematic?
Let’s speak about Problematic Faves
Your problematic fave is that movie, song, celebrity etc. that gives you pause because something about it or them doesn’t jive with your social, political, or moral code. Oronde pointed out in the episode that a great example for most Americans is the song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” To some, it’s a charming holiday classic. To others, it’s sexist and upholds rape culture. And for many, it’s their problematic fave.
We kinda love the term “problematic fave.” Once you grasp the concept, it’s an easy way to identify and call out a piece of pop culture that doesn’t feel quite right. In many ways it opens the door for conversation immediately. “This is problematic,” you say. The natural follow up question is, “Why?” Dialogue ensues.
But what do we do when we realize all of a sudden a movie or song we love is sexist, racist, ableist, etc.? Do we have to stop listening to those songs? Do we have to boycott the artists? Where do you draw the line? Seriously, what do you do when your fave is problematic?
Some of us march up to the grocery store service desk and demand they turn the song off right now. Some of us make snide comments to our friends, and others decide it was a different time and it’s okay to like what we like. With all these options for how to react, what’s the right answer?
In this month’s #hotgoss episode, we tried to find it.
Wait..why is this such a big deal?
Problematic faves are a hot topic, especially for Speak About It, because most popular culture and media has been pretty bad about consent. And as #MeToo has reinforced, many creators of said media have been pretty bad at it too. Historically speaking, pop culture reflects the values of the culture as a whole. And, as whole American culture has a lot of problems.
Media is evolving though. We’re seeing more and more diverse representation on TV, in music, and in movies, and more and more people talking about it. Pop icons are using their platform to engage with the socio-political discourse of the day. Likewise, the internet is a pop culture criticism machine. Everyone from highly degreed academics to random kids on Tumblr can have ideas and feelings about pop culture that can sway public opinion.
It seems like a lot of people want their media to be better, to send better messages, and be better role models. Many people want their pop culture to reflect the future they want to see. And from what we can tell, that’s a future that’s more inclusive, just, and diverse...and full of consensual relationships.
Why do we expect this out of media?
Pop culture means a lot of different things to different people.
While public opinion is shifting to greater open-mindedness, if you turn on the news, all you may see is injustice and suffering and violence. Pop culture is often our refuge, and for many of us we want to escape into a more perfect place. Meanwhile, for others, we want to escape into a place where we don’t talk about politics, or identity, or social issues.
For many of us, who we listen to, what we watch, or read, or buy tickets to is just as much a reflection of who we are as what we wear, or believe in, or vote for. For many others, pop culture is just mindless fun. This difference in how we consume pop culture and why we consume it lends to the tension, and the fruitful discussions, around problematic faves.
No one right answer
But knowing why we’re having this conversation doesn’t necessarily answer any of our questions.
The worst answer is no answer at all, right? When it comes to problematic pop-culture, there are both no answers and lots of answers. Yes, there are things that are objectively offensive (Birth of a Nation, the racist crows in Dumbo) and maybe even some things that are objectively good (Sesame Street adding a puppet with autism). The problematic stuff lives in a murkier area, where multiple answers and opinions co-exist.
We really love and were challenged by this essay from the Paris Review that was being passed around our newsfeeds a few months back. In one section, the writer advises that in the wake of #MeToo, consumers of media need to re-ask the question. We shouldn’t ask what we do about problematic faves. We should ask: What do you do? What do I do? This questions holds ourselves accountable as viewers. Likewise, the most powerful thing we can do as viewers/audiences is say that a singular piece of media doesn’t get to speak for us, that we have options and control over what we think is good, moral, and interesting. We have power and we have choices. In many ways having these choices as an audience takes some power away from those creators of media who abuse it.
So let’s take a look at some of those choices. As Speak About It, we don’t endorse any one of these options over the other, that’s up for you to do as an empowered consumer of media!
- ~You could...call it out.
Not sure if SNL should have done that sketch? Feeling squiggy about a scene on 13 Reasons Why? Say something! Talk about it with your friends, or even post a question about it on social media. Be prepared to hear other people’s thoughts and engage in a dialogue about your own. Find out what other people are saying online too. (Google is your friend!) Acknowledging that there are problems with something is the first step in creating a more inclusive world. And many people say it is absolutely necessary. Says Ijeoma Oluo, “Just like our celebrities and ourselves, the movements we champion are also problematic....Acknowledging this isn’t divisive: ignoring it is.”
- ~You could...consume problematic media with awareness.
On the episode, Oronde shared a great anecdote about the notoriously problematic song, Blurred Lines. Many folks think it upholds dangerous gender stereotypes, objectifies women, and promotes rape culture. Even years after it was released, people feel divided on whether or not we’re allowed to dance or listen to it.
Oronde says when the song comes on at a party or club, he’ll usually shout, “This song upholds the patriarchy!” as he hops enthusiastically onto the dance floor. “Generally my friends are like ‘We knowwww!’ and keep dancing to it," he says. "But if anyone was like ‘What do you mean?’ I’d definitely stop what I was doing and totally break it down for them. At least for this song, that’s the line I draw. Which doesn’t feel blurry, and it opens a conversation about it too.”
- ~You could...separate art from the artist.
This is an argument you might hear when artists or creators themselves are problematic, and a question a lot of folks are having in the wake of the #TimesUp, #MeToo, and assault accusations against a number of media figures. Some people believe that though an artist may have done a bad thing, their art can still stand separate and be appreciated. “So enjoying literary classics doesn’t mean endorsing their often horrible authors,” says one Lifehacker article. “Of course, this is more complicated if the author is still around to pick up a check when you buy their work.” For example, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew contains some very questionable themes, especially about relationships and domestic violence. But does that mean it can’t be produced, or produced in a way where we learn something from it? But, what about someone alive? Can we watch Kevin Spacey in House of Cards or American Beauty?The writer of the aforementioned Paris Review piece decided that separating the art from the artist worked for her, but only to an extent. She decided that Annie Hall brought her a lot of individual joy, and she didn’t want to give that up just because she thought Woody Allen was reprehensible. However, in movies where he directly addresses the issues for which he has been accused of deplorable behavior, she cannot endorse or watch them, and actively works to get her friends to stop watching them too.
Separating the art from the artist isn’t an option that everyone agrees with. If that’s a route you choose to go, you may have to prepared for other people to push back on that choice. They may feel you’re erasing the issue or their own experience. So be ready to talk about your choice and engage in dialogue.
- ~You could...ask your artists to be better.
Let your artists know what think! Write to them, their agent, station, or studio. Tweet at them! Review their movies on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or iTunes. Connect with other people online who might have the same thoughts or feelings. The only way artists will get better is if we demand that they do so.
So maybe you can't get an audience with Tina Fey, or Miley Cyrus, or Kanye. But you can also make your voice heard closer to home. Is your high school performing Grease for their spring musical? Maybe you hate Grease because you think it tells young people to change themselves to get romantic attention. Talk to the director or the people in the cast about it! Reading a book in class that employs racist stereotypes? Bring it up in a class discussion, talk to the teacher after class, write them a note, or even talk to your classmates about it. Heck, you could even write your next paper about the issue!
- ~You could...boycott.
Put your money where your mouth is! You are absolutely allowed to say you don’t want to watch a show or buy a musician’s music any more because of its content or the artist’s actions. A boycott can look like a lot of different things, from never listening to an artist again, encouraging others to do the same, or ensuring the artist is not supported by your money. You might totally cut them out of your life, or just come up with up clever workarounds so they don't see any profit. Our friend from the Paris Review weighs in again, “ Do we withhold our support if the person is alive and therefore might benefit financially from our consumption of their work? Do we vote with our wallets? If so, is it okay to stream, say, a Roman Polanski movie for free? Can we, um, watch it at a friend’s house?”
You deserve to consume media that reflects who you are. Many people use their boycott of one piece of media as an opportunity to diversify and find new artists. In 2015, when #OscarsSoWhite hit airwaves and no artists of color were nominated for any major award categories, lists of black-led films were circulated around the internet for folks to watch instead.
Turning off problematic media is a good step, but many feel like it is too easy a solution. Sure you can just turn off the TV or switch the song, but there’s a deeper solution or further action that needs to be taken when holding problematic figures accountable for their behavior. If boycotting is your course of action, be prepared to talk about it and look further into how you can deepen your actions.
- ~You could...figure out where the line is for you.
It wouldn’t be a Speak About It blog post if we didn’t remind you to do some self exploration and figure out where your own boundaries are. Do some research and take time to think about where you draw the line when it comes to problematic faves. We love writer, Roxane Gay’s reflection on negotiating this for herself.
“In my book “Bad Feminist,” published in 2014, I wrote about giving myself permission to be flawed but feminist. I wrote about how sometimes I consume problematic pop culture, knowing I shouldn’t, knowing how harmful that pop culture can be. I still believe there is room for that, for having principles and enjoying things that challenge those principles. But in the ensuing years, I’ve also been thinking about accountability and the repercussions of our choices. I’ve been thinking about how nothing will change if we keep consuming problematic pop culture without demanding anything better.”
- ~You could...make your own!
Another solution to problematic faves is to create your own art, media, and culture that portrays the messages that you want put out in the world. Take inspiration from other artists, but devise and create something that reflects the world you want to see or comments on the issues you’re interested in. In fact, we asked one of our current favorite actor/writer/directors, Lena Waithe, what to do when your fave is problematic, and that’s exactly the advice that she gave!
So go forth and be an empowered and critical consumer of media. And get ready to speak about your faves, your problematic faves, and your least faves with friends and peers.
Tune in to #hotgoss in April for a special Sexual Assault Awareness Month edition, where we look at media portrayals of consent and sexual violence. Until next time!
Speak About It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges to educate, entertain, and empower students to create positive change within their communities, advocate for and practice healthy relationship habits, and prevent sexual violence.
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