the end of "problematic" artists
I caught myself donating unearned grace today. I caught myself dabbing concealer on a black eye.
I caught myself volunteering to be an alibi. No, maybe I was the devil’s advocate.
Or no, actually: I was the person who called the devil “problematic.”
Yes, in a conversation with a friend about Michael Jackson, I called him “problematic.”
The word popped out without premeditation:
I don’t know, man, I just can’t separate great art from problematic artists anymore.
For my money, “problematic” might be the word of the last 3 years. Well, to be honest, a better word is probably “clusterfuck,” but for the kids and my parents who wish I didn’t swear so much, let’s stick with “problematic.” The word is everywhere.
At first I loved problematic. I no longer had to cast around in search of a term to describe the icky feeling that began to creep around my affection for political and cultural icons when their widely-known — ahem — quirks began to fly in the face of a wind that had just changed.
Yes, that’s an important point: What’s changed isn’t our knowledge of their choices and characters; what’s changed is our willingness to tolerate them. Or, even more specifically, what’s changed is the volume of our collective cultural shame around tolerating them.
R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Donald Trump, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Dr. Seuss… look, people who claim they didn’t know exactly who these fellas were had better have spent the majority of their adult lives in the bunker from Blast from the Past eating creamed corn with Christopher Walken, because otherwise I am not. fucking. buying. it.
For awhile, the only word I said as much as “problematic” was “fucking” and if you’ve been here longer than a hot second, you know that means I was dropping prob-bombs like a mofo. Taylor Swift’s curious silence on being an alt right Disney princess? Problematic. Miley Cyrus’s objectification of black women? Problematic. Hillary Clinton’s complicity in the burial of her husband’s alleged sexual assaults? It was all problematic. So problematic. Such uh-oh. Very problems. What to do, what to do.
Hey, also, Greek yogurt! Did you know that the process of making ultra-thick Greek yogurt produces massive amounts of this highly acidic runny shit that is illegal to dump because it’s so toxic to the environment? So yeah, Greek yogurt is a problematic breakfast, people. Big Yogurt tried to stop me from shining this light but I am a truth-teller and I cannot be bought. Especially not with a pallet of lime Chobanis. Lime? Lime, Chobani? Don’t waste my time, Chobe. I don’t get out of bed for less than mango.
I loved the word “problematic” because I could use it to describe yogurt, pop stars, Mayor Ed Murray, bra sizing, and people who rape their co-workers or beat their families. That’s a useful fucking word! Almost as useful as “fucking,” for my money.
“Problematic” was a general, accurate term for a person or behavior. It started a conversation without freaking people out too much with more specific, also accurate terms for people or behaviors.
Call an actor “problematic” at the neighborhood bar and people will crowd in, grinding their cocktail straws between their teeth, awaiting the scoop. In what way? Is he kinky? Did he punch a paparazzo? This is gonna be good.
But call an actor “rapist,” “racist,” “pedophile,” or “abuser” at the neighborhood bar and that bar will ban you for life because you emptied the room faster than a canister of bear spray, and their rent just went up again.
“Oh you just had to say something when “Thriller” came on the playlist. Congratulations, you just murdered another Main Street small business in America. Nobody wants to hear about that shit on a Friday night. Let people enjoy their problematic fave without reminding them that in this particular case, their problematic fave is a child rapist.”
For another example, Lena Dunham’s breathtakingly white feminism was (and still is) highly problematic, but the word “problematic” helped me talk about her with other white people without calling her acts and words “racist,” which usually freaks white people out. A problematic person is complicated and needs an education; a racist person is abusive and needs to take several hundred seats. One of those accusations fills your Twitter mentions and gets you suspended on Facebook. I think you know which one.
With the cunning use of one magic word, I could divide Dunham into inoffensive units: sure, this part of her was a problem, but that other part of her was a talented writer! “Problematic” made me fantastically limber: When I said that magic word, suddenly I could do the splits to keep one foot planted in my affection for her work without endorsing the nonnegotiably, yes, racist shit she did and said.
I thought of “problematic” as a conversation-starter, the way I could clear my throat politely, the single finger in the air to attract the attention of the server when I noticed my salad dressing smelled off:
“I’m sorry, Edward,” (because even in an imaginary metaphorical scenario I will apologize for troubling the server when I have a rotten salad) “but this thousand island smells problematic.”
We wouldn’t leave it there, of course - Edward and I would investigate the issue. He’d take it back to the kitchen, and the initial observation of “problematic” would turn into a final diagnosis of “unsafe for consumption.” After the initial observation led to a final diagnosis, decisive reparative action would follow: The vat of dressing would go into the dumpster behind the kitchen and they’d start dressing the greens with a freshly-emulsified balsamic vinaigrette.
The problem with problematic the way we use it now — as an umbrella term that can apply to yogurt and rapists alike — is that we are now, simply put, leaving the salad on the table.
We are sniffing the salad, calling that dressing problematic, and then continuing to eat it as if the solution to bad salad dressing is to decide it is actually supposed to taste like that, then eat it and hope we don’t get sick.
Then our neighbors, who also ordered the salad, will sniff their rotten dressing, look over at us, shrug, and say, “Maybe it only seems rotten. Look, she’s eating it.” Then they consume something that yes, will make them sick, too.
Our use of the word problematic has mutated from an “initial observation” to the “final diagnosis.” And don’t even get me started on the death of “decisive reparative action,” which has turned into “hold very still and wait.” As a society, we have agreed to accept an abuser’s brief absence as a comparable substitute for reparation and rehabilitation. They’re stashing the thousand island under the sink for a week, is what I’m saying. And it’s not getting less rotten under there.
That’s why I am done with “problematic.”
It has never in my lifetime been more important to resist the urge to flinch.
These people have transgressed in ways for which we have specific words and we must use those words, even if they hit like a slap.
We need to repair our decency, and restore the train of events that must follow after we get that first funky whiff. We need the diagnosis to follow the observation, and we need the reparative action to follow the diagnosis. That’s the only way we will stop getting sick.
No, R. Kelly is not problematic. He was “problematic” in 1991. Now we have a diagnosis. He’s a pedophile and rapist.
No, Louis CK is not problematic. He was “problematic” in 2002. His test results are in: He’s a misogynist and sexual abuser, and he’s waiting under the sink next to that vat of dressing.
Michael Jackson isn’t problematic. He raped and molested children.
Oof, that’s painful to say out loud, but not for the reasons I thought it would be.
It’s painful to tell the specific truth about Michael Jackson not because I cared about his career or the person I believed he was. It’s not painful because I’m going to miss his music so much. It’s not even painful because I am a mother of sons.
It’s painful to speak the truth about how he abused those children because he never fooled me. There is no new data point, no confession letter that only now surfaced. He is who I always knew him to be. And when I finally reject him for those acts of unsurprising, well-documented, widely-known abuse, I am also outing myself. I’m telling you that for a very long time, I knew and I paid him anyway. There was no reason I had to do that, but I did.
It’s also painful to admit who he was and what he did because I know his music is not going anywhere and I’ll have to have this conversation many times in the future. I’ve just married his music to the reality of the unbearable pain he caused: a parent’s helpless rage, a grown-up child’s shame. I’ve just opted into the kind of pain that moves me in next door to madness, but I’m done choking down this particular poison and modeling to my kids and friends how it’s done.
The use of one magic word — “problematic” — made me fantastically limber; I could keep one foot planted on the knowledge that I would die before I let someone hurt my child like that, and let the other foot out for the occasional Moonwalk. I’m done finding a way to suggest his artistry was more complicated than his abuse, that I have some more profound contextualization that will make his actions… well, not okay, but perhaps okay enough.
It’s not okay.
I’m done with him, and I’m done using the word “problematic” for my abusive artists.
I’ll be asking myself what I’m trying not to say so we can all keeping choking down bad salad.
And then I’ll be saying that word instead. Join me. I’m serving pizza.
My goal is always to contribute a thoughtful perspective to a timely conversation.
My hope is that you walk away from this post with something to chew on, some words to help you name a slippery feeling, and the comfort of knowing that you are not alone in asking yourself these questions and struggling to find the answers. I’m right here with you.
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*Note: In the first published version of this piece, instead of “the worst,” I’d written, “that shit’s lame.” Thank you to the reader who pointed out that “lame” is an ableist term. It wasn’t cool of me to use a word that describes a disability in order to denigrate an annoying or undesirable practice. I apologize.
I changed the word in context, but am leaving this note up so that other readers can learn along with me. xoxo
You are a rock star. Thank you for being here. xoxo
Pseudo-legal disclaimer: This blog post mentions several controversial public figures about whom one woman has reached a personal opinion regarding substantial allegations of abuse. This blog post is not a piece of journalism or nonfiction reporting. If you don’t like my opinion, please click here to lodge a complaint.