Every few years, the word “problematic” is redefined according to accepted social norms and behavior of the current generation. It follows that Generation Z defines problematic in a way that reflects a current rise in the denunciation of sexual assault, racism, homophobia and other violent or discriminatory offenses that had been commonplace only a decade or two ago.
The dilemma presented to us today is the realization that entire decades of famous people and popular media—according to our current standards— ought to be classified as problematic. Our collective, politically aware society—the modern patrons of streaming services like Netflix and Spotify—must suddenly determine whether to avoid or tolerate hundreds of various offenses perpetrated by media and celebrities over the years.
So, where do we draw the line? What constitutes an offense problematic enough to “cancel” an entire person or piece of media? The difficult truth may be that our lines will always be just a little bit blurry, no matter how defined our moral stances.
Either way, let’s begin with the obvious: a convicted sex-offender, white supremacist or murderer does not deserve your money. Here’s an easy checklist to help you out: is the person a malicious criminal? Does the person get paid when you watch their shows or listen to their music?
If you answered yes to those questions, it’s time to block that artist on Spotify or go through your Netflix list and remove any shows that they’ve produced. The goal here is to take power away from people who have deeply wronged other communities or individuals. If you prioritize justice over entertainment, it won’t be difficult for you to draw that line.
Sometimes, a television show or a song will have themes or a plot that you consider problematic despite not involving any obviously problematic celebrities or artists. Whether you listen to or watch these types of media will likely be determined by your comfort level with the material.
That being said, there’s always the danger of promoting outdated themes and messages through spending money on problematic things. If you pay to see a recent film or buy a recent album containing controversial topics, you’re signaling to corporations that problematic messages sell.
If you do decide to consume problematically written media—especially pieces of media that are considered classics, which are difficult to avoid in modern pop culture—it is your responsibility to educate yourself and those around you on the problematic subject matter being portrayed.
This is a particularly important step to take if you are not a member of the community or group being discriminated against in the media that you decide to observe. For example, if you are a man and you watch a film that promotes or romanticizes male incel behavior, it is your responsibility to research how this behavior may negatively affect women. If you are white but you decide to watch a film that romanticizes the oppression of black individuals, listen to any complaints made about the film by the members of this community to better understand the struggles faced by individuals without your privilege.
It’s hard to stop liking something once you’ve started. Sometimes you’re just punched in the face with a news report that explains how your favorite actor has allegedly sexually assaulted his latest costar. There’s not much we can do in that situation other than struggle through the disappointment and shame that will inevitably accompany having trusted and loved someone who turns out to be problematic. I don’t have a solution to that problem—we just have to trudge on and try to pick something new to like—hopefully something that won’t let us down this time.
Whatever you do, just remember that your actions don’t exist in a bubble. No matter what I tell you, you’re going to make your own decisions on who to support and which messages to broadcast. Keep in mind that your decisions affect marginalized communities and the legacies of those targeted by problematic people in power. Believe and stand up for survivors.