Liking Problematic Things (And People)

It happens all the time in fandom. You’ve been watching something awesome, reading something, whatever, and it turns out that the creator said something racist or there’s an episode which really sucks in the way it treats women, or… And suddenly, everyone’s talking about it, being critical about it, and telling you that you should stop liking it. Sometimes it even feels like they’re attacking you when they attack this thing that you love, because it questions your taste, your discernment, your personal views.

Stop a moment.

There will be people who are saying ‘Supernatural fans are all scum because [xyz]’, or ‘how can you support a man who says gay people should be shot?’ or ‘how dare you like this thing which appropriates my culture?’ You can’t win an argument with them: they’ve weighed in on the liking-problematic-things issue and decided that once a thing crosses a certain line, they can’t/won’t like it, they can’t/won’t support it, etc. That’s their decision and if they won’t leave you alone about it, I suggest blocking/muting, because arguing with them isn’t going to go anywhere.

But is it okay to like problematic things?

Yes. Yes, it is. Look: no one is perfect, everybody has some prejudice or pet peeve or even a trauma in their past which makes them act in a certain way. Everyone. As long as you acknowledge that, as long as you’re okay with criticism of the things you love, and you don’t just want to close your eyes and pretend it’s not there, then go right ahead. I like the MCU, but I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t bother me that we’re low on female Avengers and somehow it’s more important to introduce Spider-man for the gazillionth time than it is to give us Carol Danvers just once. I like Jeremy Renner’s acting work, but I don’t appreciate his comments on Black Widow. I like Jacqueline Carey’s work, but I’m also aware that the exoticisation of various cultures is a problem.

And then there’s the fact that people change. There are still feuds going on in science fiction fandom from Racefail ’09. People who won’t speak to each other, who’ve blacklisted each other, and yet stand on the same side of current debates about the Hugos. It’s difficult to know how to navigate that as a reader: is it okay to like Elizabeth Bear? Sarah Monette? They’re saying the right things now, but there are clearly still grudges in fandom, feelings that some people should have apologised or apologised better or perhaps even that no apology will be enough. Is it okay to like Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work after the discovery of her identity as Requires Hate/Winterfox?

I was worrying about this for a while, once I realised that Katherine Addison was Sarah Monette, and I knew the name because of Racefail ’09. When I realised that the first time I’d heard of some Tor editors was during that whole debacle and that maybe I wasn’t entirely happy that things had changed there. When I realised that X was friends with Y and Y had said some seriously problematic stuff at some point.

Here’s my decision: we’re all people, and we’re none of us perfect. We miss things, we prioritise different issues, we like things despite issues. And that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, each individual has to make those decisions for themselves. Let’s have no illusions: we’re all going to like things which are in some way offensive, awkward, biased, unapologetic. We’re going to disagree on what those things are and where lines are drawn. We’re not going to be able to come to some consensus about what it is okay to like. Even people you love will say some seriously stupid shit.

If someone likes Orson Scott Card’s work, it’s not a sign that they’re automatically my enemy — their priorities are just different, and that’s fine. If they deny that what he says is offensive, then maybe we can’t be friends because we disagree at a fairly fundamental level, but if they say ‘yeah, he’s a jerk, but I love Ender’s Game anyway’… okay. I think there’s room for that.

So yeah. You’ll see me reading and reviewing stuff by people who have said really stupid things, sometimes. Really offensive things, probably. Maybe even books which have racist elements or which are rife with colonialism. Reading and even liking those things is not an endorsement of the stupid/offensive things. The only thing which is an endorsement of bad behaviour, prejudice, etc, is… endorsement!

If there’s something problematic I haven’t acknowledged about a book, by all means, let’s talk about it. I’m as full of prejudice as anyone, as fallible, and as often out of the loop. But I’m not going to hate something on demand. Deal?

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19 thoughts on “Liking Problematic Things (And People)

  1. Woo, this is a cool post. I agree with you, mostly, except for this last part (and this is debate, you know, not criticism) 🙂
    So I read lots of romance which is VERY often quite anti-feminist and I’m a feminist myself and it bothers me sometimes if it’s just TOO glaringly obvious that the author is trying to “put the woman in her place” or something equally yucky. Or making it sound like men’s appalling behaviour is admissible. Or whatever. But I still buy and read these books because I like them for other things, for their feel-good quality, for the guaranteed happily-ever-after.

    And here’s my problem: I’m still buying these books! I’m still giving my money to people who write some really terrible things sometimes. And I guess that means I’m NOT giving my money to people who would deserve it more just because I’m a lazy reader… And when enough people like me buy books with (potential) shitty messages, publishers see they’re selling well and they buy and publish more of them. It’s a vicious circle, really. I don’t have a solution to this, really, and I never endorse these problematic messages but I think I’m sometimes doing it implicitly if you know what I mean.

    Is this clear at all? Or is it a ramble? I really like what you’re saying. 🙂

    • It makes sense and I don’t disagree — to me, that’s a personal decision that everyone has to take separately. To me, it’s just way too simplistic to say “you shouldn’t buy [x] because it might in a roundabout way endorse [y]” — there’s loads of space within that for intersectionality. Like a book could be really bad on race issues, but really good on queer stuff… I’ve seen people lately refusing to read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and any sequels, because it’s a primarily white world. But then that’s to ignore that it was a big thing for queer people in fantasy and… to me, it’s okay to say no, I don’t want to support that, but it’s not okay to shame someone because they love it and want more of it, you know? And I think that the relationship depicted in E.L. James’ books (sorry, weird combo of examples, I know) is abusive and gross and I don’t want to support it myself, but a close friend of mine loves those books because they opened her eyes to the fact that that relationship dynamic might be enjoyable and that could be okay. Even if something seems unequivocally problematic to me, there’s no telling what it says to someone else, you know? Even if what it says is just ‘safe, comforting and unchallenging’, that’s something that can be important to readers.

      So I don’t judge other people’s buying choices, though I think there is definitely room for discussing this kind of thing — boycotts of Orson Scott Card, for example, have my complete sympathy.

      For me, there are some authors I won’t buy because they’re that problematic to me, and because I think I’m enabling them and giving them a voice if I do buy their books. And honestly, I want people to point out to me when I’ve missed something like that. I just dislike the… ‘you’re either with me or against me’ dynamic, where if you like [x] author you must be supporting racism or homophobia or whatever. It’s complicated, right?

  2. You’re right. People’s personal opinions and their art are, like my grandmother used to say, ‘two big differences.’ I might not like the author’s positions on some controversial issues but if I like his/her books, that’s enough for me. I read for the fictional world, not the real one.
    Case in point: the composer Richard Wagner was rabidly antisemitic. I know it. I’m Jewish. But I still like his music. I heard that many Israeli musicians refuse to play his music because of his antisemitic polemics but I don’t understand the sentiment.

    • I can get the sentiment, but I’m not going to judge anyone who decides differently from me about something. That’s been bothering me: in fandom it gets fashionable to hate something because it’s [xyz] and… that ignores that you can be aware of that and still enjoy it, and that enjoyment is no small thing.

  3. I think you’ve made the point well, Nikki, that not only are people not perfect and sometimes make crass mistakes, but that they can still (like Wagner, as Olga says) produce wonderful works and, importantly, ave the capacity to change their attitude and viewpoint over time. I threw rubbish in the gutter with abandon when I was young — plastic and everything — thinking it all gets flushed away by rainwater in time and ends up somewhere or other where someone or other does something or other with it. Now, as a careful recycler, I’m totally appalled. If you knew that I was a random rubbish discarder you might rightly condemn me for my thoughtless actions, but that doesn’t mean that I’m to be shunned forever as an utter pariah where the environment is concerned. (At least, I hope not!)

      • Yes, I am, absolutely, how remiss of me not to say. In slight mitigation it was in the early 60s and I wasn’t even into my teens, though you’d think I’d’ve known better. But a childhood in Hong Kong, when rubbish then frequently accumulated in the streets — I can’t of course speak for now — probably inured me against such sensitivities until my teens kicked in and I became aware of the fragility of the environment.

          • There are stages in being sorry for past actions, I think. First is Recognition, where the wrongness of the behaviour is acknowledged for oneself as well as publicly. Then there’s the expression of contrition, which has to be sincere and not just a going-through-the-motions of saying one’s sorry. Then there’s the offer of Recompense, if that’s appropriate, which could well be in deed if not necessarily monetary.

            Finally there’s the possibility of Reconciliation, which may or may not occur, and is entirely in the remit of the injured party. In the case of writers, the ‘injured’ parties — the readers who feel offended — may set their minds forever against reconciliation, even if the first few stages have been gone through assiduously by the writer. Forgiveness when such a huge audience us involved doesn’t come easily.

  4. Absolutely a deal. You don’t have to hate things on demand for me, and I won’t hate things on demand for you. (smile)

    In addition to your excellent points I would like to add some others. Here are some reasons I may (or may not) continue to read problematic things.

    1. To better understand the problem/issue/historical context. Example: a number of people I know object to Dorothy Sayers novels on the grounds of the rampant classism, anti semitism and racism displayed by some of the characters. Thing is, I feel like people tend to forget that those attitudes were widespread in early 20th century Europe, so a novel set in that time and place is going to contain characters with those attitudes if its to be at all realistic. If I want to understand the time, if I want to understand the attitudes of the time, I am going to learn more from a novel that accurately portrays the time than from one that whitewashes it or carefully explains to me that “people in the past thought bad things but we don’t any more” as if I were a child who couldn’t understand that.

    Its that same world that Jo Walton portrays so chillingly in Farthing, a world in which the rise of fascism isn’t something everyone immediately recognized as an evil. But I think Sayers did recognize it as an evil, I think that her characters are struggling with it and not getting it right all the time, and that moral failure is part of a background of darkness against which the crimes being investigated take place.

  5. I guess what I’m saying there is that one response to injustice is to not want to be around it. For fear of unconsciously accepting some bad ways of thinking without intending to. Or just because I’m tired and I don’t feel like dealing with more ick in a day that’s already had enough of it.

    Another response is to want to put the monster under the microscope and say huh, how does that work? Lets examine this problem more closely! Because that kind of examination can equip you to recognize and combat it more effectively.

    And we are all in different places on whether we are feeling more oh lord get that nasty thing away from me, or hey how do the tentacles attach to the poison sac… Depending on what else is going on in our lives at the time and our individual personalities and all sorts of other variables.

    • Yep! And sometimes it’s important to go, “Okay, I actually get the appeal of this,” because that helps you understand the other ‘side’ and find common ground, or at least ground that’s less contentious. Because talking and communicating is how people change, in the end, and that doesn’t happen if you’re yelling at each other from opposite ends of a football field.

      • Yes definitely its important to see the appeal for others and find common ground. An example of that, I strongly dislike the Victorian sexual politics of the Game of Thrones books. For a number of reasons and among some other things. So for me, not a series to follow. I read the first book and watched four episodes of the show to give it a chance because everyone talks about it and I at least wanted to know what was going on there. And then I’d had enough and no more for me please.

        But I read an essay talking about how the books were important to the essayists brother who was disabled, because Tyrion was a hero for him, a hero who had physical limitations but got to be a hero anyway, not a sidekick or comic relief. So, yeah I can respect that even if it isn’t enough for me to overcome my distaste for other elements. Its enough for others, and that’s fair.

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