There’s a cycle that seems to happen in pop culture over and over again. It starts with a slur; perhaps it’s used in a television show, or it’s part of a headline at a major news outlet, or it’s Tweeted by the representative of an organisation. Members of the group affected by the slur react with outrage; they demand a retraction and apology, they ask for sensitivity education to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. Often, the person who used the slur does apologise, sometimes with a pretty nod to the organisation that brought up the issue. Satisfied, the group expresses thanks for the retraction and talks about how education and outreach can bridge divides, and everyone goes back to normal.
Until the next time a slur is used.
Users of slurs usually go on the defensive; they say that the term was accidental or unintentional, or attempt to argue that it could be read in several ways and they didn’t mean it in the slur sense of the term. Some will go further. They will say they had no idea and didn’t know, and thus shouldn’t be held responsible for it, even when the slur is well-known and has been part of media and pop culture for a long time. Even when a project involves multiple people, one of whom should have been able to identify the slur and address it before it went live.
This raises the question of how unintentional the use of slurs in pop culture really is, given that it happens all the time, and especially given that it’s the same slurs we see over and over again. Apparently, despite the fact that creators in pop culture are constantly consuming media and culture and constantly talking about these subjects, they have managed to completely miss the fact that words like tr*nny and r#tard are considered deeply offensive in some communities, and don’t really have a place in entertainment. Likewise, they are shocked to discover that common racial slurs attract angry commentary; ch!nk, for example, shouldn’t be used in reputable publications, or on television shows that are intended to amuse viewers, not slap them in the face with the dead fish of racism.
As a society, we are by no means a shining beacon of equality and justice for all. One thing we are, however, is more aware of which terms are considered offensive in many circles, and which terms we shouldn’t be using. In a sense, this has actually worked against us, because people focus on the slurs and not the -isms behind them; thus you have people noting that ch!nk is a slur without being aware of anti-Asian racism, including the racism they, personally, may manifest in their own lives. Don’t get me wrong; it’s critical to address slurs, but it’s also important to remember that they are code for something deeper and darker, and that not using slurs doesn’t mean you don’t carry, exert, and reinforce prejudice in your own life.
Creators of pop culture are attuned to what is going on in society. They need to know what people are looking for in their entertainment, and they need to figure out the best way to offer that for viewers, readers, and listeners. They also need to be aware of what will make their work sell, because you don’t get renewals and multi-book deals and new recording contracts if you don’t have the numbers to back up your work. As a result, they need to walk a fine line; they want to stay true to a creative vision, while still earning enough to support themselves and their teams, and making sure that they can win new fans while keeping the studio, label, or publisher happy.
The thing about slurs is that they serve a specific purpose; they are not chosen unintentionally, they are chosen with a reason. People use them because they are a shorthand for something; for discussing something they think is bad or boring, for referencing another cultural group, for in-joking with fans. In this sense, the use of slurs is actually not accidental at all, it is very carefully thought out and deliberate. The television writer who includes an anti-Semetic joke includes that joke because it is supposed to be funny—and that writer knows on some level that it’s supposed to be funny because it uses Jewish people as an object of humour, because otherwise, it’s not funny.
The stereotype of Jewish people as money hungry and close-fisted, for example, is commonly exploited in pop culture with stereotyped characters or jokes. These things wouldn’t be funny if society in general didn’t have this mental archetype of the ‘greedy Jew’ to rely upon; creators are relying on the history behind the -isms to crack a joke. I find it hard to believe them when they claim that their decision to use slurs is ‘unintentional’ in the face of that, because writers choose their words and framings with care; they know why a particular word is chosen, why a particular joke is included, even if they don’t want to admit it to themselves.
Furthermore, controversy sells. Every time a slur is used and results in an angry outcry, it results in substantial traffic from all the negative discussion. In this case, bad publicity really is good publicity, because people will be consuming the pop culture, talking about it, driving traffic its way. Defenders will jump into the fray, and the result is impressive numbers, a nice little spike courtesy of a slur. That would suggest that more cynical creators are actively working to create controversy, because they know that people will talk and talk generates more attention[1. Which is not to say that people should not talk. This is a doublebind situation that is not easy to navigate.].
So how sure are you, when you see an organisation playing nice for the public with an abject apology, that its representatives used a slur unintentionally?