For a very long time, really too long a time, I knew nothing of the world. I still don’t know much, but I have learned a lot in the last couple years. In fact, I think I’ve learned more after college than during it, based mostly on reading the internet.
You see, I grew up in a very privileged and sheltered life. Not as privileged as some, but much more privileged than others. And I didn’t even know it—which is a part of that privilege.
As I explored the internet and read about various forms of media criticism, I started seeing more of the world. Issues of diversity and feminism became more real and immediate to me; I saw them everywhere. Every movie poster, every song, every throwaway line in a TV show started to mean something.
And I often didn’t like what it meant.
However, I very quickly encountered a problem—I still liked the media. Sometimes loved it. Sought it out. Paid for it. Was I supporting the very forces of racism and patriarchy that I had learned to despise? Was I enabling and even enforcing the parts of society I would like to see changed?
The short answer is yes, I think. By supporting the market for these problematic materials, I am sending a message to the powers of society and the economy that I want more; thus, they make more, and the cycle continues. Even though I’m aware enough to realize that it is problematic, I’m still supporting it, and in the only sense that most of society cares about (money), I’m even advocating for it.
If I try to support non-problematic media, I run into two problems. The first is that there simply isn’t much to support, at least not where the mainstream can find it. I would love to see that corrected, but the forces of the marketplace as they are now are stuck in a loop that is difficult to open for new and unproven media.
The second problem is that I don’t always like the non-problematic media as much as the problematic stuff. I can intellectually realize every time that the problematic media is subtly (or even overtly) supporting forces in society that I actively discourage, but I still prefer it on that deep-down pleasure-center level.
Sometimes, the issue is that the problematic material is tucked inside other material that is what I’m really enjoying. This is the case with music—listening to the lyrics of a song makes me cringe, but the beat and melody make me dance and even sing along! It’s the weirdest kind of cognitive dissonance, but in the privacy of my car or headphones, I just go with it. And try not to listen too carefully.
And it’s also the case when the media isn’t necessarily advocating problematic elements, but it isn’t as progressive (or really just baseline “decent” and realistic) as it could be. That’s the case with most movies; I hate that there aren’t more women or more diversity, but I still love the story and the spectacle and the characters, so I shell out my money to see it. It’s not necessarily problematic in the same way that those song lyrics can be, but it’s still subtly (and more insidiously) problematic in its exclusivity.
And then there are the moments where what I like is the problematic element, and that speaks to a much more complicated issue. This comes up most often in romance, which as I discussed here, is a genre that I have a complex relationship with. On the one hand, it’s probably (and a bit shamefully) my favorite genre, but it is also problematic and embarrassing.
For example, the trope of the powerful, protective, sometimes immortal man and the vulnerable, naïve, usually mortal woman plays into a lot of sexist power dynamics—yet I have to admit it’s one of my favorite romance tropes. I mean, in so far as my favorite books within the romance genre play into this trope. Often the more the better (where he’s famous, wealthy, the most powerful, king of the world, etc.; and she’s normal, average, and nobody special; or conversely, a special snowflake Mary Sue, which is a whole other issue).
The “why” of liking this is a rabbit hole of personal confessions and navel gazing. I think it’s internalized sexism, from decades of movies and books showing women that a man protecting you is showing that he wants you and loves you, and that a man wanting you (the more powerful, wealthy, famous, the better) is the best thing that could ever happen to you. But whatever the reason why, I’m clearly not the only one—problematic romantic properties can be immensely popular, although they are usually accompanied by (not entirely unreasonable) backlash.
The real question is what to do about this. Stop reading and watching what you like because you know, intellectually, that it’s perpetuating harmful attitudes? That might be the best answer, but I consume media for entertainment and enjoyment, and if I stopped reading, watching, and listening to problematic things, I’d never do anything. Support non-problematic or at least somewhat progressive media when it comes along? Sure, absolutely, when you can find it; but sometimes even though I know it’s good, I’m just not as interested…
The problem is I truly do not have an answer to this. At least not a “right” answer. I continue to consume problematic media, and enjoy it, and I work to recognize its problematic elements but I still support it financially, so… I really don’t know.
But I do think the first step is to acknowledge this dichotomy, and to be aware of what’s problematic and why. Media and pop culture play a bigger role in our society and psychology than I think we even know—but the first step to changing our relationship to media in order to change our society is to be aware that the problem exists.
Start by being an aware consumer—but forgive yourself for still consuming.
As for what’s next? I’m still struggling with that; I’m not smart enough to solve it. But I think as a society we need to discuss and challenge this, and I think as a wannabe creator, I have to give it a lot more thought. So I’ll get back to you. 🙂