on the essence of “Problematic”

Sometimes, my relationship with critical analysis of media and fiction can feel complicated.

For years now, I guess for most of my life, I’ve seen all kinds of analyses of media which scrutinize any given piece according to its portrayals of women (tons of essays), PoC, LGBT issues (usually to lament the total absence thereof), ability, and other issues of representation.

Debates like the following occur: Is this feminist? Is that feminist? Is it feminist from one angle but not another angle? Strong female characters. Diverse female characters. Huge debates about whether a particular female character is for the male gaze or a feminist icon or whether she’s for the male gaze but can be viewed as a feminist icon anyway. (I’m using the example of feminist analysis because it’s, in a generalized sense, by far what I’ve seen the most of, but I’ve seen versions of this discussion or debate with all other categories of representation as well.)

As a progressive (I hope) sort of person, I feel all this. I mean, it’s high time that video games, comics, books, and — pretty much everything — stopped being so sexist and showed more diversity. What kind of douchebag wouldn’t appreciate a sensitive and nuanced series like Avatar/LoK, where plenty of races and ethnic groups are represented, women do stuff, and disability is handled beautifully?

Here’s where the It’s Complicated begins:

Problematic. How the above discourse segues into problematic. How we discuss problematic.

Every so often, I see a version of “It’s Okay to Like Problematic Things” float around my online abroad and I have a few different thoughts.

First of all, I’m not much of a fan of “problematic.” It’s not very descriptive. It sounds Orwellian. But most importantly, it (to my mind) kind of gives the impression that there’s a specific right and wrong way to write a sort of character that is divorced from the broader context of the piece.

The last part is harder to qualify, but by way of example, I think there’s a huge gulf of difference between some shoot-’em-up Western which portrays Natives as one-dimensional drunkards and, say, Sherman Alexie’s nuanced portrayal of substance abuse on reservations. There’s a big difference, for that matter, between Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of African people as an indiscriminate mass screaming about cannibalism and his arch-nemesis Chinua Achebe’s portrayal of a patriarchal and abusive African tribesman that sets the prelude for the horrifying replacement of home-grown patriarchy with colonialist patriarchy. Things Fall Apart would not be nearly so unsettling or meaningful if for some reason Achebe had just gone the route of showing a bunch of tribespeople being pure and perfect before Suddenly White People.

I suppose what I’m saying is, the understanding of Problematic tends to focus on tropes and how much a character associated with a particular identity is portrayed with negative qualities. Or so it seems to me. I’m saying (my: It’s Complicated feeling) that the exact attributes themselves, in another writer’s hands, might result in a totally different story. What I’m saying is, I don’t think everything can always be boiled down to a reading of tropes or attributes or avoiding tropes or avoiding attributes. What makes the difference is nuance, sympathy, and sometimes a difference in the quality of writing itself. Sometimes I feel a little guilty to admit this (my progressive cred!) but sometimes when I see, for instance, an analysis of how gender roles are written badly in a series that is really shitty in every other way, I can’t help but think: Well, I feel like this shittiness is an extension of overall shittiness. I’m not saying that makes it less shitty when every single female character is relegated to domestic roles and it’s an action-themed series, only that the critique can feel like a dead end.

Which brings me to my second issue with the discourse around “Problematic.” This thing is problematic. That thing is problematic. But it’s okay to like them. So, wait, what’s the point of where this critique leads, then? I mean, again, I’m not suggesting we need to be out there regulating what people can like (that’s extremely futile), but sometimes, I’m not sure what I think of the tendency to write huge essays dissecting all that’s harmful and vile about given things, then follow up with, well, it’s all cool if we all enjoy them, with liking and disliking being totally neutral acts. I’m not sure if my articulating it this way will make sense, but sometimes it feels a little like these discussions take on the aura of performative enactments, sitting before priests in confessionals and listing all your media sins, and then your friends coming in and listing all their media sins, and then we all gather back together and toss back some popcorn. Is the goal to identify tropes for the sake of being self-aware? Is it to write critiques which will reduce or eliminate certain tropes if the critiques are read (that is, future writers will learn from these lapses)? And if basically everything in the world is problematic, is that even a description that can be instilled with meaning?

I think here of the endless debates I see about what kinds of roles people want women characters to be in, which are acceptable, and which aren’t. And I just don’t know how I feel. I very much support pushing back against all the generally shallow and crass bullshit we’ve been dealt (for all forms of representation, I mean) — comics and video game designs scarcely cease to make my eyes roll — but sometimes this debate can also somehow seem reductive.

Sometimes I walk away feeling like people are looking for some Platonic image of The Female Character, floating out in space. The heavenly female character, whoever she is.

And I think maybe what’s happening here is that I feel like there’s a struggle in me between the person who has a social consciousness and reads through the lens of that consciousness and the person who likes art for art’s sake, the person who even believes that fiction may well be a good space for ambiguity and feelings that do not easily slot into comfortable ideas of right/wrong, or, as Pankaj Mishra said in one of my favourite pieces on this topic (and a very different take on what is problematic):


“I think overtly political novels—those that never transcend or contest their author’s conscious intentions and prejudices—are problematic. This is not just true of the innumerable unread books in the socialist realist tradition, but also of novels that carry the burden of conservative ideologies, like Guerrillas, Naipaul’s worst book, where the author’s disgust for a certain kind of black activist and white liberal is overpowering. It forces him into drawing facile links between the sexual and the revolutionary instinct—which is also the central flaw in much post-9/11 fiction by Anglo-Americans—and a serious imaginative failure occurs. John Banville has written very well about another ideological narrative overdetermined by fear and distaste: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.


On the other hand, it was a self-declared Stalinist—Christina Stead—who wrote the extraordinary The Man Who Loved Children. I think a more complex idea of fiction—and the human self’s relationship with the world—emerges when we abandon this philistine equation between literature and liberalism and human goodness, and pay some attention to the darker, ambiguous, and often muddled energies and motivations that shape a work of art. If we do this, we can appreciate a writer like Céline or Gottfried Benn without worrying whether they conform to existing notions of political incorrectness.

I have to admit, that quote does resonate with me on some level (and yes, I know it’s about literature, but I think this is also applicable to other media to varying degrees). I suppose there’s a part of me that often wants to analyze things through a holistic lens of works and their relations to the world and to their context and the pre-existing conversation within which they occur (and what happens to the characters within those contexts), but also according to the energies we can look to them for which are suited to fiction’s uniquely embracing ambiguity. This, as opposed to awaiting the coming of the heavenly archetype of all marginalized peoples, for I think that heavenly archetype unlikely to do well if the overall world/story it finds itself within is foreclosed by generally shitty writing.

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