Problematic Faves

Dear Mommy,

What are ways to navigate loving celebrities that sometimes do shitty things?

Hi, friend. I believe you are referring to what we in the 2010’s call PROBLEMATIC FAVES. UGH. Allow me to define our terms: a problematic fave is a singer/actor/writer/other sort of media-maker/celebrity that you love OR a fictional character that you love who does or says something hurtful or oppressive. Problematic is sort of a blanket term for actions that are racist, sexist, homophobic or uphold other oppressive power structures. Media has always been problematic because humans have always been problematic, and with the advent of social media we can now read, hear, and see every problematic thing that our favorite creators of media are thinking all the time! I love it! It’s truly good for the soul.

First, I want to tell you that it’s okay to consume problematic media because, uh…that’s pretty much all there is. You’d be hard pressed to find a celebrity (or PERSON) that never says anything sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ableist, transphobic, etc. etc. etc. Ditto TV shows. Ditto movies. Ditto every type of media you could consume. It’s nearly impossible to avoid problematic faves. What matters is not that you have them, it’s how you respond to them. There are lots of ways to navigate this particular part of our twenty-first century lives. Some, in my humble opinion, are better than others. Give me the pleasure of your company as we explore them.

One thing you can do is decide it’s stupid to pay attention to things like structures of oppression and that people who do and claim to be hurt by them are too-sensitive crybabies who are trying to be offended by stuff (like that’s a thing). I don’t recommend this course of action, because it makes you an oppressive asshole! I’m not here to tell you what to do and what you need to pay attention to, but I will tell you that you DO NOT get to decide what is worth being offended by, what oppression looks like to people, and what people should or shouldn’t be hurt by. You have no say in what is worthy of tears and attention for other people.

I can understand this reaction initially, especially when it’s someone you REALLY love being called out. There can be an instant shame reaction, like, “Wait…I like that thing/person and they did a bad thing. Am I bad?” Then that feeling of shame can lead to hyper-defensiveness that serves only to convince yourself that you are not bad. You say to yourself, and everyone who will listen, “NO THIS IS STUPID. THIS THING PERSON SAID/DID IS NOT BAD, EVERYONE ELSE IS TOO SENSITIVE. POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IS KILLING MEEEE,” and that becomes your viewpoint, and the sole purpose of it is to prove to yourself that you aren’t a bad person. You aren’t trying to learn anything new, you aren’t trying to understand the world, you aren’t flexing your empathy muscle at all, you are just self-absorbed and boring. And to you I say, “Peace.”

If you are a white person and the celeb/artist/media-maker in question did something racist, another thing you can do is call it out with outrage very publicly, and continue to insult the celeb in question whenever they are brought up, as a means of distancing yourself from racist behavior. Definitely make sure that your outrage seems real enough that people believe you have never done anything racist in your life. Definitely act like you have no understanding of this person’s racist actions because you have never thought or done a racist thing before you educated yourself about the history of race in our country and the current systems of oppression that continue to perpetuate racism.

My sarcasm above is not to express that you can’t be upset as a white person when a celebrity does or says something racist, that you can’t be angry or disappointed in the celebrity in question, that you can’t post to Facebook like, “Please stop fucking up, people I love!!!” Just don’t use your outrage to position yourself as someone who can’t understand how anyone could ever do or say a racist thing because you are the ultimate non-racist white person. This reaction, again, is just aaaaaall about you. You are not, again, trying to learn anything new, you aren’t trying to understand the world, you aren’t flexing your empathy muscle at all.

So, how do you respond to a problematic fave in a way that allows for learning new things, gaining understanding of the world, and flexing your empathy muscle? Let’s go through some scenarios and break it down into steps.

I think there are levels to problematic faves. One level is when your fave says a problematic thing in an interview, posts an offensive picture to social media, or it is written into a tv show/song/essay you love. For example, I’m watching my favorite television show and there is a scene that is so problematic that I shudder. Or I’m cruising the web and see that one of my favorite pop singers has just said the most eye-rollingly ignorant thing on Twitter. Or I’m reading an interview with an actor I am crushing on haaaard and they say something sexist and I slam my head to the desk. It happens to us all! The first step, when this happens (and it will), is to LEARN. Read some reactions on the old Twitter machine or anywhere on social media. It’s almost impossible not to be able to find reactions somewhere, just google the damn thing! Reading people’s reactions helps me learn what, exactly, was problematic about the thing. Sometimes people’s reactions teach me that something is racist/sexist/ableist/etc. and I had no idea before! Cool, thanks! But what if it’s something you have *gasp* said/thought/done before? Oh, shit! Well, you have now been taught, and you can make amends however you see fit. Amends can take the form of apologizing to a specific person you now know you have hurt, mailing an apology letter addressed to THE COSMOS, or just privately saying, “I have learned, I know better now. I am sorry and I forgive myself,” and starting the day anew. You can now put this all in your metaphorical brain desktop folder titled “ANOTHER WAY TO NOT PERPETUATE OPPRESSION.”

There have been times where I’ve been like, “Really? That’s racist? I just…don’t see…how it’s racist.” Duh I don’t see how – I’m white! Which brings me to my next step, which I will just call TRUST. If you are white and a person of color is saying something is racist, TRUST. If you are a cisgender person and a transgender person is saying something is transphobic, TRUST. If you are a man and a woman is saying something is sexist, TRUST. On and on and on… BUT WHAT IF YOU LIKE…DON’T AGREE? Who cares? We have just established that you do not possess the identity (or identities) that are affected by the remark/show/song so, please, I beg you…get over yourself! Seriously, I say that with love and the full knowledge that getting over yourself is extremely hard. Repeat these two sentences as much as you have to, until you have internalized them: am not an expert on everything. I am not an expert on other people’s experience. You may have been brought up believing you are, but I am here to tell you that you. are. not. Still don’t understand? A cool thought here may be, “I cannot see how this is racist, I really can’t, but I can recognize at the same time that I do not possess all knowledge of racism, so I am going to TRUST.” How does that harm you? (It doesn’t)

So, what if you do belong to the identity that is affected? Sometimes celebs say supposedly sexist things and I am the demographic that is supposedly affected. I follow my first step (it is LEARN, in case you forgot) and I’m still like, “I don’t see how that’s sexist.” Well…maybe it isn’t to me. Where is the decree that women all have to believe and be affected by the same things? Hint: that decree does not exist because we, as women (and people), contain MUL-TI-TUDES, duh. Within any identity/demographic/SELFHOOD you will find people who are incredibly…multitudinous, AKA we ALL are vast and incredible creatures with different experiences, hang-ups, loves, tastes, triggers, traumas, INFINITE GORGEOUS VARIATIONS. The appropriate thought, then, is, “I do not find that this personally affects me, but I recognize that it affects this person. Respect.” Wow, that’s it. Isn’t that sort of a…relief?

So, what if your problematic fave apologizes and you think they have really learned something from the ordeal? That’s tight! Good for you! But what if other people don’t think the apology was adequate? That’s tight! Good for them! Hello, multitudinous? Engage in a good-hearted debate with that person if you are both willing. Maybe one of you will convince the other! Nothing wrong with that! But if not, allow that you may never agree on that particular issue and move on! Allow that we are all from different experiences and, say it with me, YOU ARE NOT THE EXPERT ON EVERYTHING.

So, what about the other level of problematic faves? Like, what about when you find out a celeb you love(d) has done something unforgivable, whatever that means for you. A celebrity charged with domestic violence. A celebrity who molested his children. A celebrity accused of one, or multiple, rapes. A celebrity who goes on a terrifying and racist rant. BUM-DUM-DUM… (a drum roll, I think?) here come our final steps: SET BOUNDARIES and RESPECT OTHER’S BOUNDARIES. We all have the absolute right to set our own boundaries. Sometimes we know exactly what our boundaries are and we see something in our favorite TV show that crosses them and we hit that power button like, “Fuck no, never again.” Or we hear our favorite director from childhood is an abuser and we decide that we will never see another movie of his. Sometimes our boundaries surprise us and we think, “Wow, I didn’t know that thing made me feel uncomfortable/unsafe.” Whatever they may be, go ahead and SET BOUNDARIES. Set whatever boundaries feel right to you. YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY ALLOWED TO STOP WATCHING, READING, LISTENING TO, FOLLOWING ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU UNCOMFORTABLE OR UNSAFE OR AFFECTS YOU NEGATIVELY IN ANY WAY. No matter what anyone says. Whether or not your friends agree. Whether or not you can say what it is that makes you feel that way. Even if you think it’s tiny. And I’m not here to tell you what you can’t do, but I will say that if this trash person’s media means a lot to you, as it often can, and you just can’t imagine not being able to consume their art again, and it doesn’t make you feel icky as all hell deep inside, THAT IS OKAY TOO. Seriously, you get to decide. Sometimes people can separate a person’s art from who they really are, sometimes people can’t. Multitudes, etc. BOTH ARE VALID, as long as you aren’t an asshole about it and you RESPECT OTHER’S BOUNDARIES. Sometimes I think about potential conflicts in my head as conversations. Here is one where a person is given an opportunity to respect another’s boundaries:

Person 1: “OMG, did you watch Chicken Wings the TV Show [TV show I made up] last night?”

Person 2: “I didn’t. I stopped watching that show because the creator said some really racist things and I don’t want to support it.”

Person 1: “Ugh, I know. I really love Chicken Wings the TV Show and that really bums me out! I think I’m going to continue to watch it, but I can totally see how you don’t want to. I won’t bring it up around you again!”

*Person 1 and Person 2 hug*

Obviously that is not how a real conversation goes down. Maybe Person 2 convinces Person 1 not to watch the show. Maybe Person 2 argues and argues with Person 1 about the Emmy award-winning Chicken Wings the TV Show hoping Person 1 will stop supporting the show, but Person 1 will not budge. All these scenarios can happen while boundaries are still being respected. That is tight!

What if a problematic fave really crosses a boundary with you personally but you don’t want to give up their art forever and ever? You can totally do this, but it may ease your conscious to set up some personal guidelines or smaller boundaries. Here’s an example from my own life:

A lot of Woody Allen’s movies mean a great deal to me. I grew up watching them. They were formative for me. (Totally awesome if you didn’t, totally awesome if you hate them all.) After I found out that Woody Allen sexually abused his daughter, I have not been able to watch his movies, but I might one day. Here are the guidelines I have set for myself: I am not going to give that asshole’s art any publicity. I’m not going to talk his movies up on the web and I am not going to post pleasing stills from them on tumblr or whatever. And I am not going to give that asshole’s art any more money. I will not buy a ticket to see his movies at a movie theater. I will not buy a new DVD copy from the store. Maybe one day I’ll watch a pirated copy of Annie Hall, or maybe I’ll decide that I can’t separate the man and his actions from his movies. Both are okay.

Those are my personal guidelines for extremely problematic faves. You don’t have to follow them. Sometimes I don’t. We all screw up sometimes! But I find it helps to have a general idea of what my boundaries and guidelines are. I also find that it’s a lot easier to not support certain problematic celebs if they weren’t formative for me, and I’ll bet that’s true for a lot of people. We are all doing what we can. When someone whose art is meaningful for you fucks up in a really bad way, it can be so confusing. It can feel really bad. “But what does it mean about ME?!” I scream to the heavens any time I can’t bring myself to give up on an extremely problematic fave. I still don’t know! But I think that as long as I’m learning, reflecting, and respecting other people’s opinions and feelings, and as long as I do whatever I can to be able to look at myself in the mirror and metaphorically chuck myself on the chin and say, “Look how you’ve grown, kid,” and beam with pride, well…I’m doing okay. And I don’t think enjoying problematic media in the privacy of my own home should necessarily interfere with my ability to do that. Do you disagree? That’s awesome – infinite gorgeous variations, remember? I disagree with you, but I respect the hell out of you.

In the end, celebrities are people just like we are people. Some people may believe celebrities have more of a responsibility than we do to not fuck up super bad because they have an influence on a greater number of people. That may be true. But I think it would do us all some good if we stopped looking to celebrities and makers of art to be great thinkers or great people. Like just because someone’s vocal chords can make beautiful sounds they are supposed to be a good person? Seems weird to me. Not to say that they shouldn’t be held accountable for the messed up shit they do, not at all – just that we will be continually disappointed if we lift certain people up as shining examples of personhood just because they are talented or beautiful. The art people make does not necessarily reflect the person they are, just like the art you choose to consume doesn’t necessarily reflect who you are. But how you react to it can! Remember to always attempt to LEARN whatever you can from a situation. Remember to TRUST that, when someone say something hurts them, it does. Remember to SET BOUNDARIES that feel right to you, that make you feel safe, that make you feel comfortable. Remember to RESPECT OTHER’S BOUNDARIES by believing they know what is best for them and not trying to convince them otherwise. Just the fact that you are asking this question gives me such hope for you. Go forth and, as an old coworker of mine once said, “Fuck up, learn from it, rinse, repeat, try again.” Good luck, baby.

Love, Mommy