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:
- potentially offensive or;
- 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.