How do I address problematic issues within my favorite shows and pop culture?

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How do I balance social justice with my favorite shows and pop culture?
Most Problematic Fave drawstring bag from Lure Light
One of my friends has apparently never found a movie, TV show, or video game they liked, and I can’t stand it any more. They’ll find a way in which they feel a show is bigoted (e.g. “Steven Universe is racist”) and suddenly it’s the only thing they can talk about re: that show. They’ll interrupt any conversation about it with “but you shouldn’t like that, it’s bigoted.”

I understand the importance of keeping social justice topics in mind while consuming media, and obviously I can’t tell them to stop because this is important to them, but sometimes I just want to gush about my favorite lesbian aliens. Help? – Rain

We recently had a discussion behind the scenes here about feeling guilty listening to a song from a movie musical sung by a problematic dude. We can and should continue to call out these problematic themes or people, but in my opinion, if you acknowledge the problem and address it within media you love, you can still make peace with enjoying it. Problematic fave much?

One of my guiltiest pleasures is the MTV show Catfish (ugh, I know) which is potentially resuming production after host Nev Schulman’s accusations of harassment came to light. I’ll admit I’m super torn on watching it but I also can’t say I definitively won’t. We just have to make these choices with full knowledge of what choice we’re making.

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the barrage of negative media, attacks on social issues and groups of people, and ever-widening divide between the polarized sides of our ideologies. We absolutely must be constantly alert for signs of injustice, prejudice, and bigotry. But part of that is being aware of when you can make positive change, take steps to make that change, and then take a breath. There are tons of great books, shows, movies, and music that is mostly free of themes with which we can take issue, but nothing is perfect. It’s up to you to decide what you will or won’t support.

Sometimes though? You just want to watch a show you love. I get it. To really dig into some solutions, I took it to the ever-helpful fellow Homies over on our Facebook page to see what they thought…

No media is ever going to be perfect. You can pick apart literally any piece of art and find a way in which it fails. It’s created by humans, and humans are complicated and have implicit biases and have work to do on themselves and on the stories they tell and none of us are ever going to get it right all the time. I think it’s important to acknowledge where some storytellers are doing it right (queer, poly, and nonbinary representation in Steven Universe!!) and where they could improve (race). I love Gilmore Girls while simultaneously acknowledging that it is some white nonsense.

As far as dealing with this individual, I’d ask them for an example of a piece of media that is above reproach. There just isn’t one that can possibly cover gender, race, LGBTQ, disability, body positivity, etc etc etc all in the most sensitive ways. It can’t be done. So it’s either imperfect or erasure. I think it’s an impossible standard to have.

And also, I would ask them what is anyone accomplishing by bitching about it? Go make your own art. Send thoughtful criticism to creators. Support art you think is doing a good job. Running your mouth at brunch isn’t getting a whole lot accomplished, IMHO. – Kat

And in response to that…

Honestly, this. I’m white AF, too, and I’ve had friends share their perspectives on shows I love and how it has hurt and really affected them. The most recent example for me is Drag Race. Firstly, I’m glad that my friend felt safe enough to tell me how she felt about it. Second, I’m not going to act like I know anything about how she felt when she saw the clip that affected her.

I think that it’s okay to enjoy media while still acknowledging the issues. Make it a conversation. Talk about it. Tweet the producers and ask them to do better. It’s our responsibility as white folks to do that. – Hayley (who also reminded us of THIS!)

I majored in Women & Gender Studies in college and definitely had a moment in the middle of that where I suddenly couldn’t enjoy any of the media I used to. The way I think about it now is the, “Two things can be true at once” model. Yes, the media we consume is likely to be problematic in some way, and it can also be media we love. The Feminist Frequency slogan is one I also find really helpful, “Be critical of the media you love.” It invites us to use a critical lens but does not discourage us from consuming and even loving that same media. – Sarah

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with confronting this friend about their confrontational attitude towards media. “You can’t like X because I said so” doesn’t fly with me, and should be returned with “If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing.” If you’ve done your research and are comfortable with the imperfections of these fictional universes, then you’re within your rights to say so. It sounds like this person is so wrapped up in the treatment of social issues in fiction that they don’t even see how they are mistreating their friend(s) with their comments. – Samantha

Hmm, yeah, I get it. I am one of those people who has a hard time turning off the “I see it” once I see it. Like, I cannot really enjoy Big Bang Theory, because I see rampant sexism in it. But in the end you should tell your friend, “Hey, I love your passion, and I see the faults in the media, but I still enjoy certain aspects of it. I would prefer you not continue to criticize me for enjoying the parts I enjoy. I appreciate your understanding.” – Brandi

Sometimes we enjoy media that is problematic. What’s important is that we have open conversations about why. – Rini

Speaking of pop culture worthy of sharing… is there some media that you’re enjoying that you’d like us to call out? Submit your fave shows, music, podcasts, movies, and whatever here!

Comments on How do I address problematic issues within my favorite shows and pop culture?

  1. Reminds me of the whole thing recently about Apu from The Simpsons. No, they wouldn’t write the character like that now. Yes, he’s a stereotype and voiced by a white male actor. But he’s also a well-rounded and hilarious character, and I will not stop loving old episodes of The Simpsons just because his presentation isn’t 100% in line with modern mores.

    Frankly, while it’s important to not gratuitously hurt people with certain portrayals etc., the world is full of professional offence-takers who will jump on anything and everything, often on behalf of other groups, and if you try to please all of them you get bland beige.

    If I recognise something as being problematic, I’ll acknowledge and examine it, and decide if I want to continue participating. If someone raises it with me, I’ll listen and learn. But otherwise you’re just looking to be offended, and that gets exhausting.

  2. Thanks for this post! I don’t do Facebook Offbeat Home because I like my (relative) anonymity. Nice to see this relevant conversation brought here. I’m watching Yuri on Ice right now, and I’m loving it for a lot of reasons even though it traffics a bit too much in national stereotypes for my liking. I don’t usually feel uncertain about my fandoms, but this post was perfect for sorting out my feelings about Yuri on Ice.

  3. Humans tend to think of everything as a coin. If it’s not heads, it HAS to be tails.

    If you’re not straight, you’re gay.
    If you’re not male, you’re female.
    If you’re not an angel, you’re a demon.
    If you’re not for me, you’re against me.
    If it’s not good, it must be evil.

    The list goes on. And it just isn’t the way things really are.

    Do you cut off a friend because they aren’t perfect? That kind of mindless zero-tolerance is a very rigid, unpleasant way to live. Been there, done that, regretted it all. You call it quits when the “stuff” is too frequent, too big, and/or too uncalled-for to forgive.

    With our favorite properties, it’s a spectrum, and there’s a boundary but the boundary can be blurry and it differs across individuals AND over time. (Everyone experiences “nostalgicide” sooner or later.)

    For this aging feminist who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, Star Trek Classic is still on THIS side, my beloved James Bond movies are currently in a gray area, but my collection of Bill Cosby albums are on THAT side and will be staying there for the foreseeable future.

    Pax, Namaste, and a side order of Blessed Be…

  4. I love this! I have a friend who is constantly talking about how problematic things are. Which is fine, but I hear too much “I don’t watch this because of that.” I remember her saying she didn’t watch Samantha Bee because she was “progressive enough.” Which er…. I have problems with the “enough” part of the statement. She also said she didn’t watch a YouTube series because she herd they were problematic, but it sounded like she couldn’t articulate why they were problematic (I am unsure if this is because she forgot the issue at hand, or if she just is working on expressing her point of view)

    There is a part of me that feels a little like if we can’t resolve the problems with modern media, and should cut it out of our minds because the creator couldn’t make a perfect example, then why don’t we just burn all the classics literature and art? I know, over the top. But we are constantly letting sexism, and problematic issues slide with older book. Why? BECAUSE WE ADDRESS THE ISSUES! You don’t read Huck Finn without having a discussion on slavery and the n word. We should ALWAYS think about what is being said, and think how will we view this in the future?

    Another example, although not perfect I think is Once Upon A Time. I remember watching it with my husband and groaning over lots of things. Depiction of women and race. Literally at one point it seemed that all black women were evil. But the creators could only do so much without adding more characters, which there were a bunch already. So when they tried to reboot it, they gave I think are really nice race overhaul. Clearly the writers updated themselves over important representation issues. Was the show perfect, hell no. But who can be?

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