For about as long as I’ve written on this site, the term “Problematic fave” has been a thing. It’s a phrase that was born out of a necessity to navigate the often complicated relationship both art and artists can have with their audience. In essence a problematic favourite is simply a work that has problematic elements, but still illicit’s strong positive emotions for the beholder.
Which might now lead you to ask what “problematic elements” even means, and the answer to that (like similar questions posed before) is where things start to get a little murky. An intersectional feminist take on the matter would likely emphasize issues such as the presence of ableism or eurocentrism in the political messaging of an artwork, while also highlighting how these things often connect with one another. And while I think this version of ‘problematic’ is closest to being comprehensive and productive, there’s hardly a unified definition of the term that everyone can agree with.
Indeed the field of left-leaning dialogue will demonstrate a variety of usage that covers everything from “this person is mean” to “I don’t agree with their/its politics”. And what counts as ‘mean’ or disagreeable politics will vary wildly too. I don’t point this out to mock or delineate any particular viewpoint, only to help readers understand that “problematic” means different things to different people, and that even my own beliefs on what does and does not count as problematic can’t cover all of its applications out in the wild.
However. What I want to address today is how I feel “Problematic Fave” gets misused by people in my own social justice driven circles, and what purpose I think it should serve. Because I increasingly feel that the admittance that something is problematic is used to, in effect, absolve the person saying it of any obligation to question the placement of problematic works within their life.
Let’s return to the previous example of ableism. Say, your favourite seasonal anime happens to have an amazing story and great comedy…BUUUUUT…it also frequently mocks and others wheelchair users. That’s a ‘problematic fave’ right? It has redeemable qualities that you can’t help but love, yet it is undeniably ableist, and ultimately that ableism will be regurgitated back into society by virtue of it being a public work. Then in doing so, it encourages or perpetuates a hostile climate around wheelchair users that makes it harder for their needs to be heard and respected in all layers of society, including work and politics.
And that sucks right? You want to unconditionally love the show because it has a bunch of qualities you adore, and yet it’s gone and given you some caveats. And you have to wrestle with that. Except, this is usually where the introspection and conversation ends. For many the mere act of acknowledging that it’s problematic is enough to settle the matter. It permits you to enjoy the art, relatively guilt-free, under the knowledge that you’ve done your part to say the bad stuff is bad! Surely makes the world a better place, somehow!
But I sincerely believe that there should be more to it than that. By patronizing a piece of art you contribute to its success, and the success of that wonderful amazing storytelling is also the success of that ableism. The two are not so easily separated, and simply acknowledging the ableism’s presence (while certainly better than total silence) doesn’t exactly do anything to punish that oh-so ‘problematic’ behaviour. From there it can only propagate, and that unquestionably runs counter to what you truly believe in.
At this point you might be thinking that the obvious conclusion I’m reaching towards is to abolish or condemn anyone who follows the titular trend of this essay. However that is not what I believe. It would be an impossible contradiction, given that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the namesake of my brand, is the definition of a ‘problematic fave’. I also know that asking people to forsake works that they’ve come to love isn’t particularly realistic, and chasing a pure ideal comes with it’s own set of roadblocks. That said, I don’t feel the status quo is the answer either. The title of this article is “Moving away from Problematic Faves” after all, so I do still feel that we should be doing better.
First and foremost, I think that the core principle behind an understanding of “problematic” is to empower you to not only spot when something fits the description, but also to give you the power to make an informed decision on what you consciously choose to engage with. Rather than settling to make something problematic your new fave, you can instead take the other path, and seek out works that do not have such elements. So when you would have previously resigned yourself to take the good with the bad, you reach that fork in the road, and choose to patronize the works that do better (they are out there!). It is my belief that by continuously engaging with this process, you can start to naturally phase out the bad faves until it’s just ‘faves’.
To follow this, I also think it’s prudent to respect your friends views on what you voluntarily consume. This has always been a divisive factor in talks about how to be progressive in action, so I say this with some trepidation, that you should really value the input of those directly and indirectly hurt by the stuff you support. I’m one of those “No ethical consumption … ” types, so if you feel that being ideologically clean in today’s society is impossible, trust me, I get it, but that alone isn’t cause enough for you to be apathetic. If someone you care for is made uncomfortable by the existence of your ‘problematic fave’, then it’s worth really examining how important it is to your life, and whether you could actually live without it. I’m not asking you to be a doormat to everybody you know, I’m just suggesting that you recognize the media we often consider ‘essential’ to our libraries is rarely such, and if killing your darlings will make a friend feel valued and respected, then maybe, just maybe-!, that’s the more valuable option to take.
I hope you find my advice clear, practical and reasonable. It was my genuine desire to share my viewpoint on the matter in a healthy manner, because frequently the issue is torn between extremes of apathy or policing, when I’d much rather (love) to promote a third option that feeds positive development. Let me know if you agree!
Thanks for reading.