Your Fave is Problematic—And Sometimes That’s Okay

We’ve all been in that position before… you’re watching a movie that brings about a sense of nostalgia, and your heart suddenly sinks at an off-color joke. Or, you finally look up the lyrics to the catchy song that’s been running through your head on repeat and you make an unsettling discovery. Or, as you turn the pages of a beloved classic you find yourself distracted from universal themes by troubling descriptions and character portrayals.

It’s easy to feel a strange combination of guilt and despair when something you once enjoyed (or still enjoy) disappoints you. This feeling is especially strong during a time when it is depressingly common for political figures and important organizations to say such horrible things. How is it possible, as an individual who actively tries to make the world a better place, for you to enjoy something you know is fundamentally against the values you stand for? To show solidarity for groups and minorities that are often at the receiving end of problematic jokes and stereotypes do we need to abandon everything that is slightly problematic?

As someone who loves a wide range of things that are definitely problematic, I have often considered this issue while enjoying my guilty pleasures. After lengthy consideration, I have finally reached some solid conclusions. Although this is something that should be obvious, enjoying problematic things does not make you a bad person. No one is perfect, and no matter what you do, it is always possible to find something problematic in any song, activity, movie, or TV show. Making yourself constantly miserable for the sake of social justice is an unsustainable way to change the world for the better. Once you have accepted that you are not an irredeemable person for enjoying problematic things, it is important to figure out the level of problematic with which you are comfortable. Understanding your limits will allow you to evaluate the way you view different problematic things, which can be very informative as you investigate your own experiences and prejudices.

While it can be scary to realize that the world is not as black and white as much of the media would have you believe (i.e. problematic = immediately bad and deserving of a boycott), studying the reasons behind our enjoyment of things we know are problematic can be very important in broadening understanding of ourselves and the world. I recently read Emily Bronte’s famous novel Wuthering Heights, which for those of you who don’t know follows the main character Heathcliff and his actions driven out of his obsessive love for his childhood sweetheart Catherine. To make a long story short, Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship is unhealthy and destroys the lives of everyone in the neighborhood.

While the focus of the book is to highlight the oppressive nature of the Victorian era and contrast its repressive nature with the wild passion of nature, there is some part of me that romanticizes Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship, in spite of its deeply disturbing nature. Being troubled by my response, I discussed this odd dynamic with my friend to great length. This conversation caused both of us to evaluate our thoughts to discover what could lead to a response that contrasts everything we normally support in healthy relationships. While neither of us came to any enlightening conclusions, this discussion allowed each of us to learn more about the way we think.

My love for Wuthering Heights does not make me a bad or ill-informed person, and neither do your problematic faves. Acknowledging what makes something problematic and discussing it with others (hopefully) allows us to learn and grow as individuals.

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