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  1. susan
    susan July 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm |

    In high school I did a report on Margaret Sanger. I called my presentation “Margie the Sex Lady,” and thought I was so edgy for doing a historical report on birth control. I thought she was the bee’s knees for speaking out for greater access to birth control and even going to jail for it! In my women’s studies courses in college I found out she was a eugenicist. I felt hurt and angry. Like this was a personal dig against me. I renounced her and her work.

    I think for less brutal transgressions I take a “yes, and” approach. That is, “yes, so-and-so was a great person/made great art/was brilliant AND they had problematic issues.” However, there are still some inexecusable transgressions for me and those folks I will not partake in their art/work.

  2. Renee
    Renee July 28, 2009 at 4:31 pm |

    I don’t think that one can exist in this world without making some kind of compromise. We are imperfect beings and therefore much about our work will necessarily be equally as problematic. I think it is more of an issue if we don’t recognize where the errors occur with something we choose to consume.

  3. Jay@racialicious
    Jay@racialicious July 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm |

    Ummm… if you’re going to talk about Pixar, why talk about Up in particular (as opposed to Wall-E, Toy Story or the Incredibles)? It has an Asian-American lead, severely underrepresented in Hollywood.

    I understand what you say, but using Up as an example was rather poor.

    I think we can still criticize things we love but are problematic, and we recognize the capacity for people to change. Ursula Leguin, for example, wrote stories that were good in terms of race, but it took a while for her to recognize her own sexism and tailor her stories accordingly.

    But often we are afraid of what the people we admire, or our friends, would think or say, and we stay silent. Racefail was a huge recent example.

  4. Marcy Webb
    Marcy Webb July 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm |

    “I don’t think that one can exist in this world without making some kind of compromise. We are imperfect beings and therefore much about our work will necessarily be equally as problematic. I think it is more of an issue if we don’t recognize where the errors occur with something we choose to consume.”

    Co-signing with Renee. Wow. I think this is a first, and I say this with all due respect, and w/o snark. I loathe snark.

  5. Fellow-ette
    Fellow-ette July 28, 2009 at 4:44 pm |

    This is something I think about all the time. Because I love earlier “classics”, much of my favorite literature has racist, sexist or anti-semitic characters in it. I don’t believe in shunning art that has problematic elements, and I tend to believe that we should all try as much as we can to engage with interesting art even if it’s offensive, but it it becomes too offensive to appreciate that’s fair–everyone has a line. So as long as we’re engaging and analyzing and debating, there’s no other set of rules when it comes to art that clashes with our ideals.

  6. Rebecca
    Rebecca July 28, 2009 at 4:50 pm |

    My rule of thumb is generally that if it doesn’t make it into their work, I don’t mind consuming their work. This has its caveats, of course – I don’t watch much TV or film, and buy a lot of my books secondhand, so I can avoid funding authors I dislike. Also I’m afraid to return to a lot of books I liked as a child after growing up and learning that they had Issues – for example, I loved The Famous Five, but I’m not sure I would love it as much being aware of the sexism and classism.

  7. RMJ
    RMJ July 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm |

    This is something I deal with on a very regular basis – I like a lot of country and Southern rock, including artists as virulently racist and sexist as David Allen Coe, and manly man books and television like Lost or Steinbeck. There are no perfectly politically correct works.

    My attitude is that as long as I recognize that something is problematic and criticize it as such, I can enjoy it without guilt. Or, too much guilt.

  8. RMJ
    RMJ July 28, 2009 at 4:57 pm |

    My rule of thumb is generally that if it doesn’t make it into their work, I don’t mind consuming their work.

    I never, ever, ever find that works written by racist/sexist folks do not exemplify the attitudes of the author in one way or another. If I know that an author/musician/whatever is in some way prejudiced, I try to be more on the lookout and more critical of their work.

  9. FilthyGrandeur
    FilthyGrandeur July 28, 2009 at 4:57 pm |

    (not to mention that Chaucer was a rapist)

    i’ve also thought of this. i have a strange love / hate for Charles Baudelaire for his views on race and gender, yet i’ve still decided to name my self and blog for a line of his poetry (one of the worst poems in terms of his views on women), and adorn his creepy face as my blog’s banner and my icon. so i totally get where you’re coming from. i still love his poetry, just as i can critique it, and loathe certain offensive aspects of it, just as i can with about any artistic expression…

  10. Ariel
    Ariel July 28, 2009 at 5:01 pm |

    YEAH this topic.

    In my own work, I fight with this a lot. I used to do a lot of work with a group that really often used racist/overly broad stereotypes and part of why I stopped working with them was that it just felt gross to me, like I was doing the same thing white people always do. (The group wasn’t all white; I just felt like it meant something different when I did it.) There is one song in particular I love, love, love, but I just can’t use it because for me to dance to it would just not be right for reasons of race. I have tried to think of ways around this — editing the words to just get the music, et cetera.

    In other people’s work, I think that there is something to be said for honesty in a person’s perceptions. There have been times when I am thrown by something and it of course affects how I see the work; that seems fair to me. I am much more put off by current artists who are working with stereotypes for shock value than I am by historic artists; maybe it just hits closer to home, or I feel more free to critique my contemporaries.

    I have more to say about this but I will have to say it later.

  11. Ariel
    Ariel July 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm |

    YEAH this topic.

    In my own work, I fight with this a lot. I used to do a lot of work with a group that really often used racist/overly broad stereotypes and part of why I stopped working with them was that it just felt gross to me, like I was doing the same thing white people always do. (The group wasn’t all white; I just felt like it meant something different when I did it.) There is one song in particular I love, love, love, but I just can’t use it because for me to dance to it would just not be right for reasons of race. I have tried to think of ways around this — editing the words to just get the music, et cetera.

    In other people’s work, I think that there is something to be said for honesty in a person’s perceptions. There have been times when I am thrown by something and it of course affects how I see the work; that seems fair to me. I am much more put off by current artists who are working with stereotypes for shock value than I am by historic artists; maybe it just hits closer to home, or I feel more free to critique my contemporaries.

    I have more to say about this but I will have to say it later.

  12. FilthyGrandeur
    FilthyGrandeur July 28, 2009 at 5:09 pm |

    @RMJ

    i’ve often been criticized by people for listening to rap music, stating that I cannot identify as a feminist and like rap simultaneously. i find this racist because for years i said i listened to rock music by only male artists–classic rock, contemporary, alternative, you name it–while being a vocal feminist, and not one damn person said “you can’t be a feminist and like rock music” despite that every genre of music is dripping with misogyny and sexism. but as soon as i started telling people i enjoy rap, that’s when i got verbally attacked. basically people were telling me about how (black) rappers are sexist, which fits into the oversexualization of black men, despite the vast amounts of rock music that also objectify women.

    but you’re right–I acknowledge what is wrong with the music i listen to, and critique it. i certainly wish that there was less objectification of women in music, but rap music certainly isn’t the only example of it–and it shouldn’t be a scapegoat for white people either…

  13. Allison
    Allison July 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm |

    This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. I’ve been going back and rereading a lot of the books that I loved in high school and it’s been a somewhat painful experience.

    Re-reading Richard Wright in particular has been trying. I read a handful of his books when I was younger and really got into them. When you’re a young POC in school, constantly reading books written by white people about white people, it can be somewhat jarringly awesome to discover black american literature. It wasn’t until after college that I was at a used bookshop and saw The Outsider on sale and picked it up. I got about a 1/4 of the way through it before I had to put it down or I was going to start crying. Words literally cannot describe how upset that book made me. It reminded me though of part of a poem by Essex Hemphill:

    You judge a woman
    by what she can do for you alone
    but there’s no need
    for slaves to have slaves.

  14. Ren
    Ren July 28, 2009 at 5:24 pm |

    I think it is entirely possible to like someone’s artistic work while realizing they, the artist, are a flawed and far from perfect person. I love comic books, and almost all of them have very unrealistic people (but primarily women) in them. I even (ducks) really liked the movie “300″ even though the racism, homophobia and sexism in it were absolutely rampant. Visually I thought it was stunning. I recognize the serious problems with it…but it is still visually stunning.

    I also tend to think when people- like a lot of folk here- spend a great deal of time looking at what is wrong, or racist, or homophobic, so on in society…well sometimes, maybe we should get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our entertainment. A song might have really sexist lyrics, but a dang good beat, and sometimes you just have to dance with a song to a good beat.

    Creators of media are not perfect, that however does not mean they do not come up with art (ect.) that will appeal to folk they themselves just might not like very much.

  15. Blain
    Blain July 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm |

    I think you acknowledge that this is problematic and unresolvable, and continue revisiting it and achieving ad hoc resolutions that will be cast into question the next time a counterexample comes along. Not only will you not find perfect art, you will not be able to develop a perfect set of criteria for what perfect art would be. The attempt to produce art which will be seen as perfect by any set of criteria seems to produce some really hideous stuff that appeals to the person creating the criteria at most (often, it brings the author of the criteria to question their criteria).

    I don’t know that it’s so difficult to say “I like X’s work in Y, but I disagree with them about A, B and C.” I don’t understand why agreement with an artist is required to like their work — I know that it does not work like that for me. Some significant sub-genres of music include things I really don’t agree with, and you’ll see me happily singing lyrics I find woefully misguided, both because I enjoy singing them and because I love the irony of my singing them.

    But I also see all thinking humans as hypocrites, and don’t find hypocrisy as a major sin in and of itself. Life is full of apparent contradiction, which says as much about the impoverished nature of our paradigms as it does about the perversity of life.

  16. Pavel
    Pavel July 28, 2009 at 6:09 pm |

    I find it really difficult to separate the artist from the art. At times I find it extremely annoying because I can’t get into a musician’s or author’s work without knowing where the musician/author stands on certain issues. If the viewpoints that I disagree with don’t make it into the work of an artist, then I guess I can still enjoy it. But if the view is expressed in the art then I find it difficult to enjoy. I like to think that the art that I appreciate is made by reasonable people and so it’s difficult to enjoy something that is made by someone who is a racist or a homophobe.

  17. Justin Cognito
    Justin Cognito July 28, 2009 at 6:12 pm |

    For me, it’s always been a matter of, “How deep does it cut?” That is, how far down to the beliefs I hold toxic go in the work/creator? For instance, I watch South Park on-and-off, because they’ve managed to turn out some damn fun episodes, but I willingly tune out for the episodes I know in advance are going to contain glibertarian butchery (e.g., the one on the Writer’s Strike). On the other hand, I’ve pretty much decided I’m never going to read anything Orson Scott Card does because he views my happiness as such an anathema that he’s willing to overthrow the United States government to make sure I don’t get it.

  18. NoFinancialSupport
    NoFinancialSupport July 28, 2009 at 6:23 pm |

    I wont financially support an artist who is evil in some way. Why would I? I don’t believe liberalism means that you are so liberal that hatred, abuse, and bigotry are acceptable.

  19. William
    William July 28, 2009 at 6:25 pm |

    I think for me the issue with art is that, when done correctly, it can transcend. Art isn’t necessarily about a valid or empowering message, it is a snapshot of where the artist is at that moment in their lives. When it is at it’s best, art manages to tell us about the emotional states, values, and human experiences of creative people. Expecting those communications to be clean is, for me, like expecting a cat not to shed. If you like cats enough, you put up with hair everywhere and vacuum more often.

    One of my favorite literary examples of this issue is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was one of the better early science-fiction writers, developed a sprawling and detailed mythology in which he wrote, and had a command of the English language few people could compete with. He also had an absolute loathing for (and fear of) anyone that wasn’t Anglo, educated, and male. His racism, misogyny, and anti-semitism permeates every aspect of his work, but at the same time it provides an additional layer of subtext. It gives us an opportunity to read Lovecraft’s work as a confession, a rare chance to see into the mind and thought process of an unusually well-spoken racist. It has a degree of honesty that few other mediums could provide because the communication is on the level of unconscious association and metaphor. As someone who is fascinated by the human experience, it is this level of imperfection in the character of the author that makes his work so interesting to me.

  20. Pega
    Pega July 28, 2009 at 6:40 pm |

    In my little corner of the world art, as discussed here, would be primarily the written word, painting and sculpture. And to a much lesser degree films (though films are few and far between – and usually based on a book or graphic novel).

    I find myself thinking of more and more of the books and paintings I love as ‘guilty pleasures’. I love the work of art, but the more I learn about its author/creator, the less likely I am to admit that love. I also find myself seeing more and more issues with the art itself as I get older (and not so incidentally, more aware of those things I used to just accept as just ‘the way things are’ and rejecting that acceptance). To go back and re-read a beloved book from high school often has me cringing at the blatant sexism/racism/etc. that I find there. But I still love the book itself. Not for the characters or their actions or anything else, but just for the story itself. And sometimes because of the feelings of nostalgia that the story brings as I remember the first/tenth/hundredth time I read a particular story. Those now tend to fall under the ‘guilty pleasures’ umbrella as well.

    I can accept that the works are problematic. I can enter into discussions of those problems, why they are problems, how to stop them from being problems in the future. But I am still going to read (or hang on the wall) my guilty pleasures, for the simple fact that they are my pleasures.

  21. Zoe
    Zoe July 28, 2009 at 6:45 pm |

    I’m sure if I started going through my iTunes library, the amount of sexist and awful lyrics and messages would be overwhelming. I listen to a decent amount of hardcore, heavy, metal or screamo bands and I know a few in particular that have been singled out as pretty damn sexist (ex: Bring Me The Horizon’s Suicide Season album cover has a pretty girl holding her intestines). For the most part, though, the lyrics are indecipherable. And I can’t help it, I love the music…

    It’s definitely a complex thing you brought up but at least you recognize that it is complex.

  22. Michael
    Michael July 28, 2009 at 6:52 pm |

    I generally follow the same principle that Rebecca does. As long as the work itself is not distasteful, I can enjoy the work without having to endorse the ideals of the person who created it.

    I can listen to Wagner and appreciate what he did. The tuba as it exists today would not be without his influence. I identify as a tubist, I don’t know who I would be without it.

    It seems entirely wrong to me to close myself off to an experience in the humanities just because the creator’s viewpoint does not match my own.

    I would not hate a child because I disagreed with a parent, nor would I hate a book because I disagree with the author.

  23. Anna
    Anna July 28, 2009 at 7:47 pm |

    This past weekend, we watched Mamma Mia.

    Oh, awesome! All female gaze!
    Oh, for fuck’s sake, what is WITH all these skeevy race issues?

    Just… arg!

    For me, a lot of it is being able to talk about and pick apart these things.

    I like some stuff fandom has been doing to reclaim things that are problematic. For example, this vid (…on the dance floor) which takes two problematic source materials (Star Trek 2009, and the song “too many dicks on the dance floor”), and critiques the hell outta both.

    YMMV, of course.

  24. Blain
    Blain July 28, 2009 at 8:26 pm |

    18 — What I like about what you’re saying is that you’re taking responsibility for what you consume, which is cool with me. I listen to podcasts and mp3 music that I’ve gathered from various places and, if I find I no longer want to listen to what’s going on, I hit “next” and move on. I don’t get angry that the podcaster was talking about things I didn’t want to listen to — I just move on. I might talk to them about it, but, usually, I just pass it off that we disagree about this.

    But disagreement doesn’t bother me at all. Being disrespectful bothers me a great deal.

  25. Joy
    Joy July 28, 2009 at 8:31 pm |

    William: “Art isn’t necessarily about a valid or empowering message, it is a snapshot of where the artist is at that moment in their lives. When it is at it’s best, art manages to tell us about the emotional states, values, and human experiences of creative people. Expecting those communications to be clean is, for me, like expecting a cat not to shed. If you like cats enough, you put up with hair everywhere and vacuum more often.”
    THIS. So much this. I think that as people culture change, the art will change to reflect that. Thus, talking and thinking about what’s problematic in works of art is vital – it helps consumers and creators of art think about culture and the ways they’d like to see the culture change and be reflected in the media. But, I don’t think that art necessarily loses all value because it does reflect the problems of the culture.
    On a very personal level, I am a hardcore Narnian. Lewis introduced this Southern Bible-belt girl to the idea that people who weren’t Christian could end up in heaven. He made it ok for me to like Greek myths and Jesus. But…I see the major Fail with regard to race in those books. I see the devaluing of women’s physical ability. I see the feudal, classist attitudes. I love them. But I see those things.

  26. Jay
    Jay July 28, 2009 at 9:04 pm |

    Great questions. I’m glad you chose “Up”, not just because it’s the most recent but also because I’ve heard a lot of people say that the portrayal of the wife in the prologue is affirming and empowering in some way, when it just made me sad and angry. Her great adventure turns out to be marriage? Really? Geeze. And despite that I loved the movie – but I do wonder what my nine-year-old daughter will take away from it. (Yes, I brought this up with her. That’s when I discovered she’s learned how to roll her eyes).

    I’m often struck by the sexism/racism/classism I missed as a kid or college student when I re-read books – I written about that myself . As we start to negotiate my daughter’s consumption of popular culture more seriously – she’s 9 and loves mainstream music – I’ve had to compromise. Eve listens to Fergie and loves “My Humps”, which I find problematic but have allowed as a compromise, since I banned Soulja Boy. She watches “Hannah Montana” now and then but is not allowed to see “Zach and Cody”, and she has to pay for Disney stuff out of her own pocket but we buy the subscription to “New Moon”.

    Compromise, analysis and struggle….life in the world of the patriarchy.

  27. Nentuaby
    Nentuaby July 28, 2009 at 9:27 pm |

    I’m another one in the ‘judge the art, not the arstist’ camp… Mostly. That’s my philosophical take on it. Sometimes, I just cant’ do it. To revisit a favorite example, the name “Card” on the cover kills any chance I’ll read the book, even though I liked the work of his I read before finding out what a giant asshole he is. Reading back after becoming aware of it, it seems that his views don’t really penetrate the work; I still can’t stand it just because I know it’s from him.

    When it is in the art… That’s harder. It all depends on how in-your-face it is, I suppose. A work that’s generally insensitive I’ll finish, but probably conclude I didn’t gain much for it. If there’s something really breathtaking I toss the book at the wall.

  28. jemand
    jemand July 28, 2009 at 9:38 pm |

    I’m glad you chose UP. I nearly walked out of the theater and threw up. It was INSANE. The way she is turned into a HOUSE! The wife “does” get to go on HER dream adventure– as an agent-less, immobile, completely dependent HOUSE!

    It was only later while reading a discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper” did I learn that there is a whole tradition of depicting women as houses, to be “owned” by men, to “house” children, that the domestic space is their only space.

    The way the husband called the house his wife’s name made me sick… even before I could articulate why.

    And please? That boy was terrified, not really into the trip. What were the children in the town watching the house float away? Enraptured girls. All girls. Watching the boy go off to have his adventure, the adventure he didn’t even come up with on his own, and wasn’t even that big into doing. HE was thrown into it. The girls wanted it, but couldn’t get it.

    Yeah. UGH!

    At least Walley depicts female characters doing SOMETHING during the action parts of the movie, though I did still get an odd feeling of it…

    Up was just horrendously horrible.

  29. Harumph
    Harumph July 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm |

    I first faced this problem when I was about 17. For three years previous, I had been a SUPER fan of The Dresden Dolls, a member of their art-groupie collective, avid on their message boards, etc. I can’t think of another band I’ve seen so much in concert and have spent so much on the merch of. I followed Amanda Palmer’s blog obsessively. Her lyrics spoke to me in the way nothing had before. Finally, a strong but complex woman!

    And then, slowly, it dawned on me that she super-sexualizes herself for attention and then super-masculinizes herself just to be taken seriously. A voice teacher once told her that her natural singing voice wasn’t even that deep! If she recognizes this she has never said so, and has definitely done nothing to discuss it as even a “necessary” evil of becoming a successful woman. Nope. Nothing. I feel betrayed and angry and impatient with her show antics these days, even if I still love many of the songs.

    And that’s okay. My betrayal comes from the fact that I bought into it for so long– felt different from most women and blamed women for it. And I guess I think when someone becomes a public figure they have an extra special responsibly to check their psyches for how they might be affecting people, but that’s probably a lot to ask.

    “A is for Accident” is still one of my favorite albums, but yeah– art =/= artist, and you can love something that isn’t ideal, too.

  30. Natalia
    Natalia July 28, 2009 at 10:53 pm |

    I think that one of the functions of art is to be a little (or a lot) horrible around the edges. There isn’t a whole lot of it that’s ideologically sound, and I prefer it that way, being a huge Lolita fan and all. I think that art affects us on different levels, and not all of those levels have a thing to do with any kind of social conscience.

    There’s a certain bus stop that I “talk to” because my cousin and I used to always wait for the same bus at night over there, before she died tragically that is, and this is why I strongly related to “Up” in particular. Jemand sees it in a completely different light. And I am an Amanda Palmer fan and love what she does with herself, possibly because I do something like that in my writing, but for Harumph, that reads like a betrayal. And you know, that in itself is cool and interesting – how different people respond to the same film or the same performer very differently.

    …and you can love something that isn’t ideal, too.

    Probably because nothing is truly ideal, no? ;)

    And thanks for this topic.

    Oh, and I liked what William said.

  31. Willow S.
    Willow S. July 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm |

    For me, it comes down to this:

    I am not a writer or an artist of any sort, but if I were, I think I would be sad if the only people who paid attention to my work were people who agreed with me 100% on all issues. Mostly because I don’t think there are any of them. Eventually, I am going to offend nearly everyone and be offended by nearly everyone. And, quite frankly, it would suck to miss out.

    So basically, I start off with the expectation that I’m probably not going to agree fully with the social or political subtext, and I’m pretty good at staying tuned in to it (thank you, medieval religious literature). The ultimate question, then, is does it feel real. For example, even though Robert Sawyer (fantastic SF author) usually has one or two nosedives into sexism in each book, there is something about his insight into human nature in general, into what it means to be human if you strip away the qualifiers, that seems so clear and true to me. It’s visceral rather than intellectual. But I’ll admit that when I recommend Sawyer’s books to people, I usually warn them about his, um, difficulties with portraying women.

    Oh, and I have to speak up on the Orson Scott Card issue:
    As homophobic and sexist (and etc) as he and his books can be, “Ender’s Game” very literally saved my life. I don’t think the same thoughts as the characters, but I think the same way, if that makes any sense. It’s a rhythm, or an instinct, and it’s a mirror that tells me hey, maybe you’re not alone after all.

  32. Nihilunder
    Nihilunder July 28, 2009 at 11:11 pm |

    It’s depressing and confusing sometimes but this is true of everyone who has done any good in the world; the experiences that go into making an Important Historical Person. Jefferson and Washington created the political foundation for freedom, but owned slaves; Edison helped found the modern world but was an asshole and a bully; etc.

    This is something that all mature thinkers come to terms with, and if they’re lucky they come away with a fluid understanding of life. Those who aren’t sit in churches (or college classrooms) and scoff in bitterness.

    Life is fun.

  33. SnowdropExplodes
    SnowdropExplodes July 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm |

    In non-fiction, my big answer has to be realising that Karl Marx was, as well as a genius on economics and politics, also a hideous racist and ultra-sexist arsehole as well, and apparently was a bit of an arsehole to be around even if you happened to be white and male, too. Although he was an ethnic Jew (but atheist by belief system, obviously) there are clear elements of anti-Semitism (some of which might be read as general anti-religionism, but not all) in some of his works.

    I realised there could be problems with enjoyable music when I heard a recording of the Beatles singing “I gotta woman” with the lyric, “She knows a woman’s place, gonna stay right there and hang around the home”. After that, I started noticing a lot more gender-role-enforcing lyrics in old rock’n’roll songs. And then in more modern stuff as well.

    I think one of my earliest lessons in racism in fiction was when someone pointed out to me how racist Enid Blyton was: I’d been an avid reader of the Famous 5 series, and then someone explained to me how some passages that I’d accepted unquestioningly were actually really problematic (possibly my first lesson, also, in identifying “privilege”).

    Considering how far we can or should let problematic elements in authors’ and composers’ works slide, one one level it stands to note (as others have above) that no author can be 100% free of the assumptions and attitudes that typify his or her society. I think, when we look at Chaucer or Shakespeare, they were a part of their times and their original texts cannot be understood in complete isolation from those times. It doesn’t absolve us from having to be aware of what that means in terms of the messages about gender, race etc may be, but it does help us put those messages in context as part of the problems those authors faced.

    To a certain extent, I think that the same is still true today. Feminist theory (especially radical feminist theory) seems to acknowledge already that cultural norms affect people’s consciousness, and it follows that they must affect the art that people living in that culture produce. We cannot ever call ourselves completely free from the -isms that permeate society, so to some extent avoiding them in cultural output is going to be impossible.

  34. Felicity
    Felicity July 28, 2009 at 11:31 pm |

    This comes up for me a lot, both as an English major (the world is, to quote Leslie What, “bristling with subtext”) and a sci-fi geek/spec-fic writer. A lot of stuff I love was written with a male audience in mind, and even though I’m white, born middle-class and otherwise very much the intended audience for those media, I encounter moments when, like the above-mentioned problematic Woolf, “from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, [I become], on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.”

    The model I’ve used to describe engaging with problematic media is a weight being drawn up out of a shaft. I’m pulling on a rope that goes over a pulley to draw up that weight. (I know, convoluted, but that’s the mental image I can’t shake.) Everything I like about a work motivates me to pull harder. Every time that work is sexist, racist, ableist, et c. more weight is dumped on.

    There’s no objective point at which the delight, geekery, excitement and sensawunda a work offers becomes too little for me to keep pulling. It’s entirely subjective. If the movie or book doesn’t offer a lot of the stuff *I* am interested in, why the hell would I put up with its heteronormativity, objectification, lazy stereotyping, et c.? On the other hand, the drawbacks of something I love may weigh heavier on someone else, depending on her history.

    That subjectivity is important. Blade Runner is one of my favorite films ever, and it has a scene with sexual consent issues. I love it enough to lift that weight. Someone else might not, and that’s okay with me. As people have said, there’s probably no such thing as an unproblematic text. I think we can acknowledge the problems with things we love* and keep loving them. We can be surprised by others’ fortitude without labeling them as ‘bad feminists’ or ‘bad progressives’ because they like 300, Grand Theft Auto, Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens. And we can accept that others find the weight of problems too much to bear in our favorite works, let go of the rope and walk away without listening for the crash.

    *This is an important step, though, I think. Don’t you?

  35. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan July 29, 2009 at 1:52 am |

    I think it’s interesting, too, to see what fandom does with problematic things in fiction, etc. My friend and I would sort of half joke about it “Wow, Sakura is awesome right now, and Naruto sucks at planning, teamwork, and common sense. …okay, Sakura’s the Hokage now. It’s canon in my mind.” *waves nerd flag*

    You see a lot of explaining away of things and redemption (or complete bastardization) of characters in the fandom, which sometimes “fixes” the problem (maybe everyone just agrees to make the pathetic female character stronger, for example, and pretends she was that way all along) or makes it worse (maybe everyone kills her off immediately to get rid of her, and just talks about the male characters for the rest of the story.)

    I’m mostly in the “what I don’t know can’t hurt me” camp when it comes to the author, etc. If (big if) their issues can stay out of the work I don’t really have a problem with it, or if their issues are part of the work (or, as in the case of fandom, can be *made* part of the work: “no, that character only got away with raping her ’cause the author wants to *show* how messed up society is!” even when the author actually maybe just thought that the character getting his girlfriend passed-out drunk and sleeping with her was okay or something.)

  36. Julie
    Julie July 29, 2009 at 1:53 am |

    Ummm… if you’re going to talk about Pixar, why talk about Up in particular (as opposed to Wall-E, Toy Story or the Incredibles)? It has an Asian-American lead, severely underrepresented in Hollywood.

    I understand what you say, but using Up as an example was rather poor.

    By this logic, Woolf should be impervious to critique for her anti-Semitism because she was progressive on women’s issues. Leave her alone and pick on Roald Dahl!

    A work of art can do well in one area and badly in another. There are women in this very comment thread who are saying they were hurt by Up’s treatment of women – would you rather they (we) just swallow it and pretend there’s no problem?

  37. Blain
    Blain July 29, 2009 at 2:37 am |

    37 — I don’t think anybody needs to pretend anything. If you don’t like something, you don’t need to pretend you do. If you like something, you don’t need to pretend you don’t. Even if you think liking it goes against what you think you believe. There are pieces of art that I recognize as good art but don’t like, and pieces of art that I like and recognize as not really good.

    Just like agreeing with someone on one issue doesn’t mean you have to pretend you don’t disagree with them on another issue. Or vice versa. There isn’t anybody I’ve found that I can’t agree with about something, or disagree with about something. I don’t agree with myself 100% of the time, so nobody else has a chance of 100%. I know I’m not right about everything, but I don’t everywhere I’m wrong or I’d change it (as much as I can).

    If (say) Harold and Maude was your favorite movie — something that touched you deep in your soul and made you think and feel things that changed your life — and somebody you like and respect rejected it out of hand because they don’t like movies about bored privileged white kids who think they’ve got it oh-so-hard, that’s probably not going to feel very good. But their opinion doesn’t take away the fact that you like the film, and your liking it doesn’t make their opinion invalid. You might reach a point of acknowledging that, yeah, Harold really is kinda whiny and annoying, but you still love him (or the film, or both), and your friend might reach a place where they can understand how the parts of the film that really touched you are interesting, even if they just don’t like it.

    The problem comes when you decide that everybody should watch it, or your (likely temporary) friend decides that nobody should watch it, and people start getting demonized for being “wrong.”

  38. Jay@racialicious
    Jay@racialicious July 29, 2009 at 4:08 am |

    A work of art can do well in one area and badly in another. There are women in this very comment thread who are saying they were hurt by Up’s treatment of women – would you rather they (we) just swallow it and pretend there’s no problem?

    No. That would be the last thing I’d want.

    I apologize in advance, since I still haven’t watched Up yet and so perhaps I shouldn’t be making hasty judgements on something I haven’t seen. I didn’t understand the problems in that movie.

    Part of the problem I had is the erasure I felt regarding the fact of the Asian-Americanness of the lead – in fact, there was a bit of a controversy because quite a few people didn’t think he was Asian American!

    Perhaps Up was a much better example than I thought!

    Still, there’s two layers I guess to this: there’s the “good art but bad ideals” layer (Orson Scott Card as an example) and “good in one sense and bad in another” (Up and Virginia Woolf)

    I think the best we can do is to constantly teach ourselves to recognize these things, so we can tell others “hey, this may be a problem”.

    @Ren
    we should get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our entertainment. A song might have really sexist lyrics, but a dang good beat, and sometimes you just have to dance with a song to a good beat.

    I want to. But I have trouble with it, because at the end of the day there’s an industry behind the work, and sometimes these choices influence future choices (eg if sexist lyrics are popular, then sexist lyrics will proliferate.), and it’s tough to stand behind that.

  39. CBrachyrhynchos
    CBrachyrhynchos July 29, 2009 at 6:54 am |

    As someone who was recently involved in a big argument regarding Pixar’s Up, it struck me that a ton of the defensiveness centered on a pretty basic misunderstanding of the relationship between criticism and respect. Perhaps its because I work in and with professional fields that thrive on peer review and criticism, but it’s generally taken for granted that if I bother to spend a few hours of my time talking about a given work, it’s because I feel the work and the artist(s) are generally worthy of more of my time and attention than the hundred other works that compete for my attention on a daily basis. I see little conflict between appreciating an artist’s craft, while pointing out that a specific work has some obvious and sloppy issues in regards to gender and sexuality.

    The primary goal of art, literary, and media criticism isn’t to throw an aura of shame onto creative talent, it’s to indulge in deep conversations and deeper understandings of the things we love.

  40. Natalie
    Natalie July 29, 2009 at 7:58 am |

    I was just talking about this with a friend wrt to the homophobic message of True Blood. (Vampires are just like Gay People! They should have rights! Oh but wait, all the vampires we know are murderous and amoral for real except for Bill, who is basically an ex-gay (a vampire who refuses to vampire) and Eddie who is, you know, literally a gay vampire, but he’s ‘non practicing’ because he’s too pathetic. So you know, gayness is an act, not an identity.)

    Other friends of ours refuse to acknowledge that this problematic message exists. And I’m just like, “Why can’t we just agree that we like True Blood anyway, not for those reasons, instead of trying to bend the text to support an argument that it isn’t problematic?

  41. jemand
    jemand July 29, 2009 at 9:39 am |

    I’ve found that the only way to get away from problematic sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. in music is to go all the way for complete misanthropy and nihilism. LOL. So I absolutely love songs like Tool’s “Vicarious”– maybe I’m wrong but I don’t at all see it targeting any particular human group, and a quick perusal of the news sections convinces me it probably is spot on about humanity as a whole.

    But when I’m looking at a piece of art, what matters a lot is the subtext, the music to the lyrics, the lighting to photography, soundtrack and lighting to a movie, etc. And if they manage to be beautiful (to me) I can appreciate them much more easily– like 300 and the “underworld” series. Plus… when a song has disturbing lyrics but a beat and musical “answer” to those lyrics I really like it– like metalica’s “Sandman.” The lyrics easily read as a story of sexual child abuse, but the music is a solid indictment of the lyrics, and fights against the lyrics being taken as “good.” Of course, my brother thinks I’m entirely nuts with this whole reading of the song.

    Its when something is truly disturbing, a portrayal of a stifling social role (sexism is easiest for me to see) and yet portrayed as part of a “hanky dory” world, where everything is “just fine,” the lighting and soundtrack has no contradictory comment on the overt message– that it feels like a hidden attack, and as such, a much more dangerous one. So UP bothered me ever so much more than 300, because it was supposed to be “family friendly” with only one, well defined villain.

  42. EKSwitaj
    EKSwitaj July 29, 2009 at 12:51 pm |

    Actually, I don’t think this is an issue of art and ideals colliding exactly. I think it is an artistic question full stop. If half of humanity is ignored or misrepresented in an artist’s work, that’s an artistic limitation and not the good kind that leads to more creativity. If you want to understand the limits of Sidney’s Arcadia, read Wroth’s Urania. Stereotypes aren’t just harmful: they’re lazy.

    Now, it doesn’t make me very popular at poetry readings (especially when I’ve had enough wine to express my opinions rather loudly), but I think Pound fucked up the Cantos (as he later admitted in his sort of egomaniacal way–see the Drafts and Fragments) because of the same limitations in vision that allowed him to support fascism. (Yeah, I’d rather you not purify the language of the tribe, thank you very much.)

    Of course, there is no perfect work of art and, as Renee said above “We are imperfect beings and therefore much about our work will necessarily be equally as problematic.” Where you draw the line is going to be a necessarily subjective decision. It’s going to depend on the quality and value of the work’s other aspects. It’s not as simple as sitting down and writing out a cost-benefit sheet, though. If it were that easy, you’d know you were looking at bad art.

  43. Marlene
    Marlene July 29, 2009 at 1:38 pm |

    I still struggle with Dianne Dimassa’s hateful and ignorant statements about trans women, yet I love Hothead Paisan. If anything, I’ve come to feel like Hothead and Daphne are more mine than hers at this point.

  44. wembley
    wembley July 29, 2009 at 2:14 pm |

    I encounter this all the time. It was hard to watch authors whose work I adored fail it up spectacularly and horribly during Racefail. And I love psychobilly and horrorpunk beyond reason — literally beyond reason, because the lyrics are often so, so misogynist. “LOL, fuckin’ dead chicks! LOL, I brutally murdered my girlfriend!” I feel like a lot of artists take refuge in the faux-edginess and ’50s mentality of the genre, feeling like the over-the-top nature of the gore and sexism automatically makes them exempt from charges of misogyny, like, “Oh, this is clearly over-the-top and all about zombies, how could you take it seriously?” So much of it is really boneheaded. But… I love the music. I think I deal with it by… compartmentalizing. In a big way. And by calling out the problematic elements when I recommend the music on my blog.

  45. William
    William July 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm |

    I was just talking about this with a friend wrt to the homophobic message of True Blood. (Vampires are just like Gay People! They should have rights! Oh but wait, all the vampires we know are murderous and amoral for real except for Bill, who is basically an ex-gay (a vampire who refuses to vampire) and Eddie who is, you know, literally a gay vampire, but he’s ‘non practicing’ because he’s too pathetic. So you know, gayness is an act, not an identity.)

    I’ve read True Blood somewhat differently up to this point. While on the one hand you do have Bill and and Eddie playing up to certain archetypes, I don’t necessarily see the rest of the vampires presented as murderous and amoral. They’re presented as thoroughly different and possessed of a very different moral outlook, but they also offer a wide range of actual behaviors. Bill, to me, isn’t so much the “ex-gay” as the man who desperately wants to be accepted by mainstream society. He still has in him the things which we see more boldly in other the other vampires, but he keeps them obscured. He’s still a vampire, and he doesn’t deny it, but he plays down the difference (which makes sense when you consider his age). On the other end of the spectrum you have a character like Erik who is comfortable with who he is and unwilling to hide it, but doesn’t go out of his way to exercise his power. Between those characters you have a number of others who show varying levels of flamboyancy.

    In many ways, once you allow for the conceit that we’re talking about vampires, what we’re looking at is less about homophobia than it is about developmental stages and self-acceptance. You have a range of external behaviors that go from repression (eddie), to an attempt to pass or downplay difference (Bill), to a reactive flamboyancy (pick any scene in the Erik’s bar), to comfort (the two from Texas we’ve encountered recently), to self-confidence and actual independence from a dominant culture (Erik).

    But, neither your interpretation nor mine necessarily holds the title of truth. Thats the great thing about art, what we see in it is as much what we need to see as what the artist needed to express.

  46. Gay Vampires « Booze. TV. Food. How Do *You* Spend Friday Nights?

    [...] Oh True Blood. Given my penchant for vampire romance as a genre it would be impossible not to like you, and the fact that you’re so excellently written and acted means I don’t have to even try to resist. That said, you do bring up the problem of art you enjoy with whose message you do not totally agree. [...]

  47. Natalie
    Natalie July 29, 2009 at 5:36 pm |

    While on the one hand you do have Bill and and Eddie playing up to certain archetypes, I don’t necessarily see the rest of the vampires presented as murderous and amoral. They’re presented as thoroughly different and possessed of a very different moral outlook, but they also offer a wide range of actual behaviors.

    But non of the other vampires conform to “human” morality either, which is what I’m getting at. The show itself explicitly compares Vampires to Gay people (Vampire/Gay bars; God hates fangs; fang-bangers/ fag-hags; vampire marriage/gay marriage).

    I love the show, but if the intent is to humanize gay marriage, it’s kind of a fail.

  48. William
    William July 29, 2009 at 7:50 pm |

    But non of the other vampires conform to “human” morality either, which is what I’m getting at. The show itself explicitly compares Vampires to Gay people

    I’ve always read the metaphor as being a bit less specific. For me the similarity revolves not so much on the issue of identity but on the issue of difference, stigma, and alienation. In that context the specifics of homosexuality and vampirism aren’t the metaphor, the social response to something many people disapprove of is the metaphor. Thats what I like about the show, it forces you into the position of someone who is likely to be disgusted by the vampires and then it constantly reflects that internal response you’re having as a viewer in people who you find either small-minded or despicable. Its harvesting that cognitive dissonance in the service of the metaphor.

  49. shah8
    shah8 July 29, 2009 at 8:33 pm |

    I’m with Natalie about the True Blood issues. Which has more problems, really… I watch it and enjoy it, but…

    You know? Here’s the thing. I read/watch/listen for content and not so much prose or whatever. Serious issues *will* crop up in their work. If Orson Scott Card is capable of imagining that Tlaxcallans will all of a sudden invent sailing and invade Europe like a bunch of Mongols in his book Pastwatch (ultimately making stupid Panglossian arguments), I tend to be able to guess that he’s…got problems, without reading about his homophobic behavior. When John Ringo writes a paragraph that talks about how a rape victim is traumatized because she enjoyed being raped and thinks she shouldn’t have, then I close the book and do not read anymore John Ringo. I rarely will read very old science fiction other than from people like Theodore Steurgeon or Alfred Bester or John Brunner, because even taking failed futures in account, old science fiction and fantasy tends to have huge issues with race/sex/whatever that ruins my ability to suspend my beliefs.

    It’s easy to accept Wagner’s anti-semitism when you’re just hearing a bunch of notes. It’s much harder when you’re listening to Immortal Technique’s Dance with the Devil, even when it’s something I think is good. When you get that sort of thing, and it doesn’t even make sense–say Kung Fu Panda (which is very much like Merchant of Venice), or Transformers II, it just contributes to the whole badness of the experience. There is usually no real compromise between the stance of the artist and the perception of the consumer of that art. Nobody is perfect, but badness does come through that art, think Thomas Kinkaid. No matter how good some of those evil old movies are, technically, they are usually fairly repulsive in content even if you do not know the history. Other old movies like Gone with the Wind or Huckleberry Finn sanitized whole stretches of the original art for good and ill.

  50. Pega
    Pega July 29, 2009 at 11:11 pm |

    I’ve been thinking about this post more and more as the days roll by, and after reading shah8 @50 something popped into my head that I can’t wrap my mind around just yet.

    Song of the South … Now, I saw this movie in theatres when I was, well I can’t even remember how old I was. Younger than Middle School definitely, and probably closer to grade 2 or 3 but I might be wrong. As an adult, I couldn’t really remember the movie except that it was about Brer Rabbit and had a bunch of songs that I loved (I still hum Zippity-Do-Dah when I’m in a good mood), and while I knew there were ‘racist overtones’ intellectually, I honestly couldn’t remember the film, all I remember was loving it as a small child.

    I recently found a copy of the film and ordered it on DVD for my granddaughter (age 14 mos). I watched it all the way through, and cried through most of it. It was HORRIBLE. And as much as I remember loving it then, now I can’t even love it for the nostalgia. It will be relegated to a bottom drawer somewhere and never again see the light of day if I have any say in the matter. And it especially won’t ever be shown to my granddaughter except as an example of what not to do.

    So while I do still indulge in my guilty pleasures from above, I can say that there are some things that are even too horrible for me to gloss over and love just for the sake of nostalgia, in spite of their inherent problems.

  51. chava
    chava July 29, 2009 at 11:18 pm |

    Well, it’s complicated, and I try to remember that the work is not the author, and the author’s character doesn’t take away from the greatness or lack therof of the work. There is. no. moral. connection. Good people don’t necessarily make good artists or writers, or vice versa. A book can have severely racist or sexist elements to it and still be valuable and worthy of study. I admit, I’m pretty influenced by a certain kind of lit crit, and that helps me to draw a bright line.

    Still, I have been oddly personally disappointed when finding out certain things about my favorite authors–that Nabokov cheated on his wife, that Woolf was an anti-Semite, etc. I think when you invest a lot of time not only in a work, but in the works of a particular author, it can become more problematic as we move farther away from pure criticism of the text itself and closer to biography, frankly.

    Just to note, though–if I am reading something for pleasure rather than work, I’m much more likely to put it down if I encounter enough unpleasantness.

  52. shah8
    shah8 July 30, 2009 at 1:14 am |

    I think I’d better make one thing clearer. Virginia Woolf is very very good at writing. The vast majority of people would have trouble at thinking up better ways to be Virginia Woolf. We should not be concerned about whether the artist had these issues, because the best art will always be fairly fully invested in the artist’s nature. Even if it’s the kind of slap-dash hurried writing of, say, Phillip K Dick.

    What’s important is that having major biases tends to blind people. So, with a good writer like Virginia Woolf, she still writes great works, but they are limited. Many times, the works in question never really approaches her biases and retains a full palette of thought and emotion. If jewish elements never comes up, or aren’t conspiciously absent from the narrative, then there might not be a problem, and her anti-semitism largely affects what projects Woolf decides to take up rather than the quality of said projects. No consumer, but a writer herself with great talent, can imagine or write a Woolf-like novel with an interesting element of jewishness.

    Everyone has these blindspots, but what makes a genius truly a genius is his or her ability to translate a vision in the mind to another mind–gears all atrembley, pistons pushing, platonic goo that pours in and crystalized soul comes out. So when a piece of art lasts the years, decades, and centuries (a few, millenia), it is because the artist saw. The artist had more vision and less hinderances than the people around him/her. The greatest will have had more vision and less hinderances in their moments of realization than even people living among artists standing on these giants.

    We can forgive much of the worst elements of Shakespeare, because we see and feel more as a result of reading him. The Matrix, on the other hand…well Shylock could never be the hero of the tale. Mr. Smith, by a reasonably objective analysis, is the *hero* of the first movie, even though that’s not really supposed to be the case. It works out like that because the creaters cannot see through and translate their creation well in large part due to glibertarianism. The Matrix will not last nearly as well as the original Twilight Zone episodes.

    If the art is great, it will forgive the crudeness of the maker, and there is no fucking need to forgive the maker. That is arrogance.

  53. Anon
    Anon July 30, 2009 at 10:11 am |

    “I’m down for running up on them crackers in they city hall”

    I absolutely love the song that the above lyrics are taken from (Dead Prez “Hip Hop”) but I can’t help but feel hurt by the idea that the people who make the music I enjoy wouldn’t want to be in the same room with me. However, I still listen to their music for the same reason filmophiles watch “Birth of a Nation”–because it has artistic merit.

    Also, I think you have misinterpreted Pixar’s UP. The female character in the movie is presented as a strong, adventurous leader. The square headed man spends the majority of his life transfixed by the woman’s charisma and strength. Ultimately when she dies the story of the movie is how this man can learn to cope without the pillar that his late wife was. Yes it is true that females are absent for the majority of the film’s action, but one of the central themes of the movie is how strong, courageous and beautiful women can be (even when they are not fertile and don’t desire to be an accessory to their man’s ambition).

    Ultimately, I accept any art that I find has merit but I feel no reason to use the merit of art to excuse bigotry.

  54. Jay
    Jay July 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm |

    Anon at 10:11, I think you’ve misunderstood my objection. Ellie as a girl is a wonderful character, and their relationship is lovely – but her character and that whole story exist only as a prop. She exists in the movie only for what she means to her husband. AND her grand zest and drive for adventure is sublimated into marriage – she did desire to be an accessory to a man. You said yourself that the story of the movie is how he copes without her. The story of the movie is HIM. It’s a classic patriarchal narrative. It made me furious. I can’t help but be hurt that the makers of Pixar don’t want me in their movie.

  55. Jay
    Jay July 30, 2009 at 1:56 pm |

    Shah8, some works survive because they support the status quo and allow the powerful to believe their own PR – after all, Shakespeare said it. We can appreciate the art without validating the views of the artist, but we can also examine those views and the ways they influence art to see who’s being left out, and what viewpoints have not been privileged.

  56. petitpoussin
    petitpoussin July 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm |

    for Natalie and others on this thread who think that True Blood’s complicated sexuality constitutes homophobia, you might want to check out this article by Yasmin Nair on the de-sexing of gay culture in an effort to gain mainstream acceptance.

  57. petitpoussin
    petitpoussin July 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm |

    for Natalie and others on this thread who think that True Blood’s complicated sexuality constitutes homophobia, you might want to check out this article by Yasmin Nair on the de-sexing of gay culture in an effort to gain mainstream acceptance.

    http://www.bilerico.com/2009/02/how_gay_marriage_put_an_end_to_gay_sex.php

  58. Anon
    Anon July 31, 2009 at 9:33 am |

    @Jay

    So it is sexist to tell a story about a man?

  59. Isabel
    Isabel July 31, 2009 at 6:58 pm |

    @Anon

    WHOA, LOOK OUT JAY! ANON’S GOT YOU THERE!!!!

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