Problematic characters for commentary versus problematic characters

My post on unproblematic media sparked a really interesting and detailed conversation that was rather fun to engage in. In the many responses to the piece, we developed a common theme as we started teasing out the elements.

Many works contain troubling, oppressive, and sometimes actively awful elements. Indeed, one would argue that all works do — which was the point of the post — and that good art is created through conflict, through depictions of life’s imperfections and issues. We should be able to agree that some of the greatest art in history includes elements that are sometimes deeply disturbing, drawing upon the darkest part of the human experience, depicting oppression and damaging social attitudes and the reality of living in a troubled, angry culture.

The question isn’t whether there’s some holy grail of perfect art — we should be setting that aside at this point. Rather, one of the things we got into was, specifically, a conversation about characters with very troubling elements, those actively participating in oppressive activities. Many such characters are hateful and awful, making you want to throw a book across the wall or snap the television to another channel.

But there’s a distinction between characters who are awful as a form of commentary, and those who are just awful. Some characters people refer to as ‘problematic’ are definitely so, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ‘bad.’ They’re appropriate to the context of the work, and what makes them work so well as people is their oppressive behaviours and what that says about them and the world they live in. We’re not supposed to like them. We’re not supposed to find them flawed, but lovable. We’re very specifically supposed to identify what they are doing and the way they view the world as wrong. Their behaviour in the text isn’t an endorsement of that behaviour in real life.

A character who is disablist, for example, might be depicted in such a way that the audience is clearly intended to read her as a terrible person. It’s a commentary on society and it’s something that enriches the work, turning it into something other than a rote, formulaic, honestly dull version of the world. Instead, we’re drawn into something that forces us to reexamine our own behaviours while condemning those of the character. As a white reader, for example, if a character’s racism makes me squirm, that’s the point — not so I can feel superior by imagining myself to be above racism, but because I can identify characteristics of myself in the character, and wonder why I condemn those traits in him, but not in myself. It forces me to have a complicated internal dialogue as I engage with the media on a deeper level.

Over the arc of a work, one of the most amazing things that can happen is a shift in such characters as they learn more about the world and the people around them. When it’s done well instead of in a clunky, after-school special kind of way, we’re allowed to see characters redeeming themselves, their hateful traits adjusting and falling away, and it serves not just as a commentary on what is possible, but as a model — if this character can see the sexism in himself and take action to change his ways, the viewer, too, can resist sexism. Fighting sexism is worth it. People are influenced by the world around them and it matters.

Other characters, though, are what one might refer to as cluelessly problematic. Creators don’t realise that they’re oppressive, and more chillingly, in some cases they just don’t care. Such characters advance hateful ideas and stereotypes and may be in the role of heroes or respected characters, like the detective who makes transphobic comments, or the space ship captain who engages in rife casual sexism. These characters aren’t included as social commentaries or foils for the drama, as something for the creators and consumers to sink their teeth into. Rather, they’re thoughtlessly added to the text and add nothing.

When people talk about ‘problematic media,’ of course, they mean something more than just the characters in a text — the structure of a narrative, the way people are presented, the handling of present and past, and a myriad of other things matters. But characters can play a huge role in how a piece of media is presented and how people react to it, because the text revolves around them. A vicious and cruel character can ruin the most socially conscious narrative, while a deeply troubling storyline can work within the context of a narrative structure where creators are making conscious choices to comment on media tropes or social problems.

People need to be able to distinguish between thoughtful depictions and careless ones in order to engage with texts more effectively and critically. Moreover, when we talk about ‘problematic media,’ we also need to be able to separate it out from its creators. The contents of a piece of media are not a 1:1 match to the mind of the creator; a feminist author can write a piece with deeply antifeminist themes as a commentary and basis for conversation, for example. When a character voices a hateful attitude, the character isn’t speaking for the author, but for herself. When a narrative is deeply flawed, that doesn’t necessarily mean the creator believes in the things depicted in the narrative.

Separating out creator from work, intentionality from thoughtlessness, is key to being an effective critic and evaluator of media. Before jumping to conclusions about creative works, we need to have a more perfect understanding of them, and we can’t get there if the kneejerk reaction to oppressive characters and settings is a fingerwag accompanied by the damning cry of ‘problematic!’

Image: Book Sale, Phil Roeder, Flickr