Sometimes, even the most-watched movies and programmes don’t always get it right, with storylines, jokes or casting that spark debate or even cause offense among viewers. But as the audience, how we should respond to films and TV shows with problematic elements, whether it be underlying sexism, homophobia or a lack of diversity, and is it possible or even acceptable to still appreciate the works themselves?
One of the most recent films to have been highlighted as problematic is Doctor Strange. Before the film had even been released, there were complaints surrounding the fact that mystical figure The Ancient One (described in the original Marvel comic books as being from Tibet) would be played by none other than Tilda Swinton – yet another case of Hollywood’s apparent “Asian whitewashing” problem. This isn’t the only element of Doctor Strange that has caused problems; the depiction of Strange’s ex-girlfriend and apparent love interest, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), left a lot to be desired among female Marvel fans. Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman’s Dr Jane Foster, Palmer seems to fall into the role of the weak, dependent woman, serving here as little more than a plot device used to show the cold-hearted protagonist’s emotional side.
Can we still appreciate these shows and films which don’t always hit the mark? We ought to both acknowledge their issues, and make an active effort to highlight and discuss them. In doing this, we can use them as examples through which to encourage awareness and even invoke change.
Sony’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney classic Mulan also faced accusations of “Asian whitewashing” from the public, when it was rumoured that the lead role would be played by Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence. Even Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was slated for its lack of diversity, with the movie’s only black character being the villain (played by Samuel L. Jackson) – to which Burton controversially responded “Things either call for things or they don’t”.
This issue is by no means limited to film. Whilst hailed as a comedy classic (and one of my personal guilty pleasures), the sitcom Friends got away with a lot of things which nowadays would be considered wholly inappropriate. Joey’s objectification of women is often used to generate laughs, as are Chandler’s transgender father – who is frequently mis-labelled and referred to by her birth name – and the relationship between Ross’ ex-wife Carole and her new partner Susan. Perhaps the most frequently discussed flaw of Friends, however, is the show’s lack of diversity. One of the few named black characters to have a recurring role in the show, Ross’s palaeontologist girlfriend Charlie (Aisha Tyler), appears in only nine of the 236 episodes. In one episode of the recent Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy even jokes that “if Aisha Tyler can play a white woman on Friends, I guess it’s okay”.
That’s not to say that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is by any means without its problematic moments (or even episodes). TIME referred to the show as “TV’s Most #Problematic,” with complaints ranging from its discussion of one character’s American Indian heritage, to its plotline surrounding a one-man play titled “Kimono You Didn’t” (which has to be seen to be believed).
All things considered, then, can we still appreciate these shows and films which don’t always hit the mark? I would be inclined to say “yes, but under certain conditions”. When watching a work that is problematic, I would argue that we ought to both acknowledge its issues, and make an active effort to highlight and discuss them. In doing this, we can use them as examples through which to encourage awareness and even invoke change. I would also argue that it is important to consider the time in which a work was created – that’s not to excuse Friends for its ignorance on many important topics, but perhaps it would have tackled some key issues in a far more informed way, had it been written today. That being said, some might say that none of these things make it okay to appreciate works with problematic elements – but in refusing to acknowledge problems, to highlight them and to talk about why they are problematic, are we ever really going to make progress?
Art is about creating. In watching films and TV shows, despite their failures, we can be inspired, both on an artistic and a social level. We might be inspired by the beautiful cinematography, the poetic dialogue, or the fact that we fundamentally disagree with what is being shown, meaning that we consequently want to create something in response. Some of the writing and artwork that has been flooding social media in the aftermath of the U.S. Election is surely an example of this effect.
Ultimately, we need to keep watching but be aware. Discuss, debate and criticise, and let the mistakes made by writers and casting directors act as a catalyst for spreading awareness and, eventually, sparking real change.