I wrote a while back about liking problematic things as a consumer—how we inevitably support problematic media because, well, we like it. Even being aware of how it’s problematic doesn’t cancel out the elements we do enjoy—and sometimes, due to internalized sexism or other factors, we even enjoy the problematic element itself.
As a consumer, the best thing we can do is be aware, search out non-problematic media whenever possible, urge the problematic media to improve itself, and ultimately forgive ourselves for our guilty pleasures.
But what about when you set out as a creator with these problematic likes? At that point, you’re not just financially supporting something, you’re advocating for it—perpetuating it into society. Basically, when you’re trapped between being an aware and concerned advocate for better media, and your own internalized desires for problematic elements, and you are trying to write what you love—what can you do?
The first step is to be aware. Read articles and media criticism that points out what is or isn’t problematic and why, so that you can identify those elements in your own work. Try and be honest with yourself about why they’re there, what purpose they are serving for you or your work, and why you might be defensive about getting rid of those elements (or adding in new ones, such as more diverse characters). Step back from your initial, potentially emotional reaction—I think the feeling we immediately get is a sense of cognitive dissonance, between what we like and what we want to like (or want not to like), and our mind compensates by getting defensive and trying to rationalize it. Instead, calm down, don’t change anything yet, and just accept the awareness of what’s there.
Then, the second step is to consider changes, keeping in mind what you ultimately want and why. Ask yourself why you want this or that element in your work, and whether or not a less problematic element might work just as well. You’re not required to change anything, but you might be surprised by what you come up with and how much you like the new version. For example, you might feel like changing your hero’s backstory about his dead (fridged) wife would ruin his character… but when you come up with a new motivation that involves an old school rivalry and a lost dream, you suddenly find your characters so much richer and more interesting (and probably more original).
But what about those elements you really don’t want to change—that, if changed, would result in your liking this story less? The third step is to see how you might mitigate problematic elements, while preserving what you do like about them. The best place to start is to figure out what you really like about this or that element, then figure out what the most problematic extremes of that element are, and see if you can live without them. For example, you might want your hero to be protective—but does he also have to be controlling and manipulative? Or you might want your hero to be powerful and commanding—but can your heroine be powerful as well? Probably a lot more conflict in that, even though it might feel like less “wish fulfillment.”
This brings us to the final step—when you just don’t want to get rid of that problematic element. You need your heroine to be a powerless average nobody, and your hero to be the immortal most-powerful king of the world, or you’re just not interested. Clichés and feminism be damned! Well, first and foremost, you are entitled to write whatever you like, and the most “punishment” you’ll receive is criticism and potential judgment—if you don’t care about that, then fine. If you do care at least a bit about not being problematic (and if you’ve read this whole thing I assume you do), then just be on the lookout for the most egregious violations of decency, and at the very least, be able to defend your choices as best you can.
There is no law that says you have to write progressive, feminist, diverse media (and I would never advocate for such a law). But I believe that pop culture is a powerful force in shaping our society and all of its issues, and that creators have at least some responsibility in trying to make better media for a more aware world. It’s difficult, and I know I will fail miserably, as I am only just learning to unravel my own privileges and ignorance and internalized sexism in order to fail better.
But I will keep trying. And I don’t think you have to erase everything you like in order to do so.