Your favorite TV shows have always been 'problematic'

Blackface was always racist. People just didn't care.

A television.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

It happened to me! I like something that is "now problematic."

Familiar? The ongoing re-examination of everything from monuments and TV shows to college rivalries and airport names can make it feel like the enjoyment of just about anything anymore is a minefield. There's a natural tendency to become dismissive or defensive when this is the case, to blame "cancel culture" for making the movies, celebrities, and mascots we like "problematic now." It's unfair to project today's politics on to things that were created for a different cultural climate, or so the thought goes.

But the content eliciting this renewed scrutiny — be it Golden Girls or 30 Rock or Gone with the Wind — is no more problematic now than it's ever been. And by acknowledging that it is not the substance of the show or movie that has changed, but our own collective understanding of it, we can move forward into more productive conversations about how to realize a kinder, more inclusive, and more empathetic culture.

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The word "problematic" has been around since the 1600s, but it's taken off in recent years as (what Urban Dictionary calls) "a corporate-academic weasel word used mainly by people who sense that something may be oppressive, but don't want to do any actual thinking about what the problem is or why it exists. Also frequently used in progressive political settings among White People of a Certain Education to avoid using herd-frightening words like 'racist' or 'sexist.'" As the Los Angeles Times goes on to rant, "problematic" has morphed into a sort of crutch word for "sanctimonious posturing," used mainly by "moralizing, condescending, and reliably humorless people."

To call something "problematic" is to write it off as failing to measure up to the politically correct standards of the day without articulating exactly how or why that is the case. As a National Review headline scoffed when a similar argument was articulated by the Dartmouth student newspaper in 2018: "The word problematic is problematic now."

But if "problematic" can be a lazy catch-all, then specifying that something is "problematic now" is often to express exasperation at the way a perfectly innocent piece of culture seems to get swept up by the fickle tides of wokeness. As if there had never been a problem with said movie or TV show before its reconsideration. The phrase "problematic now" further implies that there was once a time when the "problematic" material in question — be it blackface or homophobic slurs or transgender jokes, all of which have been the staples of popular comedies over the years — was something that was ever okay. In truth there was never a time that such attitudes were excusable; they were simply more widely held.

For example, many popular TV shows have "become" problematic as certain unsavory creative decisions get a second look in the wake of the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement. "Golden Girls [is] now problematic," reads one shorthand headline from Monday, linking to an article about Hulu pulling a 1988 episode of the show in which Rose (Betty White) and Blanche (Rue McClanahan) wear mud masks for a blackface gag. Scrubs and 30 Rock have also pulled episodes over the use of blackface. But such shows aren't problematic now; the decision to use blackface, which has a racist and demeaning history dating back to before the Civil War, was always wrong, including when the shows first aired. Rather than imply that the episodes themselves are newly inappropriate, or suggest that society has somehow bent itself out of shape to "ruin" the show, for something to now be identified as problematic might better reflect the way our own individual understanding of it has changed — that more people are now aware of the fact that blackface is a tool of racism, and that it cannot be lightly or inoffensively used in comedy without causing hurt.

These discussions are imperative for progress toward a more empathetic culture, because identifying past mistakes helps prevent them from being repeated uncritically. Take, for example, the 1989 film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (one of "30 films you loved that are super problematic today"), in which the main characters use homophobic slurs. "It speaks to the insensitivity of those times, that none of us are proud of," Alex Winter, who plays Bill, has said, "And certainly don't intend to repeat." Winter is returning to the sequel Bill & Ted Face the Music later this year, and presumably will be among those now ensuring such an offensive mistake isn't repeated in the new film. Failing to grapple with past wrongs, though, leads to incidents like the homophobic disaster of Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure (of which Winter, notably, was not involved).

Much of the defensiveness and dismissiveness of calling something "problematic now" stems from the fear that there is something inherently wrong with you for enjoying a TV show or movie that has reached the point of being considered by the culture at large to be offensive. The best advice of all, though, might come from the influential, and now-unmaintained, Tumblr blog Your Fave Is Problematic, which called out celebrities and challenged fans to think critically about who they chose to hold in esteem. "Am I still allowed to like them?" the blog's Q&A rhetorically asks, the answer to which is: "Yes ... You can even like them as a person, so long as you recognize that they do have problematic issues." As for how to be a "conscious fan," the Tumblr suggests: "Recognize that they did something wrong. Accept it. Don't try to defend it or explain it ... When praising them, don't ignore the problematic stuff. Talk about that too." The same advice can be applied to TV shows, movies, and books.

"Problematic," after all, is a placeholder for a larger and more complicated dialogue. And, optimistically, "as a term implies ... there is a solution within it," writes Vice. That's not to say that the attitudes or depictions now being reassessed are okay — just that it's possible to both enjoy something and acknowledge that it is imperfect and has contributed in some way to a larger cultural hurt. For there to be a surfeit of things that are "problematic now" (and a surfeit of corresponding grumblers), means we're all moving toward becoming more enlightened, empathetic, and responsible audiences, one episode at a time.

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