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Callout & Cancel Culture—the pop culture writer's best friend. We have to get real here: drama is fun. It's toxic and horrible and literally ruins people's lives - but it's also fun. No wonder YouTube is full of drama channels. We want the tea. We need the tea.
But when it comes to questions of assault, the fun usually stops. The #metoo movement has opened our eyes to many beloved figures in Hollywood who have made their way on the backs of (vulnerable) women. Suddenly, we're confronted with the reality that this comedian we like, that actor we always watch and that YouTube star we follow religiously, are actually huge scumbags. Yikes.
The #problematicfave is discussed like never before. How can you like a person that has done something so morally wrong? How can you watch their movies/shows/channels, listen to their music or read their books? How do you justify it as somebody who claims to be a good person?
Well... It's complicated.
What does it mean to be a #problematicfave?
Sometimes, words get thrown around so much, they lose all meaning and eventually become a meme to serve the exact opposite of its original meaning. The internet likes to do that.
Urban dictionary defines "problematic fave" as:
(Noun) A favorite person (usually a character) who has problematic views and opinions.
The term is used either for fictional characters or celebrities. It is meant to call out popular artists and characters that have overstepped moral or social boundaries with their words or actions. Seems pretty easy, right?
But what if that #problematicfave is somebody you care deeply about? Somebody who, through their art or personality, has helped you conquer some of the darkest moments of your life? Suddenly it doesn't feel as easy to write them off anymore.
During a 2017 Comic Con panel titled "Let's talk about our problematic faves", moderator Diana M. Pho cited an essay by theorist Sara Ahmed, "Happy Objects," in which Ahmed posits the theory that people bind their happiness to objects and organize around them. That's how fandoms ("affective communities") are born—people huddling together to experience something that makes them happy in a group setting. The "affect alien" is a threat to the communities, as they point out flaws and criticize the happy object. It feels especially threatening if the criticism posed is understandable, such as allegations of violence or sexual misconduct. Not only does it feel like the aliens aim to harm the object that makes you happy, but it, in turn, makes you feel like there's something wrong with you, as you've unconsciously connected your identity and inherent value to the object.
Fighting ensues—and it usually ends with everybody pointing to everybody else's flaws and inadequacies for liking/not liking the object.
Where is the #problematic line?
Although we can all easily inform ourselves about pretty much everything that's going on in the world, it isn't usually our first instinct. If I start watching a TV show, I usually don't read up beforehand whether the director/star/writer has done something terrible. I just enjoy the content - until I get called out for it or find out about potentially shady practices myself.
Whether I get alerted to a problem or discover it myself, the discovery is always accompanied by both a little shame and even more defiance.
"I'm just enjoying the text!" I tell myself. "I'm not supporting the actions of the bad people!" I am, though. By watching the show, I'm shoveling money into the pockets of somebody I find morally reprehensible.
Of course, everything has degrees. I'd feel incredibly uncomfortable financially supporting somebody that has been accused of sexual misconduct. That's why I stopped following Louis C.K., even though I've been a fan of his for years. I don't consume media with Johnny Depp in it anymore, because of his abuse allegations.
But then the moral line gets a little bit fuzzy: when is problematic behavior palatable and when is it over the line? The answer to that is honestly what makes the whole discussion so difficult. Because it's very subjective, isn't it? I refuse to support anybody who has a past or present of sexual misconduct or assault allegations because that's something that's offensive to me as a person, it's something I'm very emotional about.
But I also know that, even though I find other problematic behaviors, such as racist jokes, extremely offensive on a moral level, it doesn't hurt me personally as much.
That's where my apology line is. While I write off white celebrities that use racial slurs immediately, I'm ready to forgive them if they give convincing and honest apologies and do not repeat that behavior in the future.
Let's take for example one of my favorite people in the world, YouTube-Mom Jenna Marbles. Jenna has been on YouTube since 2010 and while I applaud her growth as a human being and love the person she's become, she has definitely done and said things that I find difficult to support, such as wearing a straw hat, fake mustache and singing "Chingchong Dingdong" in her rap parody, "Bounce that dick". There is no way to interpret that as anything but gross and racist. Jenna has apologized many times and today, she speaks out openly about her problematic past and advocates against racism. I believe her. That doesn't mean she doesn't still have her problematic moments then and there (e.g. making jokes about "assuming someone's gender" in one of her videos), but it feels like she recognizes her mistakes and wants to amend them. That's pretty much all I can ask for.
That is, however, not something I would ever allow with allegations of sexual misconduct. That's not something I ever forgive, no matter how convincing the apology. That's my personal line. The problem is - not everybody has the same line. What is forgivable and what isn't is completely subjective. The same counts for what people find offensive and what not. There's no clear consensus, only groups with radically different views trying to convince the others why what they feel is right.
Fighting the Outrage
So what do we do now? Do we shun every piece of media that is attached to somebody morally reprehensible? Do we separate the art from the artist? Do we discredit this whole discourse as "people being offended by everything these days" and start trolling special snowflakes on Tumblr?
I say: Think of your #problematicfave as your friend. What would you not be able to forgive them for? What kind of behavior would make you feel uncomfortable to be around? Are you comfortable with sticking up for these people and giving them full support, both emotionally and financially? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, only yours.
What I think is most important is to be able to acknowledge and address criticism.
We are so often emotionally tied to the media and people in media we consume. That's their point; TV shows are written to illicit an emotional response and celebrities try to present themselves as lovable and relatable as possible in order to reach a bigger audience to make money off of.
And it's ok to respond to these emotional triggers and to find something in it that helps you. Life gets cold and hard sometimes and having something seemingly banal to hold on to, a book, a movie, a celebrity you stan, can help you deal with the difficulties of real life. There's no shame in that.
But if you love something, you have to be open to seeing it for what it is. That doesn't mean you're not allowed to like it. If you enjoy something, you are allowed to enjoy it for any reason at all. Just because it's "bad" in some way or other, doesn't mean that you aren't allowed to derive positive feelings from it. What is important, however, is to be open to criticism and honest with both yourself and the person criticizing it. If somebody tells you that something you like hurt them, don't dismiss them. Talk to them, tell them why you like it. Let them explain why they don't. And then move on. You are allowed to like something, even if it's flawed. But you have to acknowledge problems, instead of turning a blind eye.
Want to read more? Follow me on vinegarandwine.com!
Noelle Clarke is travel, mental-health and pop culture writer from Germany with a BA in Comparative Literature.
What I write about:
- Online Culture (YouTube + online culture phenomena)
- Media analysis (esp. TV and literature)
- Female Solo Travel
- Mental Health (esp. depression, imposter syndome and generalized anxiety disorder)
- Chronic Illness (migraine)