If you’ve follow American (and to a lesser degree, European) media for the past year or so, you’ve probably seen passionate critiques of everything from blockbuster movies to news coverage as ‘problematic’ or ‘oppressive’, and equally impassioned critiques of ‘PC culture’ and ‘SJWs’ ruining free expression and creativity, from all over the political spectrum. Unfortunately, for all the Capital-D-Discourse flying around over how important social issues are depicted in fiction and non-fictional media, there isn’t a lot of talk about what this all means to you, the person who:
- will inevitably create or do problematic things, by dint of being human;
- will inevitably love at least one piece of fiction, reporting, or the like which is deemed highly offensive by others;
- will inevitably be on the other side of the table and be offended by a joke/movie/news story/whatever.
I’m writing about problematic fiction/art in this post, simply because the bog is focused on the intersection of speculative fiction and real life.
First of all, all art and fiction is problematic, because it was created by people. All of us have a truckload of biases, blind spots, and unquestioned assumptions about how the world works. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t work on those– it’s important to educate yourself and understand the nuances of your own perspectives– but to reassure everyone that we can’t please everyone with a piece of fiction and that your lack of ideological perfection in the eyes of every single person on Earth doesn’t make you a bad person.
The corollary, of course, is that your fave is going to be problematic from at least one point of view. It’s likely that you’ll love a book or movie or band that has at least one glaring blind spot or problem area (a quick scroll though my Spotify alone would reveal a number of incredibly catchy songs with questionable lyrics in the ‘recently played’ queue). A big part of this is understanding what makes the piece ‘problematic’ (even if you don’t agree).
The reason that fiction influences public opinion is a combination of ‘stickiness‘ (our brain is preferentially drawn to that information because it’s presented in an engaging format), and the assumption that fiction presents reality unless otherwise noted. Because of this , fiction is a vector by which human societies transmit our lessons and values. Even the most fluffy stories rely on agreement about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as far as the characters’ actions and the outcome of the storyline.
By pointing out the break from reality and critiquing it, we’ve disrupted the process of quietly, subconsciously absorbing the information or trope as ‘truthy‘. We’re also making a conscious decision to enjoy something for it’s merits– it’s escapism, it has gorgeous and accurate costumes, it has a character or theme we identify with, and so on– while understanding that we should reject or question some aspects of its message.
That said, I think there is sometimes a line whereby a work becomes too problematic to support (especially in a situation where consuming the work directly enriches the creators). It could be that an important plot element or assumption is so toxic that it pervades and overpowers the good qualities of the rest of the story; it could be that the work profits off the suffering of a marginalized group without returning any benefit to the group in question. Or worst of all, the story is openly pushing a horrifying idea.
Where is that line? Honestly, it’s up to you to consider the work, it’s context, and what you get out of it. (Contrary to what some corners of the internet seem to believe, there’s no Board Of Objective PC-ness). That line is going to be specific to all of us, though it’s also good to listen to the dissenting opinions of others. We’re all problematic humans muddling through this together, and can’t let the quest for ideological perfection keep us from creating or enjoying the fruits of others’ creativity.