There’s a problem I’ve run into a number of times. I find a piece of art, or writing or media that I really enjoy, and just when I’m set to properly fangirl it, I find out that it’s creator was a douche in some fashion or other. For example a lot of people really love Picasso (he’s not personally my cup of tea) and then they find out he was a misogynistic asshole and they really don’t know what to think anymore. I’ve also seen someone’s entire body of work dismissed for certain bigoted elements of it (Nietzsche was anti-semitic! Everything he says is wrong!).
Now obviously we don’t want to condone things like misogyny or anti-semitism. We probably also don’t want to give money to the people who produce those works, because we also don’t want to support those things. But how do we accept that we might like something created by a problematic individual? CAN we like things that are created by problematic individuals?
Media is a really tough thing when you try to be social justice conscious. There’s almost nothing out there that’s wholly unproblematic, and since everything is created by people, nothing is created by someone who never screws up. I personally can confess to liking a number of shows and books that are racist, sexist, transphobic…all sorts of problematic things. I don’t like those elements of them. I don’t like that when I watch Say Yes to the Dress, it suggests over and over that the most important thing for a woman on her wedding day is to look good. But I still love watching the show. It makes me happy, it makes me excited, it engages me. I have no guilt whatsoever about liking a show about dresses, but I do worry about liking a show that tells women their worth is in their looks.
So how do we react to things like this? Obviously we can’t keep ourselves from all media unless we want to become hermits, or secede and create an all social justice minded media ALL THE TIME (and we’d still have disagreements about what’s acceptable). One extremely important thing that I try to remember is that media is not its creator. I can appreciate Nietzsche’s writings and thoughts without accepting his anti-semitic postures. Obviously he doesn’t get money from me consuming his work, so that’s a much easier one. I can talk about certain elements of Nietzsche and then also mention that I don’t condone anti-semitism. Different facets of individuals can be taken separately.
But what about media that I still enjoy that I still want to consume but that might give money to someone whose views I don’t appreciate? To take an example that’s big for me, Joss Whedon: Whedon does a lot to try to address sexism and to create media that is conscious of gender. However he is not very good at race issues. I LOVE Joss Whedon’s shows. I continue to watch Joss Whedon’s shows. And I’m going to fess up: I should be doing more to let the world know that I think Whedon’s shows should be more race conscious. I should be posting blogs about it. I should be tweeting about it. I should be writing letters to Joss. These are things I should do to help shows that I like get better. These are ways that I can LIKE something and still recognize its problematic aspects.
Something that might be even more important is that BECAUSE I like these shows, I have more of an impetus to push for change on them. Because I like them, I want them to be better. Dr Who is a great example of this: there are lots of diehard fans of the show who have made their opinions known loudly and repeatedly since Steven Moffat took over the show that they are NOT ok with his treatment of women and that they expect better out of their favorite show.
Another important thing to do is just to discuss the different elements of the things that we like. Of course creating something that’s cool or good in one arena does not excuse bigotry in another arena. We can’t tell Oscar Pritorius that it’s cool he shot his girlfriend because he’s done a lot of inspiring work with his disability. But talking about all these interactions is the best way to address them: it’s also a wonderful way for these negative things to be twisted into something more positive. They might force important conversations that we should be having anyway. There is some GREAT critical thinking and writing about a lot of TV and movies today (even academic journals written about Joss Whedon), and pop culture is a great place to jump off for some important conversations about the state of society today.
The last element of this is some self-forgiveness and other-forgiveness. We have to cut ourselves some slack. It’s OK to like something that you recognize is problematic. It doesn’t mean your evil, it doesn’t mean you’re betraying your cause, it doesn’t mean you’re condoning the behavior of whoever might have produced this piece of media. What it DOES mean is that you’re a human being with a variety of interests. We should remember this about other people as well. If you run across someone who likes The Biggest Loser, it might not be a good idea to yell at them about how it causes eating disorders. Asking them what they like about it and then providing some more information about the show and why it’s a little unhealthy might be a better way to approach them. If you run across someone who likes Nietzsche, don’t yell that they’re an anti-semite: ask what they know about Nietzsche himself and whether they’ve thought about some of his problematic personal views as well as some of his interesting philosophical views.
Problematic media is a great way to start discussions, to do some personal thinking, and to try to hold producers accountable. What it shouldn’t be is a great way to shame yourself or others.