The Nuances of Problematic Pop Culture
Let’s just get this straight.
For a long time, critiquing pop culture was my job. And I loved it – that’s the reason I still run this blog after moving on to other things that didn’t involve getting far, far too passionate about Glee. Being an intersectional feminist, it seemed obvious to look at pop culture through that lens and frankly, if you’re looking, it’s not hard to find dozens of examples of TV shows, movies, and books that exhibit sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, etc, etc. Even the finest shows have problematic content just by virtue of existing in a society where a lot of the above listed stuff is pretty well accepted. I love Outlander to death and think it’s a striking look at gender roles, femininity and masculinity, but that doesn’t make that child rape scene they threw in season two in any better taste, you know?
But the more I critiqued this stuff, the more I found that people were viewing pop culture and it’s problematic elements in absolutes. When I argued that Game of Thrones relies too heavily of the sexualised bodies of women as background decoration, people would be quick to respond by pointing out the number of women in positions of power across the story. When you make a case for the work of Joss Whedon featuring a number of racist, sexist, and variously problematic elements, you’ll be deluged with fans arguing that his work on Buffy was seminal enough to render that obsolete. If you point out that maybe Deadpool could have done without that trip to the strip club, be prepared to fend off counter-arguments about the film addressing other problematic elements of superhero movies.
To make it clear, there’s nothing wrong with having these arguments over pop culture. In fact, I think it’s important. But an issue I’ve been coming up against recently is the number of people who seem to think that content exists at one end of the spectrum or another; that it is inherently “good” or inherently “bad” when it comes to the various -isms that it could be guilty of.
I’ve already mentioned Game of Thrones but this seems to be one of the examples that gets people most riled up. The show does have some seriously sexist elements. You likely already know what they are; if not, these articles will give you a pretty good rundown (tl;dr, gratuitous female nudity, rape scenes used to service the plots of men). And Game of Thrones also features a number of powerful, complex and challenging women characters (tl;dr, Brienne of Tarth). These two elements do not cancel each other out. Game of Thrones can treat it’s female characters with respect, and it can use them as booby set dressing. One does not render the other obsolete.
And yeah, this might seem obvious to you, but for a lot of people, it isn’t. And I think that’s because it can be hard to recognise problematic elements of the media we consume, not just because we enjoy it, but because we might have to question why we enjoy it despite – or even because of – it’s worse qualities. Basically, I think that the line between “this show that you enjoy has sexist elements” and “you are sexist for enjoying this show” can easily get blurred, and for that reason I understand the defensive reaction a lot of people have when they see criticisms of media they enjoy. I don’t think many people genuinely consider themselves sexist or racist or what have you, and being told that something you love has elements of those problems can make you wonder if you just might be. And that’s an uncomfortable thing to face.
But, as I outlined in this article, I think it’s important that we criticise the things we love more deeply than the things we might not. I understand the urge to go “I love X thing, and therefore X thing has nothing wrong with it and anyone who says otherwise is just watching it wrong”. But, as we move into this odd turning point for pop culture where we’re shifting towards more inclusivity while facing a backlash against the same, it’s important to acknowledge that all media exists on a spectrum. I can’t think of a show. movie, or book that I’ve watched or read in the last fifteen years that didn’t have some problematic elements, but that doesn’t render the good stuff pointless – and nor does the good stuff mean we can dismiss the negative content with a hand-wave. It’s easy to paint these things in broad strokes, writing a piece of content off as “good” or “bad” based on one particular angle of approach. But, now more than ever, we need to look at the nuances of how we represent minorities in the media; it’s not good enough to just have a woman, a person of colour, or someone of the LGBT+ spectrum just present in a story to render it armoured against criticism. And that requires us to look more closely at the various shades of grey (ugh, I’m so sorry) that exist in our favourite pieces of pop culture to see what we’re doing right, and what we can, and should, be doing better.
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