Illustration by Timba Smits for Little White Lies
I usually begin articles with examples, but with this one it seems unnecessary. All our faves have had their fair share of cancellation, and we all have a pool of artists whose work we enjoy but only in private, lest we get accused of endorsing their, well, problematic personal politics. Bad People Making Good Art is not a new phenomenon—wasn’t every good writer in the 19th and 20th centuries basically a sociopath? But today’s cultural climate rids us of our ability as an audience to consume art at face value. The personal is political, so art is never just art, because artists are never just artists. Hence, the question of whether or not we should support the work of problematic people becomes weightier—consuming art is no longer a matter of taste, but a political statement.
The term “problematic” is… problematic?
Feminism’s permeation into the internet has given rise to the entrance of buzzwords. What used to be jargon is now Stan Twitter lingo, “problematic” being a central example. In academia, it’s used as a blanket term to describe any action or belief—and today, any person—which upholds a system of oppression. It started gaining traction in fandoms with the now infamous (and iconic?) Tumblr blog Your Fave Is Problematic. Policing celebrities’ statements and actions both in and outside of their work became a trend, and it was good. It was good that people were learning to consume more consciously, to point out the flaws of people they admire. More importantly, however, it introduced mainstream audiences to the concept of “problematic” and what constitutes it, the importance of political correctness (or sensitivity, at least), and that we should all strive to achieve a degree of “wokeness.”
That blog hasn’t been active in three years, but the term has transcended Tumblr and has moved on to everyday vocabulary—not only on the internet, but IRL. The stakes are higher now, and its definition is broader. While the original blog moderators usually targeted cultural appropriation and usage of slurs, “problematic” is now used to label sexual assaulters (Harvey Weinstein is the first name that comes to mind, though there are many, many more), racists (Liam Neeson is the most recent to be cancelled because of this interview), ableists (Alfonso Cuarón’s harmful depiction of autism in a ten-year-old advocacy video resurfaced amid Oscar buzz), and apologists, who, despite not having done anything problematic themselves, have continuously excused the behavior of those who do (Rami Malek never properly addressed the sexual misconduct allegations against Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer, even saying that it was Freddie Mercury himself who prevented him from knowing about Singer in an attempt to skirt around the topic), among others. Needless to say, the term has grown bigger than a Tumblr blog, encompassing decades of maltreatment and exposing the insidious underbelly of a powerful industry.
“Problematic” has become a catch-all. Ariana Grande, upon getting a tattoo of Japanese characters for the ~*aesthetic*~, has been called the same moniker as Woody Allen, who has been accused by his adoptive daughter of sexual assault.
This is not to say we should put the term to rest. Its existence is important, because in a way it holds these people accountable. They are given a name, and that name is heavy. But context is of utmost importance in a conversation like this, especially when most of those conversations happen in a website with a 280-character limit. “Problematic” means a lot of things, so the question of whether or not it’s right to consume the work done by these people has no singular answer.
Cancelling artists we love is like cancelling us.
I’m a teenage girl raised on the internet, so naturally I was there during the rise and eventual fall of the Your Fave Is Problematic blog. I remember being on my One Direction Tumblr account and seeing their problematic behavior listed almost harshly, with the words “Your Fave Is Problematic: One Direction” emblazoned coldly on top. “Exploits the insecurities of women and implies that self-esteem [issues] can be healed with a man’s approval in songs ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and ‘Little Things,’" the first bullet says. I was 13 and impressionable, so I took offense with the intense, high-pitched, bitter anger only a 13-year-old could give. I, for one, did not feel like my insecurities were exploited, so how dare they even propose such blasphemous nonsense. The internet is toxic! Everyone is so quick to cancel each other! I’m tired of discourse! My first impulse was to defend my idols, to bring forward my own experience, and to shift the blame. Six years later, while my 1D blog has not seen the light of day in years, the impulse remains.
In an essay by Sara Ahmed called "Happy Objects," she talks about the affect theory, which posits that objects can make us happy, therefore affecting us. According to her, we form groups—fandoms, or affective communities—to celebrate our happy object, and we internalize our membership in this group and make it a part of our personal identity. (Who else peaked in middle school when their teacher would say “one direction” in class and all their classmates would turn to them?) So when an “affect alien” arrives and says, “Hey, I don’t find happiness in your happy object because of this totally valid reason, i.e. it perpetuates the notion that women are quantified through male validation (If only you saw what I could see / You’d understand why I want you so desperately),” it feels like an attack on us personally. So we attack back. It’s a survival instinct; we protect ourselves by protecting the thing we love. By excusing its flaws, we also excuse ours.
I must admit, defining “What Makes You Beautiful” as an example of problematic behavior is a reach, and One Direction isn’t the most timely of examples (unfortunately). So here’s another: I saw Bohemian Rhapsody in theaters. That doesn’t really sound like that big of a deal—I thought so too, and so I took my entire family to see it. I’m on Film Twitter, so I was aware that people were boycotting it, for a reason I never bothered to look into. I just knew I liked the trailer and I liked Queen, so I wanted to see it and so I did. The movie was a hit, which angered the entirety of Film Twitter. The takes were coming in:
Bohemian Rhapsody is the highest-grossing music biopic despite being directed by a pedophile, so shame on you if you paid to see it; it’s historically revisionist; its depiction of Freddie’s homosexuality and its use of it as a plot device that marked the downfall of his career and personal life are extremely harmful.
Bohemian Rhapsody’s success made it clear that #MeToo and #TimesUp have perhaps not been as powerful as we all would have liked; that being a sexual predator in today’s Hollywood is not a hindrance. I was ashamed to say I saw it, and that I didn’t think it was that despicable, and that I failed to pick up on its maltreatment of Mercury’s sexuality. My enjoyment of the film spotlighted my own problematic tendencies, my own myopia when it comes to oppression I don’t personally experience. I’m not trying to excuse my behavior by making myself seem like the victim—I am in no way the victim here, and I understand it was my mistake to ignore what everyone else was trying to tell me about this film and its director. I guess at the time, I found it easy to ignore. After all, why should we deprive ourselves of art we enjoy over some reason that doesn’t directly affect us?
So we ask the million-dollar question: should we separate the art from the artist?
I’m a big film fan, and very often I notice the widening disparity between film fans’ personal politics and our cinephilia. How do we take part in an industry that continues to ignore inexcusable behavior in exchange for art; an industry that just last month awarded a racist director a Best Picture Oscar for his racist movie? Before writing this article, I spoke to some fellow film fans about how they deal with problematic faves; below are excerpts from our conversations.
“It depends on the ‘problematic’ things they did, whether it was fifteen years ago or a couple of months ago; whether they were really young or [already] mature enough to understand that what they did wasn’t a good thing,” shares Andrea. “You always have to think of the context first and try to find the most accurate version of events, because if you let yourself be manipulated by a simple [headline], you’re not gonna fully understand what happened there.” Michelle* agrees, saying, “What we know about [Quentin] Tarantino doesn’t devalue his work. He made art that will be remembered, and as far as we know, he was just careless and/or creepy. However, what we know about men like Woody Allen is that he was cruel to women and did horrible things, and I think that does devalue [our experience with] his art.”
However, in the case of Tarantino vs. Allen, there exists a tendency to form some sort of continuum of problematic behavior; that just because the latter’s transgressions are worse, those of the former are somehow okay. Tarantino shouldn’t be terrorizing the women on his film sets in the first place, but because he is less worse than Allen, his behavior is excused. Michelle’s point, she clarified, is that what you know about the artist should inform the way you view their work. “You can still view [his] work, you just have to have an educated understanding of what he's like [and] how his tendencies affected the art itself. Don't be so quick to admire or respect it.”
The reason we even have problematic faves is because of our relationship to their art. “I always find it a challenging situation, especially when you have people [on] social media telling you to renounce them immediately, but that can be hard and heart-breaking, [especially if] they were a childhood favorite. I think you need to take a step back from what people on social media are telling you and think about your own personal morals,” says Kris*.
Of course, this view can go both ways. On one hand, it enables us to consume the work of problematic people because we are detached from them. “I try to look at all films for what they are regardless of who was involved. Like, I gave Bohemian Rhapsody a negative review because it wasn’t a good film, not because of Bryan Singer. In the same way, Rosemary’s Baby is one of my all-time favorite films but I still acknowledge the transgressions of its creator. It’s all about being able to separate the art from the artist,” says Colin. “No one should get upset toward someone for simply liking a piece of art that was made by a questionable artist. That’s my personal take. If you can enjoy something knowing there were problems behind the camera, that’s fine. And if it colors your opinion of the work itself, that’s fine too. It’s just something that has to come down to the individual.” After all, two different things can be true, because one’s goodness as an artist and their goodness as a person are not measured on the same scale; and a good piece of art can be about a bad thing, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Thomas adds, “I always think about dead artists. People like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Beautiful artists but horrible people. But how horrible they were doesn’t change how good their art is. I just try to enjoy the art, not the artist as a celebrity.”
On the other hand, however, is the notion that while you can detach yourself from the art and the artist, you can’t do the same for the artist and their art. “I don’t really believe in the death of the author because when you make a piece of art, you put yourself in it,” says Jay. “You don’t make art just for art’s sake. Every piece of art you make is a political statement, be it clearly political or not. It’s easy for other people to separate the artists from the art but it’s hard for me because I feel guilty consuming that piece of art knowing that whoever made it was a really [bad] person… Like, I read some reviews from Woody Allen’s films that say revisiting his work made them realize, ‘Oh, [he was] actually kind of creepy and it shows in the work,’ like how Magic in the Moonlight’s main relationship has a creepy age gap which reflects on the kind of person Allen is.”
Calling out call-out culture
Over the years, Ahmed’s concept of happy objects is becoming more and more applicable not just to pieces of art, but to people. What started out as defending One Direction’s problematic lyrics evolved into excusing the members’ behavior, because my happy object was no longer their music, but them. This increase in celebrity fandom means public figures are scrutinized not only for their appearance and talent, but also their social awareness and inclusivity. And that’s not a bad thing; much like the Your Fave Is Problematic blog, this growing interest in progressive thought invites us to reevaluate our role models and therefore, ourselves. But the concepts of political correctness and social consciousness are still fairly new topics, and we are all still continually learning about them. Terms like “cultural appropriation” weren’t common knowledge until a couple of years ago, and wokeness wasn’t a requirement until it suddenly was. While well-intentioned, call-out culture and its unforgiving selectivity can demonize celebrities who simply don’t know better.
It was a complete surprise when even the internet’s boyfriend Timothée Chalamet proved vulnerable to problematic tendencies by working with known pedophile Woody Allen. People were quick to condemn him, because with Allen’s allegations basically being common knowledge now, he still worked with him, and for a time he was very silent about it. Chalamet did apologize, saying, “I have, to this point, chosen projects from the perspective of a young actor trying to walk in the footsteps of more seasoned actors I admire. But I am learning that a good role isn’t the only [criterion] for accepting a job—that has become much clearer to me in the past few months, having witnessed the birth of a powerful movement intent on ending injustice, inequality, and above all, silence.” But why did we pressure Chalamet to apologize, but not his co-star Selena Gomez? As he said, he was following in the footsteps of the actors he admires, so why haven’t we cancelled them as well?
What Chalamet did was wrong; it was good that he apologized, and fans were right to hold him accountable. But declaring celebrities “cancelled” only cancels further conversations and opportunities to educate. The world is not black and white and people are not exclusively good or bad, and very often we put public figures on pedestals and expect them to be capital-g Good all the time. Of course, this is not to say we should take this idea to the extreme and be more forgiving of people like, say, Allen or Weinstein. It just means being more mindful of how we perceive artists and our own personal blind spots.
On not wanting to let go of problematic art
So your fave is problematic—that’s okay. What’s not okay is ignoring their problematic behavior, or trying to excuse it just because you enjoy their work. Holding people accountable can pave the way for collective reform, as evinced by Allen’s movie with Chalamet A Rainy Day in New York being shelved because of massive public outcry. Calling out, when done right, works. “Oppression isn’t held up by bigots, but sheltered in the intentions of good people like you and me,” says Ijeoma Oluo in an essay for Medium. “It’s time to hold ourselves accountable to the values that shape our movements. Grow up, own up, do better.”
“The productive thing to do is not consume their work, [but] if you have to, be conscious about it,” shares Jay. “Don’t give them money at all because it empowers them, and educate people about it. You have to constantly acknowledge these things because you owe it to whoever they have oppressed; you owe it to them to not financially support whatever [their oppressor] comes out with.” Jordan adds, “Financial support or lack thereof speaks volumes to artists in power… The best we can do as [audience members] is let Hollywood know what we want and expect, and use our own privilege or power to support those ideals and the artists who hold those same ideals.”
At the end of the day, you have a right to consume whatever art you want, even if that art has politics you don’t necessarily agree with. The world isn’t homogenous, after all, and no person is infallible and therefore unqualified for the “problematic” moniker. But always be aware that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and very often it has the power to influence things external to it. If problematic audience members see similarly problematic artists thriving in their respective industries, it normalizes their behavior; the weight of their actions is lost, and the idea that they can get away with it is reinforced. Furthermore, showing that we as an audience are still willing to pay for their work implies that their behavior is excusable as long as they make good art, and with the rise of movements like #TimesUp, these people shouldn’t even be given a platform. Charles McGrath, in a New York Times article, asks, “How many stories, however, good, are worth the pain and unhappiness of others?”
This conversation is far from over, so if you want to read more on problematic artists, I recommend Jaime Weinman’s “Hot Takes and ‘Problematic Faves’: the rise of socially conscious criticism” from Vox, Liv Jordan’s “When Your Fave is Problematic” from Odyssey, Caitlin Thompson’s interview with Roxanne Gay for WNYC, Lauren O’Neill’s “There Actually Is a Way to Balance Feminism and Problematic Faves” from Noisey, Charles McGrath’s “Good Art, Bad People” from The New York Times, and Nawal Arjini’s interview with poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib for The Nation.
*Names were changed as per the request of the interviewees.
Interviews were edited for length and clarity.