Ahh this post idea has been swirling around in my head for what feels like forever, but here’s me finally borthering to write it? And shoutout to Chaima @ Books with Chaima for being the boost I needed to finally write it by tweeting this and making me feel like this was something I needed to talk about. A quick note before we dig in: I believe all work should be given some amount of respect and issues should be discussed from a variety of perspectives, so know that while I do use some specific examples in this post I’m not trying to call out anyone, I’m just expressing my opinions.
So, what exactly are we talking about here? I tried to express it as best as I could in the title, but the central issue here is problematic content; specifically, problematic books. As readers, is it our duty to be informed about anything potentially problematic? If so, should we be actively avoiding it, and even warning others about it? Finally, is it wrong to like problematic books, especially when you recognise and acknowledge their flaws?
PART ONE: What does problematic even mean?
I only said problematic four times in that last paragraph but it definitely felt like I was chanting it, oops. Anyway, here’s a dictionary definition of the word:
problematic: adj; constituting or presenting a problem.Oxford
Eh, I’d say that definition is ambigious at best, and super vague. Merriam-Webster does a slightly better job with definition 1c:
problematic: adj: open to question or debateMerriam-Webster
Okay never mind, looking at dictionary definitions is making my head spin a little and they’re not really that useful for defining problematic in this context; even Urban Dictionary has better definitions?
To me, problematic (particularly in terms of a work of fiction) means work that fails to provide accurate representation of a person/group, and/or promotes views that are harmful or stereotypical. There’s also the more general issue with lack of diversity and representation, but books that end up being flagged as problematic generally have that as a side effect and fit in one or both of the above categories.
Examples of problematic content
I’ll admit I didn’t think super hard about this section, but here are a bunch of examples I came up with off the top of my head:
The Token Gay
How do you remedy a boring, white, cishet character? Oh, I know! The Token Gay.
Why it’s problematic: Society views people as individuals, with distinct personalities and interests, right? Oh, maybe not, because actually, gays are all the same. The only meaningful fact about a gay character in this context is, wait for it, the fact that they’re gay. They’re typically feminine (and when you think about it, not that different from a stereotypical American teenage girl), good at fashion, and in recent times I think they’re exhibiting hardcore VSCO girl vibes. This character’s purpose? To be the main female lead’s best friend, the one they confide in, the one who helps them with boy troubles; but not to worry, because they’re gay the girl doesn’t have to worry about them having an interest in her!
The Asian Beauty
A character, usually female, deemed Asian (though for the most part more accurately defined as East Asian) who has straight black hair and creamy pale skin. Creamy might’ve been a bit over the top, but you get the point.
Why it’s problematic: For starters, can people stop saying Asian when they mean East Asian, or a specific ethnic group? It’s a big pet peeve of mine. Some people don’t seem to comprehend that Asia is a large continent that’s ethnically diverse. There’s a wide range of skin tones and other physical characteristics, and suggesting that everyone in Asia has pale skin is essentially implying that only light skin is attractive. It’s also harmful because it’s trying to shove an entire continent into one beauty standard. No thanks.
The Male Gaze
The idea for this section is inspired by this post, which I highly recommend you check out. The Male Gaze according to Wikipedia:
In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.Wikipedia
Why it’s problematic: Ick. This could be really easily solved with some research (ever heard of asking your female friend? Oh, sorry, I forgot you don’t have any… Obviously men and women can’t be friends), and some human decency. Repeat after me: women are not sexual objects. Women are not sexual objects. Okay cool, I think we’re good. Using women as a plot device or to fill the role as a romantic interest is problematic because it objectifies women and suggests all they’re good for is an object of romantic/sexual interest. Do men actually see women this way? I hope that for most, the answer is no, but for some, the answer is unfortunately yes.
Are we as readers responsible for spotting problematic content?
I know that I am hopeless at spotting problematic content. Someone usually needs to point it out to me and give examples for me to notice.
I think we often read problematic content without realising it, particularly because it hasn’t been talked about enough in the past so there are a lot of things which have been dismissed as normal because they occur so often that it feels like they can’t possibly be problematic.
My key example here is the genre YA fantasy. It’s what I grew up reading, and in many ways it set my expectations for whenever I pick up a book. The main issue here is whitewashing of characters and lack of diversity. It’s only in the past few years that it’s even occurred to me that this might be wrong and that writers can do better. You don’t know how much sadness that brings to me as a Chinese girl living in an English-speaking, predominantly white country. It’s like ten-year-old me said “cultural erasure in literature? Sign me up”.
When it comes to noticing issues with representation in books that applies to me (e.g. a portrayal of a Chinese girl) I’m also unbelievably bad at noticing things. The issues I’ve read about in such books often are linked to stereotypes and the Asian beauty standard I talked about earlier. And I’ll admit there have been cases where I haven’t even realised a character isn’t white. It’s safe to say I still haven’t really found a fictional character that represents me, and even ones that should feel more white than anything else.
My answer to the question posed in the section heading is, no. It helps to be aware and to develop awareness. Some will be better at this than others, but the most important thing is continuing to discuss issues with portrayal and promoting diversity.
PART TWO: should we be avoiding problematic content?
My short answer is, I don’t know. I firmly believe that reading problematic content does not mean you’re a bad person (unless, of course, you deliberately seek it out and read it, knowing and even supporting the problematic parts).
I’d like to think that in the future, it’d be possible to completely avoid problematic content. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, simply because these problematic issues are still too deeply ingrained in fiction and especially popular fiction. Too many things are still taken as the norm even when they shouldn’t be, and often it is by those who would benefit from reading more diverse characters and plots.
I guess the next part is, how do we go about avoiding problematic content, if that’s something we wish to do? My proposal is, instead of trying to actively avoid, try to actively seek out books you know have good diversity and rep. Book bloggers are great for diverse recommendations and promoting #ownvoices authors, and it’s awesome that as a community I feel we’re transitioning away from books that are really the same recycled story over and over (sorry YA fantasy and 2014-16 dystopia, you know I still love you) and pushing for more diversity.
PART THREE: Is it wrong to like books with problematic content?
Again, I think the answer is no, especially if you’re aware of the issues. I’ve taken a step back from the Throne of Glass series (and by extension ACOTAR, or SJM in general considering I have not and do not currently plan on reading the Crescent City series), which I really loved when I first started reading the series in 2015.
Since then a variety of issues associated with the series have been brought to my attention (May talks about some in this fabulous post, and Elise’s Empire of Storms review should be appreciated regardless of your perspective on the series), which has altered my view; I still love it, but I don’t feel it’s a series I can support and promote anymore, and for some reason I feel a bit uncomfortable when I see people rave about SJM (similar feelings with Riverdale stans, but that’s a completely different story).
The secondary question is, should we be informing people of issues we see in their favourite books? Is that our duty? I feel it’s a heavy and complicated question, and I would say, you can do so at your own discretion. It depends on your relationship with other said person. Starting a Twitter war over it isn’t going to make the world a better place, and personally I’m more inclined to leave it be unless it’s a close friend of mine.
Another important thing to note is that people are going to have different definitions of problematic, informed by their education, interactions, and personal/cultural background. I think multiple definitions of the word is fine, within reason; I draw the line at anything that’s harmful or oppressive to any person/group.
Okay, I feel like this has to be my longest discussion ever but it’s an important issue.
What’s your stance on problematic books and other media? Should we be avoiding it? Can people have different definitions of the word problematic?