Should We Enjoy Problematic Media?

We watch shows or play games for many reasons—usually, they’re fun or interesting in some way. Sometimes the reason is because they contain good representation or have compelling characters. Unfortunately, there is a decent amount of content in many shows that is offensive or problematic. Even more unfortunate is the fact that some of those shows are our favorites. So the question is, what do we do when something we enjoy might bother us or someone else?


To explain a little further, I want to share some examples. I recently watched Kill la Kill, an anime from Studio Trigger. Before watching it, I didn’t know anything about it other than how hyped it was. At the time, I was fresh from an anime convention, so I figured it was a good idea to try to step my game up. From the opening moments seeing one of the characters reaching and maintaining a gargantuan size, I could tell the show was an over-the-top adventure that would include great action scenes and laughs. This was something I could get behind! However, the show quickly introduces a set of super-powered uniforms that are very revealing. In fact, sexualization becomes somewhat of a running theme. This is all eventually explained and given a reason, but it’s hard to tell if this was a handwave or if they actually had a point to make. Regardless, the depictions are ever-present and some viewers are able to treat this as background noise, while others found them extremely troubling. While the show can still be enjoyable for the previously mentioned over-the-top tone, it is clear that what bothers one person may not bother someone else to the same degree. In a situation like this, it is okay to enjoy something provided the flaws are recognized. A portion of the Kill la Kill fanbase isn’t willing to admit that the show’s depiction of women could be problematic. (There is a portion of people who think that it might actually be a feminist depiction, but even this perspective is addressing the issue rather than ignoring it. This article goes into the duality of the issue.)

To contrast, members from Studio Trigger also worked on 2010’s Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. This show also contained sexualized elements, but it was far more obvious that that was part of the joking attitude of the show. For instance, the characters’ transformation sequence was in a completely different art style. Since everyone is supposed to be in on the joke, it is less problematic as viewers can tell that’s not the message they want to send.

This is the general theme of the show - in your face about itself

This is the general tone of Kill la Kill: in your face about itself

In the same vein, I’ve been playing a fighting game named Skullgirls. Many fans of the genre praised it for its tight game mechanics, interesting art style, and music. The game was led by a fighting game veteran and rounded out with star voice actresses, artists and musicians, setting it up to be a hit. As a fan of fighting games and someone with an appreciation for innovative/interesting game mechanics, the game really drew me in with its “infinite prevention system”, which stops players from utilizing repetitive, unstoppable tactics. However, the game suffers from the same sexualization of women that many other games have. While Kill la Kill addresses and parodies this aspect, Skullgirls kind of just enjoys itself with it. It’s important to remember that being sexy isn’t a bad thing, but characters are made by artists and inherently are not autonomous. Even then, many of the designs seem arbitrary. Sure, one of the characters is an entertainer and her costume makes sense. But one of the characters is a battle princess, so a tight miniskirt isn’t exactly intuitive. Luckily, the game has come under no small amount of criticism and scrutiny. This is a good thing! As I said, it’s a solid game made by a passionate team that deserves recognition. A conversation about character design can only help them and other developers make decisions that are more realistic/less problematic. Just because something has a problematic element, doesn’t mean the whole piece of media should be condemned, but we should still be vigilant and criticize these problems.

In a slightly different sense, it’s also a good practice to see the good in series that may not be always be positive. South Park comes to mind very quickly. They often handle things in a “both sides are wrong, take the middle route” attitude that can cause more harm than good. Sometimes, they straight up handle things in a crass and disgusting way. These problems shouldn’t be overlooked or forgiven necessarily, but the times they get something right should be highlighted. For instance, I recently re-watched the episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”. In this episode, Stan’s father says the N-word on television. He attracts a lot of criticism, but he does his best to fix it. Meanwhile, Stan struggles with trying to explain to the token Black student at school that he understands how it must feel to hear that word. Eventually, he comes to terms with the fact that he can’t understand it, which is the whole point of the episode. The episode also contains some commentary about how people don’t understand the pain of a slur that’s not directed at themselves. Stan’s father is eventually called the “N-word Guy”, which causes him great pain. This new phrase is eventually made illegal to say, but not the original slur. I love this episode for these reasons. It feels as if the creators are using their privilege to expose the idea of privilege. (I recommend the episode to anyone who needs to explain how racism exposes itself. TW: racism, slurs. NSFW. [Link])

You can recognize this as the face of having to laugh along with a joke you didn't think was funny.

You can recognize this as the face of having to laugh along with a joke you didn’t think was funny.

In the same regard, a friend pointed out to me that South Park has an ongoing extremely problematic depiction of Asian people—among some other poor representations of minority groups. Once you see these, you can’t unsee them. There really is no excuse for it, and it’s never even used to make some satirical point; it just happens. Therefore, as someone who may like this show, or at least appreciate an episode here or there, we must recognize and criticize its problems.

The same is true with the old Looney Tunes animations. In recent DVD sets, the discs begin with a disclaimer that explains that there is some problematic content, but is preserved for artistic purposes. This is understandable, as many of the cartoons are from a different time. Presented without warning, we’d still know this, but the warning shows that they acknowledge their own shortcomings.

Because warning someone ahead of time is not a bad thing

Because warning someone ahead of time is not a bad thing.

In summary, I feel that we have to be aware of media with problematic elements and be active in reacting to it. Yes, we can enjoy it, but we have to remember that different issues affect people differently. For example, one person can like something despite a problematic element while another person might choose not to watch it because of this element. Obviously we should not seek out shows that aim to be offensive, but sometimes people are ignorant to what issues others may deal with. If we care about the media we consume, we absolutely must call it out when it missteps. This is about studios not spreading around toxic ideals and fans and communities knowing when to spot and admit to one. All in all, criticism can only improve media. For example, games journalist Jim Sterling previously had a notorious reputation of being misogynist and producing lackluster video content. However, after feedback from fans and detractors alike, he gradually changed his attitude and style to one far less problematic and even helpful. Hopefully, more content creators can follow a similar path of fixing up their transgressions.


4 thoughts on “Should We Enjoy Problematic Media?

  1. I think South Park takes that approach to appeal to the broadest possible audience. The “we make fun of everyone equally, so it’s ok” claim backfires on them from time to time. The Simpsons and Family Guy do this as well. I am just old enough (age 32) to remember seeing racist WB cartoons on TV- which they no longer show- at the time I was young enough that I just thought the people on the show were acting strangely- not like real people! Well I was on to something. I think they did well to include them so as not to pretend “this never happened” while still recognizing them as offensive. (Disney hasn’t been as honest at times!) I think that is the important part of consuming media, is recognizing what it does wrong, and what it does well, learning from it and making suggestions for improvement. My fiance reads a lot of manga and we watch anime together and we discuss the way women/girls are depicted from a feminist POV together, but we also enjoy it.

    • Family Guy, and I’m a big fan makes that claim, but only South Park delivers on it. Family Guy does not. For example: religion. South Park makes fun of various religions AND aldo has ripped on atheists/atheism (especially Richard Dawkins) and even Agnostics (in the Kenny goes into Foster care episode). MacFarlane, an atheist himself skewers religions, but not atheism or sgnostics. South Park also rips on conservatives, liberals, progressives, etc. Family Guy almost exclusively parodies and criticizes the Right. He had some fun with Clinton’s sex foibles, but ideologically it’s very clear he mostly protects liberals/liberalism. Even the characters he voices in his own voice is a prototypical liberal and while the character is often the butt of jokes, the ideology isn’t. South Park is much more diverse in their targeting of different groups/ideologies. When it comes to races and ethnicities, imo Family Guy is much more across the board attack mode.
      I think there are several reasons for this but among them are the fact that there is diversity in the two creators of South Park. Matthew Stone is a self-admitted atheist Jew. Trey Parker is a strong theist although not a fan of organized religion. He once made a comment to the effect of the only thing more ridiculous then believing in God is believing that all the stuff in this world exists ‘just because’ and there is no god. Also MacFarlane admittedly is sympathetic to the Democratic party. Matt and Trey loathe both parties and are lower case libertarians. Thus it is much easier to target people in both camps since they are already so dismissive of them and especially the politicians within. It’s also clear from interviews with Matt that while he is an atheist he is much more sympathetic to religion as a force for sometimes good versus MacFarlane’s unyielding criticism of same. For example the Mormon episode of South Park, while liberal in the application of sharp barbs into Mormon mythology is actually pretty sympathrtic to them as people. I recall an interview where they said they grew up in proximity to Mormon families in Colorado and they felt that they made about the best neighbours you can ask for. Of course their brilliant Broadway musical the book of Mormon speaks for itself.

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