In My View: What’s the problem with problematic?

I watched a lot of X-Files back in the day. I remember seeing the second season when it was still new and being in an Ames, Iowa apartment when the third season debuted.

Even more, I watched a lot of it with my mom back in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was still in college.

I remembered the show feeling fresh and new and being exciting. Mulder was both charming and pretty weird. Scully was rather attractive and really smart. They had good chemistry, and there just wasn’t a lot of urban fantasy or weird science on television.

It felt progressive for the time. The main hero wasn’t a square-jawed McDude, and the main heroine wasn’t a fainting Damsel in Distress. It wasn’t super unique for the time. Pretty much all the white folks in the 90s thought we had it all figured out, and racism was over, and everyone was going to live in a big tent and sing Kumbayah.

Then about seven years or so ago, my wife and I started watching X-Files again. Well, really, she was watching it, and I was watching over her shoulder.

There are a lot of lispy queer jokes in that show. Every few episodes, Mulder makes a joke about someone being “a little light in the loafers,” or he puts on an exaggerated lisp to make fun of someone. When I say that there are many, I mean there is at least one every two or three episodes.

Even 10 years after X-Files wrapped up, those kinds of jokes would have been … wait for it … a little bit more… you’re almost there… problematic.

When I say problematic, I mean people would have been offended. The time of using gay stereotypes as a punchline has passed, and it is for the better, really.

I started thinking about this example as I read Irina’s post about whether problematic anime are bad. Then about a week later came across this tweet from Acanthis’ Perch complaining about anime fans not engaging with “problematic” anime well.

(Just a note: I may have read Irina’s post wrong. Go ahead and read it for yourself.)

What struck me is that I use the word problematic a lot. I never realized it was a hot-button issue. To me, typically, it’s just a shorthand way of saying something is either:

  1. potentially offensive or;
  2. doesn’t fit well into the established story

Now, I don’t think the second one is beneficial to talk about. In those cases, it’s purely about a plot beat, character choice or piece of dialogue that just doesn’t make sense in a story. This isn’t the type of “problematic” that people talk about when they use the word.

No. What I want to talk about is the first use of “problematic.” When a character choice, piece of dialogue, camera angle, etc., is, at best, mildly offensive or, at worst, pretty vile. In these cases, I think “problematic” is the best word to avoid would likely be a screaming match between fanboys and fangirls.

(Yes. I realize I am deluding myself if I really think that using “problematic” will stop screaming matches on the Internet. The Internet is made out of outrage.)

I thought it might be helpful to talk about the two times when I use the word “problematic” instead of saying something is offensive. Then I really want to get to this question about whether that makes a show bad.


Anime is weird. Throughout my history with it, there have been plenty of fads that have risen and fallen. In the early 2000s, people were worried that moe shows would bury the fandom under a pile of child sexualization and tea parties. 

Now there is a contingent of people worried that the truck-kun has left anime shivering in the road, weighed down by naked wish fulfillment and tiresome RPG plots. 

While I won’t comment about whether either of these examples is true, what I can say is that anime always has a level of wish fulfillment in its stories. Whether it’s the shonen hero, who was plucked out of obscurity to do battle with the forces of darkness or the lovable loser high schooler who gets to have a relationship with the most beautiful girl at the end of the show. 

They know their audience is trying to escape from their everyday humdrum lives. 

The difficulty with escapism is that not everyone wants the same thing. For instance, I like my romantic comedies to have a love triangle at most. I don’t want any family members involved. I enjoy witty dialogue and fun characters. 

But some people want to have it all. For instance, some fans of Kanon evidently wanted Yuichi to end up with Naiyuki, so the show’s directors made sure that the “option” was there. They made sure to tell those fans that Naiyuki is still in love with her cousin. 

They pandered to the audience that wanted to see their favorite storyline reflected in the show. And what came out was worse for the exchange, in my opinion. Instead of a touching story about two cousins trying to deal with their personal worries and grief, we have a story that ends up mixed up with these weird romantic overtones. 

This pandering to the audience is the first example where I use the word “problematic.” Nayuki and Yuuichi had an established relationship before this, and the creators threw in something potentially offensive to keep the fans happy. 

I realize that this is a problem for me. There are plenty of people who would gladly overlook this, justify it or handwave it away. Then some are into the sporty cousin and want to pretend that Yuuichi ends up with her. 

When I say Nayuki’s strange unrequited love for her cousin is problematic, I mean that it hurt my enjoyment of the story by introducing an unnecessary element that offended me. It’s more than just making a choice that I didn’t like. It was a choice that was specifically meant to appeal to a subset of fans. 

I often find that this typically revolves around sex in anime. It’s not that I’m a prude, but I really don’t want incest or statutory rape in my entertainment. 

I do want to be clear that pandering isn’t always problematic. Plenty of shows pander to their audience by including bits of fanservice or other familiar elements that make the audience feel comfortable. 

Also, what people see as pandering is going to shift from person to person. I’m sure some people see the Nayuki decision in Kanon as a brave choice by the creators. 

And while I might be offended by the pandering, it doesn’t have any more significant implications. It might be annoying or off-putting, but I wouldn’t call it dangerous. 

Cultural Blind spots

When I talked about X-Files earlier, the lispy queer jokes didn’t bother me at the time because they were perfectly culturally acceptable. That doesn’t mean they weren’t perpetuating a harmful stereotype for the benefit of a laugh, they were most certainly doing that, but as a straight white man in America in the 1990s, they were part of the cultural norm. 

This is really where problematic elements really become an issue. 

We should, as a world society, move toward treating everyone with dignity and respect. That doesn’t mean deifying people just because they’re different or turning away from the uglier sides of human nature, but it means we should make conscious choices about how we portray everyone. 

Fire Emblem in Tiger and Bunny is not a conscious choice. He is a bunch of LGBT stereotypes stapled together for comic relief. The creators just did it. I’m not convinced they were thinking anything about it.

We realize now, hopefully, that it’s not OK to do that. That we should have a measured and intelligent approach to incorporating LGBT characters that preserve their humanity. Making LGBT characters humorous is fine, but making the fact that they’re LGBT funny is not. 

There are plenty of examples of this kind of cultural blind spots in western anime fandom and in anime storytelling and, I assume, the larger world in general. They also exist in American television and movies. 

It can include fridging girlfriends, depictions of minorities or turning LGBT people into fetishes or a punchline. 

Now, I won’t presume to talk about Japan’s cultural blind spots because I haven’t studied them enough, but I think we should be able to admit that they exist. 

If we’re going to talk about problems in anime, this should be the center of our focus. Because perpetuating stereotypes dehumanizes people. It turns them into a collection of catchphrases and hand gestures. 

Yes. Fiction isn’t always meant to make us comfortable, but a discerning viewer can tell the difference between something that is a conscious choice instead of being a trope that’s just being recycled. Tapping into this kind of cultural subconscious is just lazy, thoughtless and potentially hurtful. 

But I don’t think this answers the most important question — Is Irina right? Can something have problematic elements and still be good. 

The Worst Minefield

I think the title of Irina’s post isn’t really accurate, and she even deviates away from it in the body of her post. There are no problematic anime. Really.

Well, OK. Maybe if the entire anime is kiddie rape and women getting tortured for pure titillation, you might have an argument for it being a problematic anime. That is pretty rare overall and not really what I’m talking about here. 

No. For the most part, there are problematic elements in an anime show. Whether those elements are the product of pandering or cultural blind spots, they aren’t the “whole” show. They are only a part of the show. There is a lot to like in Tiger and Bunny outside of Fire Emblem. I really enjoy the Shiori arc in Kanon. 

Just because an element is problematic doesn’t mean the entire show is a problem. Well, again, as long as the whole show isn’t that one element. 

What I don’t think we can do is ignore those elements, though. Especially in the case of cultural blind spots, we need to understand that they do harm people. At the very least, we should be aware that it exists. 

This is where I agree with Acanthis’ Perch. We need to be better about discussing it. I feel like a broken record repeating this, but we need to move away from the outrage machine. 

It’s kind of like that old Monty Python sketch about the argument clinic. An argument isn’t just a contradiction; it’s an exchange of points. Even if we don’t all agree on the problematic elements or why they’re problematic, we can at least attempt to understand each other. 

Disagreement doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable. 

As always, thanks for reading. 

13 thoughts on “In My View: What’s the problem with problematic?

  1. Vitriol? I use the word problematic a lot as well. I was trying to convince people to use it more and not jump to conclusions based on a single word. I guess I failed huh…

      1. Nah I’m not very good at explaining myself, But I’m getting better!
        As for my title it was meant as When someone calls an anime problematic it does not mean they are calling them bad. I guess I click baited a bit there.
        So I generally agree with everything you say.

      2. I modified it.

        Honestly, the way I read it was that just because something was problematic, doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad.

        I was more surprised there was any discussion around the word problematic. I wanted to explain how I use the word. 🙂

      3. Oh no there’s no need to modify it. I wrote it because I have had readers and twitter peeps really react a lot to the word problematic and assume that if I or anyone calls an anime problematic they immediately mean it’s horrible and irredeemable or something. And I just wanted to say that wasn’t the case. You can discuss element you like less and still enjoy the whole and even when someone genuinely dislikes an anime it doesn’t mean they don’t want it to exist.

  2. “naked wish fulfillment”

    That’s how I’d prefer my wishes fulfilled. And some people would consider that problematic. Even if everyone involved were adults with full agency, people left their sexuality at the door, and no animals were harmed in the production of this program.

    Everyone uses words a little differently and “problematic” is no different. Mostly someone’s opinion. I object to it when it is a shorthand for “Don’t rock the boat!” Or worse yet, “That’s heresy!” and used to end discussion there and then.

    Far better to come out and say why something is problematic. Don’t just say it is “problematic.”
    Skip that word and directly say what your problem with it is.

    1. So I agree with explaining why you think something is problematic, but I don’t have a problem with using the word. But I agree it should be the start of the conversation and not the end to it.

      I did not even think about that reading of “naked wish fulfillment.” 🙂

  3. Considering how often I’ve heard “problematic” used to describe both issues and non-issues (at least as I see them; reasonable people can probably disagree about some of that) I think the word has become a kind of trigger for even more fighting, at least in some places. But I agree that a lot of what you bring up here is problematic in that sense. Stereotypes can alienate viewers, and they feel like a mark of lazy writing, even when they’re in works I really like otherwise.

    I have much less of a problem with those sexual elements some people call problematic, though again, I have my limits too. The cousin thing is an interesting one to bring up — I don’t know the situation in Kanon specifically , but I get the impression that cousin marriage to this day isn’t a big deal in Japan. And though it does feel weird to me personally, I was also brought up partly in a culture that doesn’t consider cousin marriage to be incest, even between first cousins. So even though I wouldn’t take part in it, I don’t consider it that bad when I see it in anime or other fiction. For me, the real problem in this context is if a series seems to be trying to normalize abusive or destructive behaviors, or even if it’s doing so unintentionally.

    But again, reasonable people can definitely disagree with that. These are good issues to bring up, and I think it’s well worth talking about them, even if we do have some disagreements.

    1. “I was also brought up partly in a culture that doesn’t consider cousin marriage to be incest, even between first cousins.”

      I mean that is part of watching a product that comes from another cultural base. I think it’s a problem because it removes me from the story, but it’s not as likely to remove other people from the story.

      While I do balk at cultural relativism, I do think you have a point that different cultures have different taboos.

      Like I said in another response. I think it should be the start of the conversation rather than the end. I’d like to at least imagine that we can work out when it’s something that is harmful rather than something that is just a matter of taste.

      1. Yeah, I agree about cultural relativism. That’s a far too extreme stance, and there are certainly other issues that I can’t just say we should ignore on the basis that it’s the norm in another culture. I don’t think cousin marriage is one, but I also can see why it would really put you off considering how taboo it is in much of the world (and after all, I still consider it a kind of personal taboo even if I can accept it otherwise, so I get it on that level.)

        Absolutely, I hope we can have productive conversations about these issues. Too often it descends into mudslinging instead. Or maybe I just need to get off of Twitter, where I see all of that — we always seem to keep things very civil on our own blogs.

  4. I’ve read this post a few times now and I completely agree. We as a society do need to discuss how we see different elements in media and why they are and aren’t handled correctly.

    I especially like your opening first point about how media from the past reciprocates who we were back then. Seeing all of these snide jokes that were acceptable then and knowing they aren’t now is a great sign of growth and I am always deeply worried by those people who don’t see those jokes and issues from the past as things that aren’t acceptable now.

    While finding a conversation about why elements is good, I think that finding an open and even ground to have these conversations with or are open to them. Some people just bounce off the issues they see in media without wanting to care about the good or bad and I don’t think that is an incorrect stance to have either. Especially if it hits people in an emotional place that they can’t turn back from and don’t want to discuss it. Sensitivity and thoughtfulness are the name of the game with these elements and we can’ only try our best to understand even if we get it wrong sometimes.

    1. Thanks for replying Scott.

      I think it’s healthy to discuss the issues we see. Even if we don’t always agree that they are issues.

      I’m hesitant to condone people who close their eyes to issues. It’s one thing to recognize an issue and say, “Well, I don’t agree with it, but it doesn’t ruin the show for me.” But I think it’s another thing to say, to dismiss it.

      Though I can see an argument that someone a perceived issue isn’t really an issue at all.

      I’ll have to think about it.

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