Absolutely nobody is perfect. No one. Everyone who has ever lived, is currently living, and will ever live will be flawed. This includes writers, actors, politicians, musicians, and even some of our personal icons. Sometimes these problematic elements are expected. I mean, no feminist watches a romantic comedy without expecting to wince internally at least once. It is virtually impossible to participate in pop culture, watch television, or read without coming across flawed representations. There will always be some troublesome element in the media we consume. Dealing with those problematic aspects is challenging enough. What happens when one of your personal heroes, someone who may have held themselves out to be progressive, fails to live up to their own self-set expectations?
The controversy surrounding Trevor Noah in 2015 after he had been named the new Daily Show host forced many to confront that exact question. The comedian appeared on the show a few times as a correspondent and was a stand-up comedian who performed across the globe. His segments on the show and bits of his comedy bits indicated that he was a left-wing, progressive guy. Then, the internet found his Twitter feed. There were numerous tweets between 2010 and 2012 that reeked of misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism. Noah eventually responded with an “explanation”:
To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) March 31, 2015
Of course comedians evolve, as do we all. I am sure that I’ve written things I would be ashamed of now. We all have slipped up, it’s part of the whole no-one-is-perfect thing. What matters isn’t necessarily the mistake, but what comes next.
Orlando Jones is one example of a favourite who made a major slip up, but then owned his actions. In 2013, he tweeted “Sally Hemmings – The original Olivia Pope” (Sally Hemmings, for the unaware, was a slave Thomas Jefferson had likely non-consensual sexual relations with when Hemmings was just 14). In response to the disappointment expressed by many fans, he became the first celebrity to submit himself to Your Fave Is Problematic.
About a year later, Jones made a rape joke while live tweeting an episode of Sleepy Hallow. The tweet was later removed, and Jones took to Tumblr to apologize “without qualification or equivocation”. He admitted that his statements “overtly contributed to the rape culture climate that normalizes and trivializes very serious and real instances in which people (mostly women) are victimized”. Later he made it clear it was not his intent to have done so, but specified that “intention, of course, does not mitigate offence”. Acknowledgment of the wrong, without justifying it and striving to be better can be enough for many to find a fave “unproblematic” once more.
Things get a lot trickier if you have long admired the individual. It’s hard not to want to ask “why” or “don’t you know better?” when watching our feminist icons say racist things, or participate in cultural appropriation, or embrace and hide behind their privilege. It’s exciting when celebrities embrace their feminism; crushing when it becomes compromised. Taylor Swift changing her tune about whether or not she is a feminist was a fantastic moment. When it became clear she meant White Feminism rather than a more inclusive kind, many fans found themselves let down. It can be hard to reconcile the fact that she had a progressive attitude, but could simultaneously use that attitude to contribute to the oppression of others.
That sense of betrayal cuts even deeper when it’s a personal hero – a feminist icon you and millions of others have admired for years, or even decades. What do you do then?
Late last year, as part of the dumpster fire that was 2016, author and feminist icon Margaret Atwood signed a letter along with many other Canadian writers in support of fellow author Steven Galloway. He was the chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. After being accused of sexual assault by several students, UBC conducted an investigation. Galloway was subsequently fired. Atwood joined a ton of other authors in condemning the university and supporting Galloway. One of the complainants, a former UBC student, said that the letter “reads like Canada’s most powerful authors saying ‘Be quiet, we don’t believe you. And we don’t care.” Eventually, some of the letter’s co-signers withdrew their names. Author Camilla Gibb said she did so because she was “contributing to a culture of shaming and silencing”, admitting that her signature was because in her time “sexual impropriety of professors was so commonplace we thought it was normal”. 12 other writers joined Gibb in removing their names from the latter. Atwood was not one of them. In that light, can we read The Handmaid’s Tale the same way again? Can we enjoy the upcoming series? Does this taint her other feminist works?
Learning more about Susan B. Anthony’s past can bring up the same types of uncomfortable questions. Anthony was an unapologetic racist. Yes, she did contribute to the acquisition of women’s rights in the United States. She was also racist as fuck. Anthony may have despised “oligarchy of sex”, but she was one hundred percent fine with a society “where the Saxon rules the African”. Her group excluded Black women, and fought hard against the 15th amendment. It’s one thing to demand equal rights, it’s quite another to demand it for one group and actively oppress it for another. She was, of course, a major player in the Suffragette movement, and did contribute to women being able to vote. Can one reconcile the two? Is it possible to admire her efforts in one area and condemn them in another?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.
Problematic people and media that fails to live up to progressive expectations will continue to exist. It’s impossible to avoid everything with problematic elements. The important thing is to decide where your line is, and enforce it. To make an oversimplified analogy, it’s like being in a relationship. You can love someone who is flawed. It involves recognizing those flaws, not apologizing or excusing them, and demanding better. If, however, those flaws cross a personal line, cause you pain, or make you feel uncomfortable and hurt, it’s best to end the relationship. The same is true with our favourites. We can love something that is problematic. The key is to call it out, never excuse those elements or tactilely accept them, and to demand better. If those elements cross that line, that’s when you know you need to avoid that person/show/book, for your own sanity.