Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things
H. Savinean asks:
I would like to hear your thoughts on liking problematic things, e.g. media with historically accurate but objectionable portrayals of gender/race/etc., media with no historical excuse for the above, media that simply ignore women and people of color, comedians/actors/writers who plant their feet firmly in their mouths way too often… It’s something I spend a fair amount of time on.
Oh, boy! A can of worms! Let me just come over and open it!
Let me skip lightly over what “problematic” means in a larger sense and suggest that for the purposes of this piece, the word means “work/people I have issues with for some substantial and to me relevant social/moral/ethical reason.” With that understood:
I think it’s fine to like or recognize the value of problematic people/things. I think it helps to additionally recognize two things: One, that the person/thing is problematic, regardless of the fact that you like it; two, that the fact you like it doesn’t mitigate the fact that it is problematic. You can hold the two thoughts in your head simultaneously.
So, an example from my own personal problematic files: Chinatown. Fantastic movie, and the guy who directed it drugged and raped an underage girl. The film is a classic and Roman Polanski should have gone to prison. That the film is one of the best films of the 1970s doesn’t change the fact that Polanski is also a rapist. Should you feel uncomfortable about Polanski and his actions? Yes you should. Can you acknowledge Chinatown is still a substantial piece of work? Yes you can.
Another example: Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. For reasons relating to cinematic technique, one of the major films in cinematic history — echoes of the film pop up everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King. For subject matter, an unapologetic celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and of Adolf Hitler, it is literally horrifying. Riefenstahl herself: A brilliant filmmaker and forever (and rightly) tainted by her association with a genocidal regime; one of the first great women directors, who unquestionably lent her considerable talents to the furtherance of evil. Can we appreciate the craft she brought to the film? Absolutely. Should we argue that this craft mitigates the purpose for which it was used? Absolutely not. Should Riefenstahl’s embrace of the Nazi party be excused because of her cinematic talent? Not in a thousand years.
And so on. I used two examples from film, but examples can be found in every field of creative endeavor, including — obviously — writing. Likewise, Polanski and Riefenstahl are easy examples because of the unambiguous nature of their actions, but for every clear cut case like theirs, there are a thousand less clear cut — or at least, less clear cut to you. Someone else might disagree, occasionally emphatically.
If you accept that you can both appreciate a problematic work/creator and recognize its problematic issues, there are a host of other issues for you to consider. Some of them:
* Should you support the work with money? Example: Would you pay to own a copy of Chinatown, or merely watch it when it came on television?
* Do you differentiate works from different eras in the creator’s life? For example, if you have a favorite book and over time the creator turned progressively homophobic, can you cherish the work written before that transformation, or do you judge it by the author’s “final form,” as it were?
* How much weight should you give to historical context?
* How much do you care about a creator’s personal life?
* Does it matter whether the creator is living or dead?
(The latter, incidentally, is one I think about a lot. I anecdotally noted a resurgence of Michael Jackson’s music in the common culture after his death, and I hypothesize that his passing removed a lot of the “squick” factor related to his possibly entirely inappropriate relationships with kids. It’s easier to get into a “Thriller” zombie line if you’re not worrying about what Jackson might be doing at one of those Neverland slumber parties, etc.)
Cards on the table: I like a lot of work I think is problematic, and I like more stuff that other people would find more problematic than I do, because they have different standards and life experiences. There’s other stuff I don’t like because I find it too problematic, but I also acknowledge there’s room for hypocrisy in my choices there, too. For example, I find some of Chris Brown’s work catchy but I’m not going to give him my money because he beat a woman and by all the evidence I can see he doesn’t especially regret having done so. On the other hand, in the early 70s Jimmy Page knowingly had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl — that’s statutory rape despite the girl’s then-consent — and I own a whole lotta Zeppelin (on the other hand, I haven’t bought any since I found that bit out. Even so).
Does this dichotomy reflect my judgment regarding their respective actions, some latent baked-in racism, my preference for rock over R&B, or the fact one was just a few years ago and the other over before I even knew about it? You got me. Mix and match. And while you’re doing that, I’m gonna have to think about it some more myself.
Which I think is a thing worth doing as well: When you like a problematic thing, rather than reflexively defending it with the “I like it and therefore it can’t be bad and why are you making me feel bad about it,” response, go ahead and ask yourself why you like it even though you acknowledge it’s got problems. You might find after questioning it, you like it less — or more, because you’ve thought it through.
As a final thought here, I think it’s probably likely that some readers of mine find my work problematic for various reasons — either for what’s in the text of the work, who I am as a person (as far as they know from my public presence and/or their private interaction with me) or some combination of both. It’s part of the territory of being a creative person. Are they wrong for doing so? No; you have to accept that everyone comes to your work with their own perspective and will have their own criticisms of it (and you), some of which you will disagree with, or find to be a feature rather than a bug, as it were.
If the reader can simultaneously hold in their mind that they enjoy the work and find it problematic, I appreciate it. If they decide they can’t and drop me from their cultural diet, then that’s fine, too. We all have to make choices. I’d hope that choice comes after some thought on the matter. Ultimately that’s all you can ask for, as a creator of possibly problematic things.
(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)