Get Over the Notion of Unproblematic Media

Many pop culture consumers who are aware of social issues seem to be in search of a holy grail: The mythical ‘unproblematic media.’ Any recommendation of a book, album, show, film, artist is accompanied with a caveat: ‘I know it’s not unproblematic, but…’ This extends not just to organised media, but to the work of individuals over time — thus writers, commentators, journalists are identified as ‘good but’ or ‘interesting reading except for.’ The need to excuse, or warn, points to a larger issue: The embedded implication that somewhere out there, a piece of unproblematic media exists.

I think everyone understands on some level that this is not possible. It’s simply not feasible for a piece of media to be entirely unproblematic for one person, let alone a whole slew of people — for example, I think Hermione from Harry Potter has some issues. Others likely think she’s a great character with few to no problems, or believe that I am misreading the issues I’ve identified. All of us are right/none of us are right. We all have valid subjective opinions on the media we consume.

I can view a television series like Brooklyn 99, love it, spot problems with it (starting with the glorification of police culture and the depiction of New York police as warm, cuddly, goofy people), but still square off across someone who despises the show, or identifies many more problems in than I do. Both of us are right/neither of us is right. The nature of media is that it’s highly open to interpretation, and that’s one of the reasons we love it so much as consumers, because we want not just to engage with it as people who need escapism, but as people who also want to talk about it when we’re done.

Sometimes escapism is solitary, but even someone who, says, reads mysteries for personal pleasure does not do so purely to sit down and read. She thinks about them. She prefers certain authors and certain styles of writing. That reflects a certain amount of critical engagement, even if that’s not a huge component of why she reads mystery novels. More commonly, people consume media as a shared activity — I watch Sleepy Hollow because I love Sleepy Hollow, but also because I like talking to fans about it. I read Sarah Rees Brennan because her books make me want to writhe around on the floor, but also because I love talking with other people who like her books.

For people aware of social issues, spotting them within a text is often an important personal mission, sometimes, sadly, to the detriment of everything else — the hyperfocus on issues can obscure a fair reading of the rest of the text. This isn’t to say that texts with problems should be excused –‘this book is really racist, but it’s beautifully written and the narrative style is innovative, so I guess it’s cool’ — but that sometimes, people can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s reasonable to consider all components of a work of media when engaging with it, not to become consumed in the search for social issues embedded within.

No piece of media is ever going to be unproblematic, and certainly no body of work by an individual. To say otherwise is to create an untenable proposition, and a bit of a pedestal. Some works are less problematic than others — many people like Ancillary Justice and its treatment of gender, for example, and the text has been rewarded with accolades. Likewise, N.K. Jemisin’s books are highly regarded by critics from numerous walks of life, including those concerned about social issues. It’s worth singling out works that are especially sensitive to issues, and attempt to handle them responsibly, and, in some cases, integrate challenges to the status quo, force readers to rethink assumptions about class, race, disability, gender, other identity markers. These texts, I and many others would argue, add something important to the overall body of creative work produced by human beings.

Other works are clearly, obviously, indisputably extremely problematic — so much so that people might opt not to recommend them, or might caution readers to be extremely careful about reading them. The Twilight series, for example, is considered by many people to contain troubling levels of sexism, racism, and other issues. Likewise, Game of Thrones in book or television form is a piece of media that many people feel deeply uncomfortable with because of the violence against women and violence in general, among other things.

But the notion that some media somewhere can be unproblematic is moot. Can we stop pretending that it’s anything other than a fiction yet? Isn’t it time to move on, to focus on evaluating pieces of media fairly and comparing them not to the mythological perfect media, but to comparable works, and to what exists in the real world, and to our own standards? What’s more important, shredding every last detail of something, or talking more largely about issues in media? And in this process, how much is reflected back upon the reader? What’s represented on the reader’s bookshelf, DVR, movie stubs, record collection? Before we hasten to judge the media we consume, perhaps we should also judge ourselves, and take notice of the areas we may be inclined to gloss over due to our own lack of knowledge or desire to avoid facing up to our own shortcomings.

I look at my bookshelves and see few books by Muslims, for example. Partly that’s because I’m in the US, a Christian majority country, I read English-language books, the publishing industry favors Christian (or presumed Christian) people, but partly it’s also because I haven’t made a conscious effort to seek them out. So is it possible, just possible, maybe, that I’m also glossing over the representation of Muslims, especially Muslimahs, and Islam in the texts I consume? Hm?

Image: books, Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr