When media is prejudiced, there is no “but”

I’ve always been a commentator on media and social justice and that’s only increasing. I’ve said why I think it’s important and why it matters and, besides, at this point I don’t think I could watch/read/play something without being aware of the various problematic, prejudiced portrayals or erasures that will inevitably arise.

But it seems nigh impossible to criticise the various -isms in the media without argument. Now, I don’t claim to be infallible (though do not tell my husband that. As far as he’s concerned I am correct in any and all matters and he should just accept it and do as he’s told, yes yes he should) and if I say something was prejudiced and you disagree – by all means present a reasoned rebuttal.

No, what I object to are the JUSTIFICATIONS for the -isms. They don’t argue that I’m wrong about the prejudice – but that, for whatever reason, the prejudice doesn’t matter. That something else about the work makes the prejudice irrelevant. And I call shenanigans, I do. Because it always matters – and it is never justified. So, I am I am debunking the inevitable excuses that always arise over and over – I am calling out the “buts” because there really is no but here

But but but…. it’s funny!

First of all, it probably isn’t. I have yet to see this excuse used for anything that has made me crack a smile. Of course, the problem is that humour is subjective – after all, I’m sure there are people out there who actually laugh at sitcoms with laugh tracks (and is there ever anything so mind breakingly unfunny as those damn laugh tracks?). Which is a problem, because the “it’s funny” excuse can apply to anything.

But. Y’know even accepting that there is humour there, I still say “so?” Sorry, maybe my priorities are a little messed up but I don’t really see “it made me giggle” as justifying prejudiced portrayals. In fact, I find it faintly demeaning – yes it is damaging, stereotyped, made you cringe and overall reduces your standing as a person – but it was funny so it’s totally ok, right? Um… no.

But but but… think about when it’s made!

So it was made in the 60s/80s/90s whatever. Is it never going to be watched/played/read again? It’s still being consumed, it’s still part of the narrative of our media and our society – and yes, maybe back then such problems were more common place but it doesn’t mean that the prejudiced portrayals are NOT PROBLEMATIC. A deeply stereotyped portrayal is STILL a deeply stereotyped portrayal, even if it was written at a time when such 2 dimensional tokens were rare. It’s still problematic, it still needs commenting on, it’s still not OK even if it was better than most of its contemporaries.

But but but… it’s only fantasy/sci-fi/urban fantasy/YA/Whatever

Genre is irrelevant. If the media is mass consumed then it shapes our culture, our perceptions of people and our lives. In fact, a “trashy” novel or a computer game has far more effect on us as people than a pretentious, over-written, dreadfully dull composition that will be read by dusty English professors patting each other on the back at how impenetrable and highbrow it is.

Prejudice isn’t irrelevant in any genre. It is never unimportant – and the more common the genre, the more widely read, the more people it reaches then the more good – and the more damage – it can do with its portrayals. I believe a simple widely read YA novel that has good respectful portrayals does far more for us than a dozen scholarly treaties about our rights. Conversely – a widely read YA novel with gross stereotypes and prejudice does a whole lot of damage.

But but but… they also did THIS and that was good!

And? Maybe that over work they’ve is good and progressive and avoids the fails I’ve criticised. That doesn’t mean that THIS here that I’ve just read/watched/played has problems. This media I’ve just consumed was problematic – the writer may have made something else that was vastly better but that doesn’t change what I’ve just read/watched/played.

But but but… it’s a great portrayal of Y marginalised group

And I applaud that, it’s wonderful when we see a marginalised character written well. But just because a book has great female characters or great POC characters etc etc doesn’t mean that erasure or grossly awful portrayals elsewhere are acceptable. Just because it isn’t prejudiced one way, doesn’t make it immune to being prejudiced another way.

But but but… This writer is my heeero and you should have seen them at X and and!!!

Well this is kind of why I don’t have heroes. Look, there are some great writers out there and they do amazing things – but that doesn’t mean we’re all supposed to pretend that the naked Emperor is wearing clothes. This is what I hate about heroes – look, no-one’s perfect and you don’t have to pretend they’re perfect and untouchable to appreciate their work – and they probably don’t need the fanpoodles to swarm in yapping at the critics.

But but but… I loooove it!

Yeah, maybe I do too. “What!?” you gasp? Yeah, there’s a good chance I love it to. No, really, I’m not some bitter, twisted grumpy git who hates everything. In fact I know most of the media I enjoy – be they books, computer games, films, series – they’re all problematic. My most favourite of favourite things I love are sadly rife with stereotypes, erasure, damaging tropes and out right prejudiced portrayals.

Of course they are. I grew up in this society too – and no matter how much my own marginalisation hurts me or how much I try to learn about others, I still carry their stains, I still have their programming. Besides, if I wanted to avoid problematic media I’d have to move to a cave in a mountain somewhere and dedicate my life to staring at the wall. And even then there’d probably be an advert there full of problematic elements.

And aside form that, yes some stories are awesome. The plot is immense, the performances are amazing, the settings phenomenal – I am transported, awed, amazed and overjoyed by them and watch/read them over and over and over again. And every time I STILL see the stereotypes, the tropes, the erasure and the plain prejudiced fails and say “I love them… BUT”

And yeah, it’d be really really nice to read/watch/play something and say “I loved it!” without having to include the “but.” But the answer to that is to keep SAYING “but” until there’s nothing to say “but” about – not to pretend that the problematic elements don’t exist or are justified because it’s an awesome story/game/film/whatever.

So, I beg here, please, stop the kneejerk defence. Stop jumping up and down hissing about your precious. If you disagree with something being problematic, if someone has said “this is homophobic/racist/sexist/etc” and you think (with reasons beyond privileged ignorance) that they are mistaken and you have a respectful and well thought out counter then fine – but don’t EXCUSE the prejudice, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

34 thoughts on “When media is prejudiced, there is no “but”

  1. I experience these arguments all the time when I dare to critique Gene Roddenberry’s views on race and racial equality and how that plays out on Star Trek.

    • Try Star Wars, Family Guy or any popular medium. Like people love things so much that they don’t see the problem, but here’s the thing it was all written by imperfect human (no excuse). Unless they experienced first hand, they can never know what is it like.

      With Asians, Long ago I use to be a otaku, I was in love with anything from Japan. I had my own stereotypes about Japanese people, but later on I grew out of it and looked at it and noticed that Japanese people was just like everyone else. It wasn’t like what the media put out (IE kung fu fighting, samurai, geisha ninja, school girl, giant robot). So I did my research a bit and that how stumbled on to here. Then I know that some of my views are misplaced. More I read the better i understand about different people.

      But then again if the media don’t used the stereotypes how would little Timmy from a sheltered home in whitepeople, USA know that they are X people? Remember he never left his town.

      • Presumably because little Timmy would have access to, oh I don’t know, a global network of information that can be accessed instantly? Saying “if there weren’t stereotypes in the media ignorant white boys wouldn’t even know people of ethnicities other than white exist” is extremely backward.

        • But that’s their thinking, until reality hits them. Going back to American Otaku. when they see the real Japan and like Japan is not the greatest place in the world, it’s going to hit them hard.

          • *shrug* Good. I would love to have a TV show dedicated to the premise of White tourists in Asian countries discovering that Asian women will not trample each other in order to “fucky sucky” or “love you long time.”

            • Well unless it’s an independent show not ran by the mainstream. But it would be better for Otaku to experience the everyday life of Japan and have them realized that Japan is not like the anime or manga or J-drama.

    • They’re eternal. You criticise any media? Instantly the defenders come out – not even arguing the point but declaring that the point just doesn’t matter

  2. I HATE the “But-!” response to any criticism of bigotry or any ‘ism’ in popular media. It drives me up the wall because it’s nothing more than an excuse to face the idea that something you like has something wrong with it.

    I’ve known bloggers who would criticize any critique of sexism and racism in superhero comics using the “But-!” response.

    I’ve had people tell me I should not be so harsh on the Young Justice cartoon series because it’s a cartoon. And yes, astute observation aside, it IS a cartoon, but it’s also a cartoon which had a pilot that had NO WOMEN TALK until the very end, and has the sole character of colour, Aqualad, only leading the group until Robin has been trained enough.

    • Actually Artemis is Asian but it is very curious that the two characters of color are both blond.

      • Neo you know that black people can’t have nappy black hair on a children cartoon, what wrong with you man?

        Also I didn’t know that Artemis was Asian until I think you pointed at that out in you blog. It’s funny that they can do a racebend with a hero character, but with a villain you can bet they’ll keep that character’s race. But I’m worried that if they do a Cassandra Cain cartoon, they might make her all white.

        • Yeah, and her only role in that show is to be a traitor, it’s so damn plain… I was shocked to learn that she was blonde too, and annoyed that Aqualad had blonde hair and blue eyes.

          Cain as all white like Jubilee was all white?

          I loved the 90s Fox X-Men cartoon, which had a good showing of male and female characters, but it was like they’d white-washed Jubilee entirely. It would have been nice had the animators made some effort to show her as Asian.

          • You know I didn’t know she was white, All this time I thought she was Asian in the cartoon I didn’t know she was whitewashed. Also, speaking of X-men, I’m tired of watching Jean Grey struggling to hold a pencil.I mean what up with people writing girls can’t hold anything for too long.

    • “I’ve had people tell me I should not be so harsh on the Young Justice cartoon series because it’s a cartoon. And yes, astute observation aside, it IS a cartoon, but it’s also a cartoon which had a pilot that had NO WOMEN TALK until the very end, and has the sole character of colour, Aqualad, only leading the group until Robin has been trained enough.”

      This is reason why I didn’t like the Runaways. They had a black character, no powers, a black geek (that troupe is getting old and annoying), he turns up being villain. Then later on from what i saw from parts of the comic. They had the Asian goth girl cutting herself to get powers (yeah Marvel Goth kids cut themselves), then exploited the “Harajuku” thing with her.

      Paul Mooney said it best, he talks about Titanic, but it applies to what you are saying.

      Like is it me or that white people find it problematic when a male of color takes the lead or is giving a non-stereotypical role. i say male because woman of color are often put there for the white main character love interest or to as a sexual object for the male audiences. That’s why in video games they said that White guys are a “blank slate”.

      I do believe that media have a problem with POC Male actors. I mean look at the following.

      All black men are: angry brutes
      Asain men are: Geeky losers with that speaks engrish
      Latino men are just a bad as black men (no one can tell a black and latino man apart)
      Arab men are terrorist that abuse women
      White guys can do no wrong

    • What annoys me about the “but” is that it’s not just a denial – it’s a dismissal. It’s not even arguing that a portrayal isn’t homophobia/racist/sexist/etc no, it’s letting that go – but saying it DOESN’T matter

      And I completely deride the “just a…” excuse – just a cartoon? Yeah and a gazillion kids will watch that cartoon and have the tropes contained within it maintained and encouraged in their minds

  3. This post seriously needs to be posted next to the commenting instructions…..oh who am I kidding mofos will read this and still commit the same kneejerk reactions. If they bother to read at all.

    • Ultimately, you can’t teach people who don’t care.

      And people have this freaky idea that if you say there’s anything problematic about anything that you are declaring it to be the worst thing ever! All the nuance of a sledgehammer!

      • And people have this freaky idea that if you say there’s anything problematic about anything that you are declaring it to be the worst thing ever! All the nuance of a sledgehammer!

        Or worse, that a criticism of the art is criticism of people who enjoy that art.

        You know what one of my favorite movies is of all time? Gone with the Wind, because it’s epic, I love the score and cinematography, and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is still one of my favorite film performances ever. And yet, despite loving the movie, I can and do acknowledge that it’s incredibly racist. Because I’m an adult.

        • you know there is a difference between Fans and Fanatics. Fan will acknowledge the negatives of an Art (Comic,video games and other froms of art), a fanatic will argue up and down why are people having a problem with the art.

  4. I love this so hard! Especially the last one. Almost all media produced by our damaged culture is problematic, and I hate it when people don’t realize that saying something is problematic doesn’t mean you can’t still love it.

    You just have to be savvy enough to understand that it’s problematic. <3

    • We have to love the problematic things otherwise we’d never love anything – because it’s all problematic

      But, ultimately,. if we ever want to not have problematic things – or – if we want to avoid INTERNALISING the problematic things, we need to look at this and say “no. Look I love it, but that’s wrong, that’s harmful, that hurts.”

  5. I’m loving this post. This helps with the fact that this society always put the media on a pedestal. We unknowingly worship it like a God or some kind of “oracle” of information that influences and shapes our perceptions on the world. However, people must learn to tell what’s real, what’s fantasy, and what’s offensive. There are no excuses to ignore or support images that damages others.

    • It’s odd – we’ll allow anything for art and we consider it sacrosanct and untouchable. And the media is omnipresent and immensely powerful – an unchallenged god in todays world

      Yet at the same time people are so quick to dismiss it “it’s only fiction” “it’s only X” the dismissal while at the same time we exult it is ridiculosu

  6. Thank you. And this highlights and made me come to terms with some of my own inner turmoils and privilege issues.

    I’m re-posting this on my LJ.

  7. *sigh* Pretty much.

    And I hate the very related “What’s the point?” sentiment that comes out right with it. Why does there need to be “a point” when someone like me shows up in media? Why do some people get to show up without any really good point over and over again?

    • Mainly because old white men who can’t possibly see any other person but white people in that role say as much.

      I’m referring to DC here, of course, but I’m sure that it can apply in many other cases as well.

      • They brainwash young white guys and the cycle goes on. If someone whould of break the cycle then it will fix the problem of White people showing their faces everywhere.

  8. This is exactly how the conversation goes when when I mention how blatantly racist H.P. Lovecraft was, to his apologists/fans. They constantly use the “he was a product of his time” one-liner, as if that justifies anything.

    • “They constantly use the “he was a product of his time” one-liner, as if that justifies anything.”

      That’s true and at that time it was full of racism just like now. So they just muted their point

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