Monday, 25 March 2013

Things I Worry About: Problematic Themes

Or things I would love to have answers to.

One thing I learned from spending time with arts majors during my undergraduate is that everything is problematic in some way.

... but seriously, there is virtually no chance that any work of fiction (or otherwise) will perfectly match your particular spectrum of politics and beliefs. There is most likely, in just about every piece of media you consume, some thing that you disagree with or that strikes you as kind of hinky or uncomfortable or gross. Even if the author of the media in question shares your beliefs enitrely, there are probably some things within it (say expressed by some villain for instance) that you don't agree with. And so I think it's important to have some kind of framework for confronting and, in a lot of cases, reconciling the experience of problematic fiction. I also think that as an audience we have some kind of responsibility to hold the media we interact with to some sort of standard. I just am not quite sure what, exactly, that entails. And so I worry.

When I talk worry about media with troubling themes I don't mean poorly crafted media with hinky and gross subject matter or media that contains blatant and universally unacceptable horribleness (celebrations of sexual assault and rape, rampant misogyny  obvious racism). These are easy to avoid; its very easy to choose not to read something if it is clearly hate speak or just straight up sucky.

The problem for me are those high quality, well made fictions that feature problematic themes. For instance, Alan Moore's comics Watchmen and V for Vendetta are important classics but feature some pretty troubling rape themes. Or Jason Aaron and RM Guerra's Scalped which is an insanely good crime comic that at times walks a very fine line between portraying brutal reality and callous caricature when depicting the excesses of life in Indian Country.  Or Brandon Graham's wildly creative King City which at times plays heavy on the cheesecake and the male gaze in a way that doesn't serve the story. These are all really enjoyable comics that are absolutely worth reading... but are also a bit problematic. And I'm not entirely sure what the readers responsibility is in regards to this.

I guess I could just put up blinders and ignore the elements of these comics that bother me. But, well, I don't think that's okay. I think it would be great if media, and comics in particular, could do a better job at not offending people. (Comics in particular could benefit from attracting new readers because readers mean money and money means more comics to choose from. Also, you know, it's the right thing to do.) If people who purchase and read the media don't try to hold publishers and creators accountable for their bad choices, things will never improve. And really, for the majority of us the only mechanism for altering the behaviour is with our wallets. So if we don't want to see something we have to decide not to spend money on it. And I think therein lies an element of reader responsibility.

(I'm a white a dude who thinks women are attractive, so I'm what the kids call "the default audience". As a result, very little of what I read is directly attacking or disrespectful to me. I think that we (straight-white-males) have to be a bit more careful about being cognizant of these kinds of things because we are, by and large, somewhat insensitive (since it's not our flesh in the toaster) to most problematic portrayals in our media and because it would be pretty great if everyone could enjoy their media with a reasonable lack of offense. Like I can.)

I could also just straight up avoid every comic, movie, or book with anything that I find the slightest bit hinky or uncomfortable. But I think this stringent an approach lacks nuance. While I think the problematic elements in Watchmen, Scalped, and King City are uncomfortable, I don't think they invalidate all the good parts of these comics. Moreover, I get the impression that the excesses of Scalped are INTENTIONALLY brutal and uncomfortable and play to important themes in the book. And to a certain extent I think there is a nugget of validity there: creators need to be able to engage with tough themes. Pointedly ignoring horrific things, like sexual assault, is maybe as troublesome as pruriently wallowing in them. I think that creators ought to be able to, with judgement and delicate sensitivity, engage with pretty horrible shit. But for that to happen and be okay, we as readers have to also think about the portrayals being made and bring our judgement to the media. Like a dialogue.

Which all brings me to where I'm at. I think we should outright reject media with the most disgusting elements (like Holy Terror). But for milder or more nuanced problematic themes in otherwise great comics I think we can read and engage with the media. I think as long as we are cognizant of these issues when they arise and are thoughtful about what they mean and hold the comics and creators accountable, we can enjoy problematic media. I guess what I'm saying is that I think we can enjoy media with problematic themes as long as we are careful about it.

But I'm not entirely sure... which is why I worry.

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