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It’s Okay to Like Problematic Things

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November 11, 2014

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I’m a simple person. I love pop culture. I love consuming as much media as I can — TV, books, music.

Sometimes, though, the things that I like are flawed, just like most things in life. Sometimes, I like things that are problematic, and don’t align with my views on social justice.

I like “The Devil Wears Prada,” even though it paints eating disorders and a thin frame as healthy and perfect. I like “Lord of the Rings,” even though the storyline demonizes women and certain races.

Romantic comedies are my guilty pleasure but I often have to ignore a nagging voice in my head while I watch them—“Wow, this is pretty sexist and misogynist. I definitely shouldn’t be enjoying this.”

Sometimes, my life feels too much like the Onion’s “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show.” The parody article is just too real, detailing a woman’s break from social justice to watch “Say Yes to the Dress.”

The woman in the satirical article says, “Honestly, it’s pretty exhausting to call out every sexist stereotype or instance of misogyny in popular culture, so sometimes I have to just throw my hands up and grant myself a little time off.”

She has a good point. My awareness of social justice issues has had only a positive effect on my life and has made me a more considerate human being. But it’s also made me realize that, yeah, some of the things that I like are really problematic.

If you also struggle with enjoying problematic things, don’t worry. You’re not a huge jerk because you enjoyed 30 minutes of a show that perpetuates gender stereotypes. You didn’t reverse all of the progress you as an individual or us have a society have made.

If you still have trouble reconciling your interests with your social justice activism, here’s a quick guide to liking problematic things.

1.    Realize that the thing in question is problematic. Acknowledge it.

This can often be the hardest part because you’ll tell yourself, “No, I’m a good person, I can’t possibly like something that is so sexist, misogynist, racist, ableist, etc.” One you acknowledge that the thing you like has some flaws, you’ll be better off in the long run. Again, simply liking something and enjoying it doesn’t necessarily mean it aligns with every political and social goal you personally have.

2.    Don’t make apologies for the thing and don’t make excuses for the problems that it has.

There are few justifications for a movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. There’s no justification for a book or song to be trans-misogynistic. Don’t gloss over these issues and don’t try to explain them—“Well yeah xyz is sexist, but it was set in a time when society was more sexist, so it’s okay,” or “Sure xyz is racist, but it’s set in a mythical land, so races don’t even mean the same thing there.”

3.    Acknowledge the feelings and opinion of other people.

Not everyone is going to feel the same way as you. Some people might have a different line—“X show is okay and I can enjoy that, but Show Y is just too problematic for me to enjoy.”—or they might interpret things differently in specific shows. If someone is made uncomfortable by a medium, be respectful of that. This might mean not watching or discussing that medium around them. It’s okay if you enjoy something that’s problematic, but not everyone has to, and it’s important that you realize it.

4.    Look for less problematic things to enjoy.

This step is optional but for me, oh so important. While I am okay with enjoying problematic shows, I’m always on the hunt for media that doesn’t leave me with a pit in my stomach after consuming it. Talk to social justice friends, read blogs, and share your favorite feminist and social-justice-friendly media portrayals. Share your suggestions in the comments—we’d love to hear how you deal with problematic things and what you enjoy instead!

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