Monday, January 16, 2017

The Problem with "Problematic"...

I don’t like using the word “problematic”.

I say this being fully-aware of what’s implied there. For clarity, art is “problematic” in general. Whether or not it’s good is irrelevant, there’s always something about it that registers as “problematic”. My favourite film of all-time, Spirited Away, is problematic because it features casual smoking and directly shows its main character, a 10 year-old named Chihiro, engaging in slave labour to save her parents from being eaten by spirits. The former is trivially problematic, the latter blatantly problematic. And yet, it’s still a masterpiece.

So you can see why throwing around the word “problematic” is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s a practical use for the term. Art’s only human, and, therefore, flawed, so any pretences it may have about tackling tricky subject matters are a direct result of its artists not being able to skirt around that. Using the phrase “problematic” to describe something you love is unavoidable, in other words, and it should be embraced for the sake of intellectual discourse. It doesn’t matter which medium you’re applying it to, it needs to exist.

On the other hand, liberally using the word brings with it negative connotations. Remember how I stated that Spirited Away has its main character engage in slave labour in order to save her parents? I know most people wouldn’t pick up on this, but to the overly-critical mind it can be inferred that the film endorses such an act. I don’t think it does, the film goes out of its way to show that Chihiro’s being forced to do this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make such an argument if you wanted (I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a video from The Film Theorists postulating this on YouTube yet.) So, by extension, it’d be easy to write off the movie as evil, not realizing its ultimate message.

And this is the problem with labelling art “problematic”. On one hand, it’s necessary for discourse. On the other hand, it can be used as a way of skirting around the reasons by which it exists. The latter wouldn’t be a problem on its own if people as a whole weren’t so quick to react to tricky subjects, but given that the average person isn’t all that complex it happens constantly. You see it online with claims that “X should be avoided because it glamourizes Y”, and you see in real-life with active boycotts and censoring of well-known works of art. I’d go further into that aspect, but The Simpsons did a better job and you should watch that instead.

The term “problematic” also skirts around the reality that, like it or not, nothing in life is gonna be fair to everyone. It can’t. Stories featuring one culture prominently will often not include fair representations of other cultures. Fairytales, by their nature, must be cruel to their protagonists. Action movies have to promote violence heavily. And books will alienate the illiterate by sheer fact that, at the end of the day, they require reading knowledge to fully-appreciate.

On a deeper level, the term “problematic” ignores the fact that not being that way can hurt the overall quality of the art in question. Like it or not, stories about sexual freedom have to engage in taboo subjects because not doing so makes them even more problematic. Stories about revenge have to feature violence because not having said violence robs the stories of stakes and motivations, hence making them even more problematic. Stories discussing abusive relationships have to feature some level of schadenfreude and abuse because ignoring that robs them of tension, thus making them even more problematic. Being problematic is, unfortunately, a necessary evil.

Take, for example, Gone Girl. The 2014 film, based on the book of the same name, deals with a man finding his wife after it appears as though she’s been kidnapped. As the story unfolds, we realize that the wife and husband had been at odds for years. We learn that the wife was a super-celebrity enamoured by the media, while the husband may or may not have been abusive. I won’t reveal too much about the film, you should watch it for yourselves, but it tackles themes of abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual infidelity as a way of commenting on how society over-glamourizes celebrities. Yet it’s also, ultimately, an incredibly problematic film.

And that’s the issue: art must be problematic in order to function efficiently. Whether it’s a movie like Gone Girl using domestic violence and schadenfreude, the famous statue of David being naked, or fairytales being grim, art can’t escape the vacuum that is being “problematic”. Which is why I don’t like using that word to describe it, since it avoids the grander implications associated with the nature of it. It’s like using The Bechdel Test to empirically measure whether or not a story’s actually worth consuming: not only does it ignore the merits of said story in favour of an inflexible set of criteria, but most classic works wouldn’t meet said criteria anyway.

So yeah, not a fan of the term “problematic”. Ironically, I don’t really know what other term to use, thus making this argument problematic on its own! Fancy that, huh?

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