How to tell and be told that a fandom is problematic

Sexist or feminist? Let the argument begin…

Late breaking news: TV shows, movies, manga, anime, video games and other geeky media are problematic. They feature sequences, scenes, characters or entire storylines which can be sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, sizeist, classist, and any other unpleasant –ist you care to name. Some people never notice, while others notice but don’t care. And some decide to do something about it… they confront it head on.

Chances are that, in the course of your geek career, you have either been told that something you like – a scene in a movie, a game series, your favorite anime – is problematic in some way, or you have told a fan of something that the object of their affection has Problems ™ or is offensive. Heck, you’ve likely been on both sides of the conversation. I certainly have. On the one hand, I’ve called out shoujo manga for being incredibly skeevy in its portrayal of girls and abusive relationships, but on the other I’ve gone to bat for Sailor Moon against people insisting it reinforces gender and sexual stereotypes. I went to PAX and discussed with Tomb Raider fans why I felt marginalized and uncomfortable with the rape elements in the new game, only to later be called out as a rape apologist for going to PAX in the first place (due to some very problematic events re: the founders). Both sides of the conversation tend to suck, but they need to happen if we are ever to move forward as a society and cultivate better understanding and sensitivity.

After reading this excellent article and being inspired, I decided to take my own stab at laying out what I think are some handy guidelines for having these conversations, for dealing with someone describing your favorite game/show/movie/etc as racist/sexist/homophobic/etc, and for how to tell a fan of that game/show/movie that there are problems in the work. These are just my own views, but I hope that they might provide some food for thought the next time your favorite game gets called out or vice versa. Most importantly, I hope that these pointers help keep the conversations open and understanding rather than adversarial. Of course, I also hope that one day I will get a sparkly pony!

Advice for both parties:

-          Keep the focus on the fandom, not the person – This may seem like an obvious pointer, but it’s easy to go from, “Firefly is racist” to “YOU’RE racist for not seeing it,” or from, “I don’t think it is racist,” to “… and you’re the racist for saying it is.”  This can get very tricky in geekdom as we tend to identify so closely with the shows, games and movies we love that it can feel like a dissection of the person rather than the fandom – thus an attack on a show feels like an attack on us, or a defense of a show feels like they’re on side with the –ism in question – but make a point to separate yourself AND the other person from what you’re discussing, and focus on the media, not the person.

-          Tone IS important, albeit not ALL important – Let’s face it, someone can have the most insightful, intelligent observations in the universe, but if they’re delivering them in a way that makes you feel like an idiot, you’re going to be a lot more resistant to what they have to say. The tone argument can be abused to derail discussions on both ends of the spectrum (i.e. “you weren’t nice so your argument is invalid,”)  but let’s face it, being nice to people – be it strangers or friends – is a good thing, and a worthy goal for every interaction. Be friendly, listen, acknowledge their points, and above all, respect their right to feel the way they do. And to borrow Wil Wheaton’s immortal advice, don’t be a dick. And if you’re feeling particularly nettled or irritable, never be afraid to step away from the argument for as long as you need; better to defer the conversation for when you’re calmer than to lash out and possibly hurt someone.

-          This is not a contest – Whatever you do, don’t approach these discussions with the idea of winners or losers, or “I’m right, you’re wrong.” As soon as competitiveness gets into the picture, people stop listening and instead focus on “winning” the game. Instead, think of these as open conversations, a sharing of feelings and opinions. Not to say that trying to convince the other person that something is/is not problematic is a no go, but consider why and how you go about it. If it’s just to basically shut them up because your opinion is the “right” one, it may be time to approach the conversation in another, less adversarial way.

-          Offensiveness is not a binary state – By this, I mean that, for many things in the media, it’s not that there’s an objective “yes/no” state for whether something is offensive (with some definite exceptions!) As such, focusing your efforts on proving ONCE AND FOR ALL that Movie X or Scene Y definitely IS or IS NOT problematic – and therefore the other person is OMG WRONG WRONG WRONG – is counterproductive as it again boils down to a competition: who is right, and who is wrong.  Talk about how YOU read it, talk about how THEY read it, discuss how you both feel, and maybe at the end, both parties will come away with a new perspective on the work.

If you’re told your favorite fandom is problematic:

-          Respect their right to be offended – Almost nothing is more frustrating and heartbreaking and shuts down conversation more than the million variants of, “That’s a stupid thing to be offended by,” or “You’re just looking for things to be offended about.” It’s even more infuriating if you say this to someone who’s actually directly involved in the marginalized group because, hey, they have a better first-person perspective of what it’s like that anyone, and they may have a better sense of how this is just reinforcing existing problems in society. So next time a woman complains that Black Widow had too many scared and vulnerable moments in Avengers, or a person of color complains about how all the heroic people in Middle Earth are white, or a gay person complains that of COURSE Willow went bonkers… think twice before you say, “That’s stupid, and you’re not allowed to be offended about that.”

-          Listen, listen, listen – Then listen some more. People don’t just decide randomly that the Drogo/Daernys scene is skeevy or that Joss Whedon tends to skew very white; there’s usually some sort of pattern or evidence that’s backing them up. Listen to what their reasons are, and more importantly, listen to how these things make them feel. You don’t always have to agree with them, but take what they say to heart. Chances are that, by confronting you with this, this is important to them, and the very least you can do is to listen to what they’re saying and acknowledge their position and feelings in your own responses.  And if they have a good point, for goddsakes, say so! It’s not like you suddenly “lose” as soon as you mention that you can see their reasoning… remember, it’s not a competition!

-          It’s about them – Yes, your own opinions and values and thoughts are valuable and should be heard. On the other hand, in a lot of these cases, chances are that you may not be the one being directly affected by this (this goes back to that point about respecting their right to be offended). One person may look at anime and “see” Caucasian features (“Because they’re blonde and blue eyed, guys!”) but that’s a biiiiit less important than my Asian friend who is sick of seeing Asian characters minimalized, ignored or erased in their media, so if they complain about a Sailor Moon fanfilm using Caucasian actors, their word DOES have more weight. In many cases, the person talking to you about your fandom is doing it because they are being hurt in some way by it. I would never phrase it as, “It’s not about you,” because I think that’s exclusionary and unsympathetic, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that others may have more at stake in this and need to be heard and helped more.

-          If you must disagree, be polite – Sometimes, you’re just not going to be able to get onside with this or that interpretation, and that’s okay (well, most of the time). But it’s no call to suddenly go on the offensive. Don’t start rebutting every point they bring forward, don’t start derailing the conversation about, “Yeah, but how about the space battles?”, don’t try and throw your hands up in frustration, don’t try to “convert” them or make them admit that it’s a “stupid” thing to get upset over. Stay calm, friendly, and simple; indicate that you must agree to disagree on this point, or better yet, just say you need to think about it more. When at all possible, let the person know that you HEARD them and understand them, even if you don’t agree with them.

-          Read that article I linked – I think that covers a lot of very important stuff as well.

If you’re telling someone their fandom is problematic:

-          Respect their right NOT to be offended – This is the flip side of the earlier point to the fans. One bad habit I see a lot of in discussions is the feeling of, “This is OFFENSIVE, and if you don’t agree/don’t hate it/don’t see it/don’t have the same opinion, then you are part of the problem/a horrible person.” Not everyone gets angry about the same things or reads things the same way.  That’s not to say that nothing should ever be challenge – on the contrary, challenging someone’s preconceptions or assumptions and opening their eyes is a great thing. On the other hand, there’s a difference between that and, “How DARE you not see this as problematic/get angry about this!” This is particularly annoying when it’s done to a member of the “affected” minority, triple annoying if it’s done by the privileged majority… eg.  “I’m a man, but I know that you, AS A WOMAN, should be repelled by Joss Whedon’s horrible habit of casting attractive girls in his shows.” I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my Buffy marathon, and I do not appreciate anyone trying to speak for me or determine what I do or do not find problematic.

-          Decide what your objective is – This may sound weird, but sometimes clarifying why you’re talking to someone about the fandom in question can be helpful in avoiding misunderstandings or antagonism. For example, if you’re just wishing to call certain elements to attention, that’s going to be a very different approach to if you genuinely want this person to stop watching X show. Are you wanting to raise this person’s awareness of certain minorities and what it’s like to deal with this media? Or do you want the creator of the media taken to task for what he/she may have done? What, for you, is a satisfying end to the conversation, and is there a way that both of you can be equally satisfied?

-          Acknowledge other readings, interpretations, and motives – While you may see Slave Leia as a damning statement about women as sexual objects and a fetishization of sexual slavery, another person may see that aspect of her as a metaphor for a woman confident in her sexuality, resourceful, able to defend herself and others, and reclaiming her body as her own. While you may think that attending PAX is casting a vote for rape culture in gaming, another woman is going in order to be a strong, positive role model and to create a more inclusive, friendly culture. That doesn’t mean your view is incorrect, only that you should respect their own views or interpretations as well.

-          An imperfect ally is still an ally – Sometimes, the person you’re talking to is just not going to agree with you that Game/show/scene X is sexist or racist or problematic in any way. It can be really disheartening at those times, particularly if this is someone you respect, and sometimes the temptation is to respect them less or think, “Oh, they’re showing their true colors now!” But everyone is different, and everyone (as noted earlier) responds to different things. Just because this person seems to have a blind spot or even just politely disagrees with regards to something, it doesn’t undo any of their other good works and words. I struggled with this after a friend of mine, a man I consider a feminist, admitted to liking Duke Nukem Forever and responded quite negatively to one of my biggest issues with the game (the alien sequence; his response danced dangerously close to slutshaming). For a while, I struggled with what this said about him, whether he merited my respect, etc etc. But then I really looked at how he lives, at how he treats every woman he meets as a friend and equal, at how he encourages his daughter, and yes, at how he responds to other sexist media, and I realized that while we’d never see eye to eye on this one thing, we saw eye-to-eye on so much else that, in the end, it was okay. Most people are just trying to do the right thing as best they can, and like all people, they stumble, but just as doing nice things doesn’t give people passes on their problematic behavior, their problematic behavior doesn’t cancel out the fact they do nice things… or are good people.

Have you ever challenged someone about their problematic fandom? Has someone ever told you that something you liked had major social issues? How did you handle it?

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