The internet is awash with articles dubbing parts of the culture “problematic.” Whether it be films, songs, memes, words, or phrases; when it’s considered “problematic” it typically means that the author feels that there is some hidden or implied discrimination in it that is likely not immediately obvious to most people. When highlighting “problematic” things, the authors’ message is frequently to stop supporting or using whatever the thing is.
For films or tv shows, much of the criticism that brings out the word “problematic” comes from an expectation that all entertainment should be a reflection of the critic’s ideal society. This typically involves proportionate representation of minorities (at minimum) and messaging around the empowerment of underrepresented groups. While you can make good movies that fit these requirements, there are many that inherently will not and that should be okay. In an article titled “As A Black Woman, Everything I Love Is Problematic,” one writer discusses her internal struggle when she finds herself liking movies or tv shows that do not advance her ideal society. For example, she confesses a love of period pieces such as Poirot and Downton Abbey but laments that they are beautiful shows that can glorify some of the negative aspects of Western/European history, depicting rich, attractive people who are successful often just by dint of birth and who take advantage of less fortunate people, treating them poorly. Her feelings of guilt in liking these shows indicates that she feels that by watching and even enjoying them, she is somehow supporting the structure of society in those times and supporting the behavior of the characters.
This way of thinking puts a lot of pressure on the viewer to only watch things that reflect their own views or experience back to them. While I understand the desire to see your culture represented in film or tv, the pressure that this has created to only support diverse projects does not appear to be beneficial. To look at a period piece that accurately represents a time period and feel you shouldn’t like it for that reason indicates a problem with your feelings and not the piece. You absolutely can watch it and feel distaste for any of their bad behavior, even while appreciating the beautiful clothes and hair and architecture, because history is complex and very few things are all bad or all good.
When it comes to “problematic” words or phrases, articles typically focus on those that have racist or otherwise derogatory origins that most current users would not be aware of. While it can be worthwhile to explore the origins of the words that we use, savory or otherwise, I think it’s unnecessary to try to scrub out any words from our vocabulary that may have been used in a negative context at some point by someone many, many years ago. An example from the linked article is the phrase “No can do.” In our everyday lives, this is a simple, efficient way to let someone know we’re unable to do something. However, this phrase gained popularity in Western culture while making fun of Chinese immigrants’ broken English. After learning the negative origin of this phrase, we can stop using it – as the author suggests – because we oppose any mean-spirited taunting of immigrants doing their best to learn and communicate in our language, but what are we really accomplishing by doing that? This may make you feel more righteous as you act on your newfound knowledge, but that really only affects you.
If your goal is to improve society’s treatment of immigrants, then it makes more sense to worry about any wrongs that are being done to them now, not hundreds of years ago. When there are real problems that we can address together, why create problems in situations where there are none? This is where social justice warriors tend to lose an engaged audience that extends outside of other social justice warriors. I believe the grand majority of people in the United States want to combat bigotry and discrimination. The problem with social justice warriors’ approach is that so much of the messaging is focused on small things that may offend a minority group rather than combating barriers to success for minority groups. With this, the movement loses focus and the ability to create any real change. If everything is “problematic,” how do we identify and solve real problems?