I’m not here to tell anyone what to read or what to like. You should read what you want to read and like what you like.

My wish is for everyone, me included, to be aware of the potential issues with the media that we consume and not allow the problematic aspects of that media to propagate into real life.

And while it’s unlikely that your average reader is going to read a book like Mein Kampf and start plotting world domination, the biases and stereotypes that are present in books shape our ideas about what’s acceptable.

That’s not to say that one person can’t create a great impact. High-profile leaders are typically narcissistic and narcissists are nothing if not charming (I know, I grew up with one), and are very skilled at shaping the very fabric of the world around them to suit their needs.

But I digress.

I’ve been following the discourse in the book community, about how we should relate to problematic material and authors, and it’s gotten to a point where it’s turning toxic.

A lot of the drama is perpetuated by content creators (and I use this term loosely) who know that the scandalous, the divisive and the clickbait-y content works, so they make more of it, bloating the drama without adding to the conversation.

But I’ve also seen people being genuinely upset that they feel like the community is policing what they should read and like, and then going on the offensive saying, “I’m going to read what I read and like what I like”.

Media literacy should be taught from a young age.

In an age where media literacy is one of the most important skills to have turning a blind eye to problematic content isn’t a constructive solution.

We’re constantly swamped in different types of media and navigating that is key for good mental health and a more equal society.

As a parent, I don’t want to discourage my child from consuming media that she is interested in.

And, before you tell me young children shouldn’t be consuming PG-18 media anyway, let me tell you, kids’ media is just as full or biases and stereotypes as adult media.

Sometimes it’s worse, because concepts get simplified and distilled for children.

  1. Disney princesses have been criticised for promoting traditional gender roles and emphasising the importance of physical beauty over intelligence and strength.
  2. Thomas the Tank Engine has been criticised for promoting conformity and obedience to authority, as well as perpetuating gender stereotypes through its mostly male cast.
  3. Barbie dolls have been criticised for promoting an unrealistic body image and encouraging girls to prioritise appearance over other qualities.
  4. Curious George has been criticised for reinforcing colonialist attitudes and stereotypes through its portrayal of a white man teaching a monkey about the world.

I grew up watching Johnny Quest, a show that was rife with racial and gender stereotypes (not to mention the violence), it still was a gateway for me as a young child living in a homogenous population to imagining having friends who were very different than me.

Ironically, my South Asian significant other also grew up Johnny Quest, and having loved the show as much as I did, we can now look back and laugh about how absurd the show is.

So, rather than turn my child away from those things, I sit with her and we watch it together so that I can lead a conversation about the biases and stereotypes, pointing them out as they come up.

Peppa Pig was a favourite in our house for a long while, and while we loved the little Easter eggs in it for the parents, there were still a lot of issues.

  1. Peppa Pig portrays traditional gender roles, where Daddy Pig is the breadwinner, and Mummy Pig takes care of the home and children. This reinforces the idea that men should work outside the home, and women should be responsible for domestic duties. And while this dynamic is still true for most of the population on this rock flying through space, we can still use our media and storytelling to broaden our horizons so that it becomes a choice rather than a default.
  2. In some episodes, Peppa and her friends make fun of others for being overweight or having physical features that are considered different from the norm. This promotes body shaming and can contribute to low self-esteem and negative body image. Again, this very accurately reflects the reality most of us live in, but especially in children’s media we have an opportunity to call out this kind of behaviour and show more constructive ways of being in community.
  3. The show only depicts heteronormative relationships, where the parents are married to the opposite-sex and are all cis-het. This excludes and marginalises LGBTQ+ families and can contribute to a lack of understanding and acceptance of different family structures.
  4. Peppa Pig often portrays the wealthy characters as snobbish and entitled, while the less affluent characters are portrayed as less sophisticated and cultured. This reinforces classist stereotypes and can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding towards those from different socio-economic backgrounds.

But none of this stopped us from watching it. Or consuming other problematic media.

We simply would point out the issues and discuss them as they came up.

And today, our kiddo will watch shows with us and comment on them herself, saying things like, “That’s not very nice. They should have done so-and-so instead.”

As a society, we routinely praise people for toxic behaviour and raise narcissistic, self-serving assholes onto mountains of money with our consumption choices.

Trying to sit on a high-horse and saying that you don’t contribute to harmful media on some level is short-sighted because we live in a globally connected system where no single part of the system is completely without fault.

Which is precisely why I advocate for awareness and media literacy.

And this is where I finally get to my original point about using the word “problematic” as a blanket term.

Problematic is unspecific which makes it easy to use it to dismiss concerns.

But problematic is a spectrum, from an author misspeaking in public, a story perpetuating stereotypes and portraying entrenched roles, to the creator of the media causing active harm in the world.

An extreme example is J.K. Rowling having become a billionaire on the success of the Harry Potter series, and now using her money, her influence, and her platform to actively try to eradicate a group of people.

Saying that something is problematic has become a way for people to hide behind it because it cleans the sentiment of the specific issue at hand

Saying, “I know this book is problematic, but I like it anyway” is different than saying “I know this book is transphobic, but I like it anyway” or “I know this book is racist, but I like it anyway”.

Using a blanket term like “problematic” starts to cause more harm than good the deeper we move into the conversation about things that are problematic.

It used to be common in the reading community to say, “this book has problematic theme with… [insert specific problematic theme]” but as we’ve moved into more short-form content, it feels like the shorthand of saying “it’s problematic” has degraded the meaning.

The power of naming.

I think that the way in which we can continue to engage with and enjoy problematic media, is to name the specific things that are problematic.

And naming those things doesn’t automatically mean “do not consume” – it means consume and be aware of x, y, z.

Because enjoying a bully romance and being bullied in real life – or worse, accepting the toxic or abusive relationship dynamics as a personal standard in your life – are wildly different things.

Especially, if you platform problematic media, such as do reviews about them or promote them, the most helpful thing to do is to name the things that are problematic.

Simply saying, “this was problematic” doesn’t tell me much because everything could be problematic.

The ideal, for me anyway, is to be able to have a community where we can have conversations about difficult and uncomfortable topics, problematic or not, without resorting to mud-flinging.

We’re all allowed to have our own experience, our own opinions, our own preferences.

As someone who is on the autism spectrum and is queer, I’d just love it if we could acknowledge biases and be aware so that we can all grow together.

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