What to do When Your Favorite Pop Culture is Problematic

Key & Peele

Sometimes I feel like my two passions, pop culture and feminist activism, are at complete odds with each other. I want to consume as much pop culture as I can, but it’s really disheartening to see your favorite show/celebrity suddenly show some ignorance and some real bigotry.

A recent Tumblr favorite of mine is your favorite is problematic, whose six moderators diligently compile instances of problematic behavior of generally beloved celebrities and public figures. There’s no listing of obvious, i.e., Mel Gibson, but its thoroughness shows that even the people we like have done some problematic things. Rather than encourage readers to dismiss and shame the celebs mentioned, their reasoning states:

We are fully aware that celebrities are humans, and at least I… think that media coverage of celebrities can be completely violating and dehumanizing. However, these celebrities are seen as role models. They are often revered and are in the public eye. When this is the case, their behavior influences people’s – impressionable children’s (and impressionable adults’) – ideas of what is right or wrong. And this blog serves, not to condemn them for making mistakes, but to point out that they are human, and that they aren’t beacons of human perfection that should be unquestioningly emulated.

This is an important distinction between shaming and educating. The site serves as a bibliography of documented problematic behavior, leaving it up to the reader to decide which of these may feel problematic in their mind. Hey, even America’s current “sweetheart”, Jennifer Lawrence has said many things problematic. There are also some profiles on people who in some lights are allies for a specific identity, but not inclusive of others, such as Chris Colfer and Tina Fey. Where do we draw the line on what is offensive? Is it relative to how much it affects us personally?

This site really got me thinking about how I deal with problematic things I come across in the pop culture media that I love. How do I continue to be an ally while loving pop culture? Do I accept it as inevitable, or do I stop consuming something problematic?

Case in point: I have been ferociously consuming three seasons of Key & Peele, Comedy Central’s immensely successful sketch show. Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele are both biracial, and many times their sketches explore and expose the ridiculousness of stereotypes and bigotry. Okay, they aren’t changing the world, but they do have some things to say.

But they also have some really shitty things to say.

One re-occurring sketch involves a frustrating boyfriend who has to “endure” his passive aggressive girlfriend, who whines the opposite of what she means. Peele plays the woman, “Meegan,” an emotionally unstable, shallow, dramatic girl, in the most stereotypical feminine way possible. She keeps complaining and saying she hates her boyfriend, but then when he stops complaining, she silently begs him to continue, secretly relishing the drama. The joke is how the boyfriend, the one who viewers should identify with and sympathize with because he has to put up with the “crazy girlfriend.”

Another troublesome reoccurring sketch is an obese, socially-avoidant man who lives alone with many action figures (you know, “nerd” stuff) and makes up friends and girlfriends when he is on the phone with a food delivery service or other company, to hide the fact that he is embarrassed about who he is. The comedy comes from how his stories need to become more and more detailed as the person on the other end probes for information. However, the viewer is also meant to laugh at the pathetic, overweight, socially awkward single man. 

I could just stop watching it. The greatest power we have as a consumer is to stop consuming/buying into something we find problematic. Maybe it’s just one potential customer not giving the show my time, but I would also stop watching on principle.

But I haven’t stopped. My desire to consume the enjoyable parts of the show/movie/celebrity always prevails. I sometimes justify my watching my reassuring myself that if I continue to discuss the problems with others, they will begin to realize it and slowly learn about why it is problematic. It is important for me to know, as an ally and a (self-appointed) pop culture scholar But where do I draw the line? What is this arbitrary scale of problematic-ness and where on it would lead to not consuming?

3 thoughts

  1. Totally relevant, and I totally empathize. There are quite a few shows I am conflicted over…I love them, but if anyone knew, it would be bad. Some go against my ethics, or just violate all my doctrines entirely, but I can’t look away. I think it’s awesome how you found redeeming qualities within Key and Peele, I don’t think I can do the same with My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

  2. Great take on it! I think for everyone’s sanity, it’s important to acknowledge that consuming problematic media is going to be inevitable. Like YFIP said, artists are human. Consumers are human, too. You have acknowledged what elements were problematic in Key & Peele, which is an important distinction. The key is to be aware and honest, instead of justifying what went wrong. Fans who say “It’s no big deal” or “It’s not really (racist/sexist/homophobic)” are very concerning. They will drive other people away from a fandom. Some artists on YFIP have since apologized for things they might have done wrong– it’s proof that feedback from fans does make a difference.

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