So your favorite TV show (movie, book, etc) is problematic
Many of us have a book that changes everything. How we see the world, how we see ourselves. It's a book we recommend to everyone we meet, a book we reread over and over. Mine was Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Mists (as my friends and I referred to it) was the center of hundreds of conversations. We read it and its prequels for book clubs. The novel inspired rituals and spiritual awakenings. Imagine our horror when, in 2014, Bradley's daughter accused her mother of molesting her and countless other children.
The X-Men were my first great comic book love. I collected the spin-off books, X-calibur and X-factor, as well as Uncanny X-Men. I watched the 90's animated series and X-Men Evolution. And of course, I watched the movies and recent TV shows, many of which have been directed or produced by Brian Singer. For years (try two decades), allegations of sexual abuse has surrounded Singer.
Singer is the executive producer of the Fox television series The Gifted (an X-Men spin-off). The show follows the lives of mutants forced underground after the world turns against their kind. The main characters are two white teenagers, but a few characters of color play major roles. Two of these characters play into American stereotypes. Johnny, a member of the Apache nation, has the superpower of tracking. Marco, a Mexican character with the power to absorb and manipulate photons, grew up smuggling drugs for the Mexican Cartel.
The Big Bang Theory also trades in stereotypes. The four main characters are the "typical" nerdy and socially-awkward scientists. They play Dungeons and Dragons, frequent the comic book shop, and cosplay at Comic Con. But their harmless nerds right? Think again.
In the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, it's almost impossible to consume media that is not tainted by problematic producers, writers, or actors. And a culture steeped in patriarchy and white supremacy is bound to produce pop culture filled with stereotypes and objectification. That is, when female characters and people of color are represented. But because, let's face it, they often aren't.
So what do you do when confronted with problematic media?
What happens when the lead on your favorite show turns out to be a serial sexual harasser? What do you do when you start to feel uncomfortable about the "Fat Monica" jokes? Where do you draw the line?
And do you have to give up your favorite shows when the jokes are tainted by misogyny, racism, homophobia, or ableism?
The last three years, I have taught a college course on female superheroes. We explore Wonder Woman, Buffy, Jessica Jones, and Eleven of Stranger Things. We witness the changes to the story lines, the costumes, the dialogue of these characters to understand the changing attitudes towards and roles of women in America since the early 1940's.
It's often an eye-opening experience for the twenty year-old students who weren't even alive when Buffy the Vampire Player first aired on the WB (how am I that old?).
And if there is one thing I have learned in examining the pop culture of the last sixty years, almost every television show, movie, book, or video game is problematic. Our media exists on a spectrum, from down right indefensible to a bit insensitive.
Take Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netlfix. Hailed as a feminist masterpiece, Season 1 confronted the trauma of rape in ways rarely seen on television. Sexual assault was not Jessica's motivation for becoming a strong female character. In fact, it left her full of shame, self-doubt, and self-hatred. And none of that went away in one spiffy episode. She as allowed to process, or not, the pain. Jessica was allowed to be anger and a bit broken in places.
But Season 1 gave us only one major character of color. And he was a heroin addict. Season 2 wasn't much better. We were also provided with a very narrow representation of the female body - fit, thin, and traditionally attractive.
Did this stop me from watching Season 1 three times through? No. Does it stop me from recommending the show to every single living soul? Nope.*
Do I still watch The Big Bag Theory. All the freaking time.
Will I watch Season 2 of The Gifted? Not as long as Brian Singer is attached to it. And Mists of Avalon, it sits on my bookshelf still. I haven't reread it since I learned of the accusations. I also can't take it to a used bookstore because I don't want to expose anyone else to Bradley. But I don't seem capable of throwing a book in the trash.
So is that my line? I'll consume media with problematic representations but not media produced by problematic creators?
Tonight in class, I asked my students where they drew the line. Like myself, they had no problems avoiding media they were not devoted to. But could they give up their favorite books or movies? They weren't as quick to walk away.
Were they willing to move their morality around to suit their love of particular characters or creators? Am I?
I haven't found my line yet. I imagine it's because, like our media and our culture, it exists on a spectrum. Is that okay? Can I be okay with justifying one television show over another because I enjoy it more?
What about you? Where's your line? When is something you love too problematic? What circumstances are just too much?
Can't you just give me an answer?
If like me, you're struggling to find the answer, it's okay. The first step is thinking critically about the question and the media you consume. Don't bury your head in the sand.
Support media that is trying. Every episode of Jessica Jones Season 2 was directed by a woman. House of Cards dumped Kevin Spacey. A writer from The 100 sincerely apologized for falling into the "Bury Your Gays" trope.
Use social media to call out creators for their choices and confront them about the problems in their creations. Then wait for their response. Their reaction may be all you need to make your decision to continue to support their work.
Then, go see Black Panther.
*I'm still processing Season 2, but for me, this latest season could never match Season 1, no matter what they did.