I have a secret: I support franchises I probably shouldn’t.
As a pop culture critic who emphasizes the importance of proper representation and diversity, I’m expected to like everything that’s diverse and hate everything that isn’t. This is especially true where social media’s court of public opinion is involved — there’s no room for being imperfect on the internet. Any sign of human fallacy and you’re done.
But I like things I probably shouldn’t; I have… problematic faves.
The honest truth is that we all have things or people we shouldn’t like but do. We are inherently problematic ourselves; we all have our biases, shortcomings and failings, so it’s no surprise that we can also fall short when it comes to what we consider our favorite things.
For instance, I’m an African-American woman who understands the pain and subjugation my people have been through at the hands of slavers and colonizers. I get that the West’s original sins have been slavery, discrimination and building wealth off the backs of people of color. And yet if you tell me an episode of ”Poirot,” “Grantchester” or ”Downton Abbey” is on PBS, I’ll watch it.
British period pieces are one of my many problematic weaknesses. Shows and films such as those are gorgeously shot, beautifully acted and filled to the brim with beautiful people (I mean, let’s be real; the main reason most of us wanted to check out ”Grantchester” was to see the statuesque James Norton). But regardless of how beautiful British period pieces are, they are still rife with the erroneous conceit of British exceptionalism.
“British period pieces are one of my problematic weaknesses. Regardless of how beautiful, they are still rife with the erroneous conceit of British exceptionalism.”
The hurt comes triple-fold. The first blow is seeing rich, beautiful characters acting ugly toward those who are different than them in terms of race, sexual orientation, nationality or all three. The second blow is realizing why some of these characters are rich in the first place; they’ve acquired their wealth not through “hard work” or some kind of classist “divine right.” They’re rich on the backs of their ancestors’ colonization of others in India, Africa and America. The third blow is when you question why you even love watching these shows in the first place. It’s uncomfortable to realize that your affinity for certain programming comes from the culture in which you were raised.
I can intelligently assess that all programming should be cognizant of its multiracial, multicultural fanbase and cater to all its viewers with meaningful representation. But regardless of my stance, and regardless of my deep love for my people, there is still a part of me that has unwittingly nursed on America’s (and in this case Britain’s) own fascination with white supremacy. Most people of color have unwittingly digested this idea too, and it’s not our fault, it’s our society’s fault, but it’s up to us to counteract what our society has taught us.
I have plenty more problematic faves: Should I love ”Dragonball Z” so much when Mr. Popo is a creepy blackface genie? Should I still love the film ”Marie Antoinette” despite Sofia Coppola’s lack of women of color in her films (and should I even take Coppola to task for it, since I don’t know what her understanding of black womanhood is in the first place)? Should I be so pumped for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding when I know the dark history of the British monarchy? Should I love pinup artwork when, despite current feminists’ efforts to reclaim the art form, pinup art has reinforced much of our skewed thoughts on acceptable femininity and has exploited the female form for the male gaze.
“It’s uncomfortable to realize that your affinity for certain programming comes from the culture in which you were raised.”
When you stop and think about it, so much of our current culture becomes less dazzling once you take its underside into account. So much of our content has been and is currently being created by people who might have little cultural understanding beyond their own personal bubbles. ”Game of Thrones,” a show beloved by so many, has a track record of mistreating or ignoring characters of color. ”The Walking Dead” and ”Fear the Walking Dead” also give characters of color the short end of the stick, killing them as a quick and lazy way to keep the plot moving. And as comedian Hari Kondabolu pointed out in his documentary ”The Problem with Apu,” he loves ”The Simpsons,” but he has a big problem with how Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans are represented when it comes to the character of Apu, who is steeped in stereotypes and voiced by Hank Azaria, a non-Indian actor.
And it’s not just race. So much of our culture is also created through a gender-specific power imbalance; many of our content creators in Hollywood are men, and too many of those men have backwards views on manhood, views that skew not only their creations but also the working environments they create in. If we can all admit to ourselves that we do have some problematic faves in our lives, then we can approach the next question — how do we come to terms with them? The first thing to do is to overcome the temptation to bury your head in the sand. Ignorance might seem like bliss, but in reality, it’s just perpetuating the problematic cycle itself.
My solace comes from understanding the good and the bad about the things I like. It’s sometimes very difficult, but my modus operandi has been to know enough about the things I like to make my own decisions as to how I’m going to support them, if I end up supporting them at all. For things like anime, which has a lot of baggage surrounding racial representation, I try to understand where Japanese culture succeeds and fails with regard to sensitivity toward people of color. Like how most of us do with the genres we like, I take anime on a case-by-case basis. In terms of racial representation, it is encouraging to know that the more globalized anime becomes, the more careful portrayals of people of color ― particularly black diasporic people ― have become; those shows are on my good list. But anime also has a lot of baggage with how it portrays women, and shows with lots of female objectification and sexual abuse are shows I avoid.
“When you stop and think about it, so much of our current culture becomes less dazzling once you take its underside into account.”
Other times, I have to take a “wait-and-see” approach. Some people do actually learn from their mistakes and we should give people the grace to allow them to grow and move forward. But when no other approach feels right, the best solution is to just divorce yourself from the problematic things in your life. For instance, I made it a rule to never watch any Woody Allen films, period. Something harder I’ve done in recent years is end my fan appreciation of Johnny Depp, but the least I can do in support of Amber Heard is to not feign ignorance, therefore, I can no longer be a Depp fan in good conscience.
It’s important to remember that there are plenty of other shows and stars we can like — we don’t just have to stick with what we know, especially if what we know happens to be problematic. Even though I still love ”Poirot” and ”Grantchester,” I’ve been working on finding period pieces like the film ”Belle” and the show ”Garrow’s Law,” which both showcase narratives about race, sexual identity and female empowerment that are routinely left out of the conversation about British history.
We all have problematic faves, but there are ways we can challenge and change our relationships with them for the better. I’ve admitted some of mine; I think it’s time more people admitted theirs and were honest about how and why they still support the things they support. It could help us all become more forgiving, understanding people.
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