I’ve written about Problematic in the past, with the simple premise that there are no non-problematic faves, and the baked-in nature of the colonialist world we live in is fundamentally damaged. Recent events (a hot take shot from the hip) put the term in stark relief and so, since you’re all so very interested in telling me what I should think about it, clearly you’ll be interested to hear me expound. Right? Right? You’re not just looking to complain at a stranger?
This is spurred in part by recent reading about Dream Daddy. Because that’s a thing I started caring about despite having literally no interest, whatsoever, in wanting to play it, for any reason, at all, gosh dangit. With that in mind there’s going to be a minor spoiler to a thing I don’t care about but let’s take it under the fold anyway. It also involves the genders.
The problem I have with ‘problematic’ is not the word, it’s the way the word is used. Which is pretty understandable – I mean, no word inherently has a problem to it, just usage. I do not seek to strike problematic from your lexicon like a swear or a slur; I seek to make sure people think about how it’s used and to avoid using it as if it proves itself.
The term problematic is used grammatically as a trait of a work. This Work Is Problematic. This Person Is Problematic. There isn’t really a gradiation in the word, or a refined form of the word – it just Is. This means that there’s a false binary constructed by it; work Is Problematic or it’s Not Problematic, and that right there is nonsense. Because everything Is Problematic and it’s just a matter of how you’re looking at or interpreting it.
Now let’s move on to the example that kicked this off: Someone, a Dream Daddy fan, did gender-swap fanart of the entire cast of Dream Daddies. One of the Daddies, diegetically, is a trans man, an AFAB man. This meant that a new diegesis was created in which a character who is AFAB was given a representation that was femme-presenting. Which means that you could, if you wanted to, interpret this new diegesis as, instead of creating a new diegesis somehow wholesale transplanting the other character who I need to remind you, does not exist in this new space where everyone else but him was presented as women, and he was being misgendered and coerced into presenting as an AFAB woman, instead.
That is to say, someone did gender-swap fanart, and someone else interpreted this fanart as being a direct transphobic act of violence because they were willing to act as if that was the only reasonable interpretation of the fanart. There were death threats, and then the creators of the game came out against death threats, then of course, I saw people Coming Out Against Coming Out Against Death Threats as if they were just trying to dismiss Real And True Criticism.
Problematic Gets Involved How?
Now, this sounds ridiculous – I hope – but it’s a little easier to swallow, something people are more likely to believe, if instead of this complex description, you can package it like:
This fanart is extremely problematic, because:
- Fooblydoob [not his real name, I’m not going to bother looking this up] is a trans man, so this art misgenders him
- The shirts being pink assigns a gender to that colour-
- Other nonsense entries
And so you can see, this whole arrangement is transphobic and I don’t see how you can support this and I see you so-called allies not reblogging this.
The word ‘problematic’ becomes a thick wallpaper paste that holds this together, because all it tells you is There’s A Problem. It doesn’t talk about greater context for those problems, and the nature of the term means you’re pre-loaded to give it both the benefit of the doubt and it doesn’t let you really grapple with how much of a problem that problem even is. It’s not a scaling word.
Emotion And Incitement
In a lot of ways ‘problematic’ is replacing ‘I don’t like it.’ Which is really frustrating, because what you like and how you like it is, itself, a task of interpretation. It can seek to make a singular interpretation of a work into an objective truth of the work, and then put the weight of an unspeaking majority behind that supposed truth. It weaponises culture.
And then… of course… there’s the extra dimension to all this. Where ‘Problematic’ is a sort of ramp word that lets you gently ease into a position that might seem a little tricky. It’s the way you begin a conversation like…
I know [Creator] is a trans woman, but she’s problematic-
And how about that, we’re now on the path to hate a trans woman. The word gets to be treated as if there’s a spininess to the conversation, a trickiness that makes it hard to just hate the creator like you really want to, because you can’t just come out and say I hate this trans person with a moderate amount of success. That isn’t to say trans creators and queer creators and creators of all stripes are above reproach…
But problematic is going to hit someone who cares about this nebulous web of intersectional things problematic might mean way more than it hits, say, Zack Snyder or Joss Whedon.
So What, Ban The Word?
I – I didn’t say that? Up there, I didn’t say that. Jeeze. You can use the word, it does a job just fine. But if you bring to me a critique of media with well you see it’s problematic you’re automatically reducing the entire conversation in this binarist lens, and you’re leading with a form of conversation that inherently seeks to drag an objective lens over subjective things and it tends to be used in a way that gives people cover for attacking creators. There are better words. There are more words.
If you want to talk to me, socially, and say ‘it’s problematic’ because you’re working out your feelings about how a thing works, that’s fine. That’s talking about your feelings, your wants, your care, that’s totally reasonable.
But when I see someone sharing an essay that’s about why This Media Is Problematic or This Problematic Creator is Just The Worst, it makes me just switch off. Because there are better ways to describe work than Problematic and there are better ways to forward your interpretation of a text in a critical framework.
Problematic’s not a bad word, it’s just a word you need to think about before you use. It’s a wallpaper word. It’s a loaded word with history. It’s a word whose interpretation is difficult. I mean, basically, problematic is problematic.