By Maria Arnt | A 7-minute Read
If you’re at all familiar with meme culture and how it intersects with fandom culture, you may have run across the phrase “your fave is problematic.” It’s a statement that underlies a common disagreement between fans which boils down to the idea that if a character, plotline, or overall story are ethically questionable then it’s bad to like them. (This also often comes up when the creators of a story are problematic, but let’s leave that aside for another time and only look at criticisms of story elements themselves.) The concept is a little convoluted, so I’ll give some practical examples.
I like villains. Not every villain, mind you, but a particular brand of villains. Marvel’s Loki, Avatar: the Last Airbender’s Prince Zuko, Star Wars’ Kylo Ren. Villains who have somewhat relatable motivations in their backstories (all of these examples have clear daddy issues… hmm), and therefore the possibility for redemption. Not that I necessarily want them to be redeemed, but we’ll get to that later.
Fans of these characters are commonly criticized for like them because they do bad things—objectively immoral things—and therefore you shouldn’t like them or you’re a bad person too (or so the argument goes). And truly, if these were real-life figures, they would be right. Look into any historical villain’s biography and you’re bound to find theories explaining their actions that boil down to the same relatable situations: family problems, frustration with the path of their life, a legitimate desire to improve the world, etc. It doesn’t justify their actions, but it makes them human.
But there’s a disconnect with reality here. Loki isn’t responsible for the deaths of thousands of real New Yorkers. Kylo Ren undeniably killed his father, but as much as we all love Han Solo’s roguish charm, he’s not a real person. And neither are the characters themselves. Therefore, fans are not in love with a person but the idea of a person, which is a horse of a completely different color. Most fans of villains would probably prefer not to meet a real-life incarnation of their idols. We’re not idiots. Most of us are self-aware enough to realize that the outcome of such a meeting would probably end in death, or worse.
So why love something that’s inherently not good? How can we, as authors, justify our choice to write characters and situations which are not always entirely admirable in their behavior? How can we live up to this impossible expectation and still create conflict in our narratives?
The short answer is: we can’t. It’s not a reasonable request, and cannot be properly fulfilled. But what we can do is present the reasons this is not feasible, or even desirable. Or ask back instead, why might problematic characters be a good thing?
In part, they are an opportunity for psychological exploration. Carl Jung spoke of the Shadow: that part in each of us that desires things we’re not allowed to desire. To make peace with your Shadow, you must acknowledge and accept it, without giving in. Villains give us a chance to do just that. They give us the opportunity to revel in our Shadow in a safe, fictional environment.
But the problem with the “problematic” label goes deeper than criticizing fans who like villains. Often it’s not a villain that’s being referred to as problematic. Take for instance the protagonist of the ultra-popular Twilight series. Unlike his vampiric predecessors in literature such as Dracula and Lestat, he’s not supposed to be a villain. He’s the good guy, the love interest. But his behavior follows a number of patterns that we’ve learned to associate with his genre that aren’t appropriate to this new role. Sneaking into a teenager’s bedroom to watch her sleep is not romantic, it’s creepy and illegal.
The profusion of such ethical issues in Twilight has made it the target of much controversy. But with a little digging, it’s not hard to find such issues in just about any story. My favorite examples are 90’s Romcoms. The stories are sweet, heartwarming, and full of really disgusting behavior towards women. This is largely due to culture shift: Here in 2019, our eyes have been opened (a little) by #MeToo and the tireless work of third-wave feminists to highlight the importance of consent and respect for boundaries. In the ’90s, we didn’t really think about that.
A great example is Serendipity, where John Cusack’s character uses aggressive stalking tactics to find a girl he briefly met 10 years ago. The end of the movie is happy because Kate Beckinsale’s character has been looking for him too, but try to imagine an alternate ending where she had moved on with her life and found someone else to love. Not so cute anymore, is it? In fact, it’s only a soundtrack shift and one act of violence away from being a psychological thriller. Likewise, the ending Kate & Leopold seems less romantic when you realize that Meg Ryan’s character will probably be miserable in the 19th century. She doesn’t like dressing feminine, is very outspoken, and finds her boss’s constant inappropriate overtures onerous. There’s only going to be more of that in Leopold’s era, and she can kiss the idea of a successful career goodbye.
It’s easy to spot the problems in ’90s movies because we’ve had a lot of cultural shift in the last two decades. But the truth is, the rabbit hole never ends. Stories being written now are problematic—almost every movie released last year had some kind of social critique issues. Many of the classics were written by and include characters who participate in social constructs such as slavery that we now find morally reprehensible. And I will venture to say that stories written in the future will be problematic too. Here’s why: stories are about people. They may be aliens, or fluffy animals, or even inanimate objects given a life of their own, but the personalities we give these characters are all patterned after humans when you get down to it. And humans are deeply flawed creatures. We do bad things, even without meaning to. But that’s okay—that’s what makes us interesting. Every High School English student knows that conflict is the root of all plots.
So what we really come down to is that being problematic is part of being human. If the characters in a story never make bad choices, then there’s no story. A perfect character is a boring character, the kind fandom culture likes to call “Mary Sues” (at least when they’re women). Any story that accurately depicts the human condition is going to have some ethical quandaries in it – because it’s an inherent part of who we are.
That said, I’m not saying that examining stories, finding those ethical quandaries, and bringing them into the light of social discourse is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. The reason these bad choices are part of who we are is because, as a species, we are constantly striving to improve ourselves. Each time we successfully stand up and say “No, this is no longer acceptable,” eventually that triumph reveals further work that needs to be done. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow laws, which gave way to the segregation, which gave way to institutional racism and microaggressions. Every time we take a step forward, we find more work that must be done. That is the nature of progress.
Rather, I am saying that acknowledging that a story has ethical flaws shouldn’t make it wrong to enjoy it. The two 90’s Romcoms I listed are some of my favorites. We live in an imperfect world, and to find any enjoyment in it we must learn to appreciate flawed things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that flawed pieces that spark ethical discussions serve an important role in society. Some storytellers, myself included, choose to intentionally delve into morally grey areas. Some choose to act as a moral compass, but others simply wish to illuminate just how murky the waters really are. Maybe rock the boat a little, start a few conversations.
So where do we draw the line on whether or not an ethically questionable work should be enjoyed or not? This being one of those very gray areas, it’s difficult to say. However, while working at a Christian publisher, an interesting distinction was made that I think can be extrapolated to apply to other texts as well. The publishing guidelines asked that there be no graphic violence or sex in the books, and many authors expressed concerns to me that their book would not pass the content guidelines because they included such things as sexual abuse, divorce, gang or warfare violence, etc. The advice I was given to pass on to them was this: these things are a part of the world we live in, and we don’t expect authors to exclude them from their stories. However, we don’t wish to dwell in the details, and anything immoral should not be glorified.
Now, that’s far stricter than I think the general public needs to adhere to. But the second part of the advice is an interesting concept. When a character makes a bad choice, it shouldn’t be “glorified.” That isn’t to say the character won’t get away with it. But if the story seems to be telling us that the bad choice was really a good choice, that’s when it becomes truly questionable. This brings me back to Twilight, and peeping Edward sneaking into Bella’s room to watch her sleep. If Bella had been justifiably freaked out by this invasion of privacy, it would be far less problematic. Instead, she finds it romantic. That’s what makes Twilight problematic. The ethically questionable actions of its characters are presented as good and therefore seems to encourage such behavior in others. By contrast, in Star Wars, Kylo Ren’s actions are presented as unequivocally wrong. Despite the morsel of wisdom in his motto of “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” the story is not encouraging people to run around killing their parents.
This is why I mentioned earlier that I don’t necessarily want my villains to be redeemed. I enjoy characters who have that option available to them because it provides tension—will they continue to choose evil? Will they try to make things right? Loki, in particular, is an excellent example as outside of The Avengers it’s never really clear if he’s the villain or not. His actions in Thor are misguided, but his motivations were mostly positive (if you believe Loki when he says he thinks Thor would be a terrible ruler, and he’s not wrong). In The Dark World, he largely plays the role of helper, only pretending to be the villain when it helps the heroes. And in Ragnarok, he’s more comedic relief than anything else and is arguably a reluctant anti-hero. His brief appearance in Infinity War constitutes redemption in the form of heroic sacrifice, and then thanks to the narrative wonders of time travel, Endgame takes him right back to where we started. Because really, that’s where Loki is the most interesting.
But for darker villains such as Kylo Ren, it’s almost better if they don’t achieve redemption. If The Last Jedi had ended with Ben Solo turning his back on the dark side and going with Rey, I honestly think I would have been disappointed (although the Reylo shipper in me would have been thrilled). Because once a villain makes that choice to turn to the light, we as an audience lose the chance to revel in our Shadows.
So the next time that you find someone confronting you about the stories and characters you love, or worse, those you have written, complaining that “your fave is problematic,” just tell them that’s the point – aren’t we all?
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