Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

WisCon: How to be a Fan of Problematic Things

Home! Have a panel report I wrote on the plane. One more to come, the not another race panel, but that won't be until Wednesday or Thursday. Meanwhile, please stop by the obligatory WisCon connections post if you would like to say hi in a screened-comments context?

The description of this was a repeat of an Arisia panel, but it went completely different places and that was wonderful. Plus it was packed, it was in Assembly (the one on the first floor at the end of the hall, where the dance party is) and there were people sitting on the floor, I was so excited (and a little daunted).

Anyway, it was another great panel, thank you to my co-panelists and everyone who came. Spoilers for _Iron Man 3_ and _Star Trek Into Darkness_ below; I will do nested cut tags for those of you expanding cuts on DW.


Lord of the Rings. A Song of Ice & Fire. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Many of us like things that are deeply problematic! Liking these works doesn't (necessarily) make you a jerk. How can we like problematic things and not only be decent people, but good, social justice activists? How does one's background matter? How does one address the problems? This panel will discuss how to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about them. Inspired by http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/

M: Kate Nepveu
Ariel Franklin-Hudson
Jacquelyn Gill
Jamie Nesbitt Golden (thewayoftheid)
Paul Rehac

(Also, I should make this a standard disclaimer before any writeup of a panel I have been on, and especially moderated: my dear fellow panelists, I am sorry for failing to attribute almost everything to specific individuals; I have a really hard time remembering who said what because I'm concentrating so hard on other things. Feel free to take credit.)

I started with ground rules, slightly modified from Arisia:

1) No personal attacks. Further, disliking a work or finding it problematic was not a personal attack, either on fans of the work or on the creator.

2) No extensive discussion/debate about whether a work was problematic; short descriptions were okay for context, and I would be happy to discuss things later, but those kinds of discussions could be entire panels on their own.

2a) Also, as a corollary, there is no Magical Minority Fairy, no-one can absolve you of liking a particular thing because, gasp! we are not all the same.

3) Wait until I ask for questions, please, which I will do regularly.

We started out talked about personal reactions and feelings to hearing/seeing critiques of a work you like or of realizing yourself that it's problematic. Though it's very personal, some of the things that affected our reactions were how long we'd been fans of the work, how important the work was to us, how strongly the type of problem tended to affect us (hit us where we live), and our expectations going in (were we expecting to be disappointed as a default protective/realistic measure, did we have reason to think it would be good, etc.).

I gave the example--SPOILER FOR IRON MAN 3--of deciding initially not to go to _IM3_, then deciding to go because what appeared to be horrible racism was, I was told, actually trolling and a commentary on the racist fears of much of the US. And there was disability fail, but I was braced for that ahead of time, and I ended up enjoying the movie a lot even though the disability fail was definitely there. So then later when I saw critiques that the marketing was using racism as a marketing ploy, that is, was selling the movie as a Yellow Peril story to get people into the theaters, I was initially pretty upset because I'd liked it so much! But I had that sinking feeling when I saw the critique that I've learned means that it's struck a resonance with me. So I tried to give myself some time to think about it. (Another critique I have seen is that it didn't go far enough, what would have been genuinely subversive is if the Mandarin was shown to have a point. [I thought _Iron Man 2_ had a huge problem with this in that Vanko *had a legit grievance* and no-one even asked _whether_ he did.] To me that last one is a matter of taste, though of course a taste that people are entirely entitled to possess!, unlike the critique of the film having its cake and eating it too about racism and the Mandarin.)

That relates to something other people brought up, that it's often difficult to have discussions where one person thinks that something is trying to undercut or subvert a harmful portrayal and another thinks it's just uncritically displaying it. Sometimes there's even less room for discussion there than if one person just doesn't recognize the problem that another is having, because the effect of portrayals is ultimately subjective.

Anyway. We talked about stages of processing, about how it can be useful to talk privately with friends or to do your own research. I believe someone asked about fandoms or issues where it's hard to figure out why a large portion of fandom takes as axiomatic that a certain thing is problematic, especially because people don't want to discuss it. We offered a few suggestions: look for archives of past discussions; talk to friends in non-public spaces; do general research. I gave a quick explanation of the tone argument and of the fatigue that people can get explaining the same thing over and over again. One of the other panelists suggested that people can exercise their ally skills by taking the burden of initial explanations from those particularly affected by whatever issue was at stake. And on the flip side, we talked about maintaining fannish love by being able to vent, discuss, etc., in relatively safe spaces (either limited access or those where specific conversational norms can be enforced).

We talked about negotiating friendships and disagreements. Someone had been recently in a conversation where someone said "No movie will ever come between us." Again, this was pretty personal; I thought for me, it would be less about any single movie than about whether I thought a friend was constantly refusing to make an effort to understand what I was saying (aside: avoiding metaphors of sight for understanding is really hard). (I asked if anyone wanted me to define RaceFail at this point and amazingly no-one did.)

Going back to responses, people brought up transformative works--we had at least a couple fanfic writers, and Paul is doing academic research about transformative responses to _Firefly_/_Serenity_. We discussed how fanfic can give fans a toolbox: no, fanfic isn't necessarily a critique, but the same kind of skills that fans generally and fanfic writers specifically use to extend character development, do worldbuilding, and fix plots, can also be used to identify, critique, and transform harmful depictions/perpetuations of various oppressions. Further, since fic gets posted places with comment boxes, that is more of an invitation to comment than books have, say. (The fanfic culture that I am familiar with does not do critique unsolicited, and critique is almost never solicited. However, extreme things can get called out, like the _Supernatural_ RPF fic that used Haiti after the earthquake as a backdrop for the romance of two white dudes, a few years ago.)

Paul's examples: a fic that Kaylee as an engineer and scientist and also an equal in her relationship with Simon, and a fic that considered the harm left in the wake of Jayne's misogyny. (If I get links I will post them.) I also plugged Shati's vid Secret Asian Man, which in just over a minute makes a brilliant and eloquent point about the vast absence of people of Asian ancestry in the _Firefly_-verse.

ETA: see comments for Paul's links.

I think this led us into interaction with creators. An audience member cited approvingly some Marvel writers who are on Tumblr and came up through fandom, know how to interact with it and what it expects (Matt Fraction promising his daughter, re: _Hawkeye_ [*], that Kate Bishop and Hawkeye will never fuck and that the dog will never die). (I don't know if this is the post, which has spoilers for issue 9; it says "The dog won't die and they won't fuck. The end." but isn't framed as a letter.) We had some discussion about that, the closeness to creators not always being good if they don't actually understand fandom or if they don't actually comprehend the critiques they are seeing. Examples given were _Teen Wolf_, which was described as "oh, you fans all want slash? Have queerbaiting in all the commercials!" (Queerbaiting = loosely, making male-male character interactions very slashy but not actually canonically romantic/sexual; stringing along people hoping that their slash pairing will become canon.) Also _Sherlock_, where Season 2 seems to be the creators trying to show that they had heard criticisms about the show's treatment of women in S1 yet deeply and fundamentally missing the point. (And then one of them posted a Tweet confirming that.) Some of us said that confirmation that the creators were clueless makes it worse, because it's harder to read against the text.

[*] I remember [personal profile] coffeeandink saying, back in the day, that she didn't want to like _Hawkeye_ because it's another Marvel comic about a blond white guy, but darn it, it was pretty great. I snagged the first issue when Marvel was doing its freebie digital promotion and I am forced to agree. I will buy it when the digital collection is available. (I bought _Captain Marvel_ in paper before I realized I could read comics on the tablet.)

Further re: creators, we had a brief excursion into the factor of supporting a particular creator or creators affected the decision to be a fan of a problematic work. Someone in the audience, I believe, brought up [personal profile] copperbadge's recent Tumblr posts (one, two) about Orson Scott Card and what paying for the upcoming _Ender's Game_ movie means. Someone else said they mind less when an author is dead and so money paid for the work isn't supporting them. Other people mentioned things like movies that have multiple creators (and also actors), which makes the decision about financial support more complex.

Perhaps around here, we did a brief dip into the issue of a non-problematic work and an author who holds views you find abhorrent. Because I'm requiring myself to finish this writeup on the plane except for the links, allow me to refer to you to a prior post on the subject, which I summarized quickly at the panel. Someone on the panel put it neatly, for them it's like suspension of disbelief but for problems, and that's an ill-defined and very personal threshold.

Some questions about making recommendations. We talked about the community norms for spoilers and respecting them but how that could also be difficult.

SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: Like many people, I really resent the way that the filmmakers of _Star Trek Into Darkness_ were able to successfully position the whitewashing of Khan as a spoiler, because I kept reading mainstream reviews and seeing the space where that should at least be _mentioned_ and it wasn't there. I don't know if they were specifically attempting to reduce criticism of the whitewashing, but that was the effect.

So we thought that a general reasonable template would be, "I liked this because of X, Y, and Z. However, you should be aware that (issues described in a general way). I can give more spoilery detail if you want to decide if it's something you have the patience to deal with this week, is too triggering, etc." Or if it was an _anti_-rec that depended on spoilers--I'm not sure we specifically came to a consensus on that, but basically it's perfectly reasonable as far as I'm concerned to signal the importance of whatever the spoiler is to your overall opinion, e.g., "I guess technically this is a spoiler but I think you personally/everyone really OUGHT to know this about _Star Trek Into Darkness_ because I think it is such a fundamental problem with the film, see behind the cut!"

(Someone also asked what they do when they start seeing problems in everything, because they've been to several WisCons! I said the only thing I could think of, which is to keep coming and ask for recs. Person who asked that question, if you are looking for specific things, feel free to say so and we will see what we can come up with!)

Someone said that sometimes they just decided that some works were going to be their frivolous entertainment and they were going to turn their brain off and let the problematic bits wash by. But they also specifically said that they didn't discuss them with other people, which is one way to approach it. Another person said they would see other people's critiques of a work in various spaces, but in their own space, just keep to the squee--they weren't going out to argue with other people, but felt uneasy not engaging at all, from what I could tell. I offered that one possibility might be linking to those critiques in other spaces--"for personal reasons, I am not going to be discussing this, but I have seen this discussion and it may interest some people reading about this fandom."

I asked the panelists to wrap up the panel by asking what the worst things to do were, the most important specific statements to avoid as a fan of a problematic work. Jamie said, accusing her of playing "the race card" -- hates that! What do I win? Racism isn't a _game_!

Someone else said, I _think_, "why do you have to be so angry?" (Because, of course, their emotion of non-anger is more important than your emotion of anger.)

Mine was the combination of "don't take things so seriously!" with "but this is _realistic_!"

Finally, this will amuse some of you: Jess Plummer, who was also on the Mary Sue panel with me, had previously tweeted this which one of my friends had retweeted:

And indeed, we had a "How great is Joan?!" moment. Yay, Joan. => (Someone after the panel said we should do a compare-and-contrast of _Sherlock_ and _Elementary_. The vehement "no!"s I got at lunch today when I mentioned this were pretty amusing.)

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Tags: cons: wiscon: 2013

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