Friday, April 12, 2024

Guilty Pleasures and Problematic Faves

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One of the unspoken rules here at The Fandomentals is “Thou shalt own thy Problematic Faves,” so in the spirit of that commandment I was going to write about one of my problematic faves: an Australian TV show on Netflix called Mako Mermaids. However, as I began to think about it, I realized that there was not anything particularly problematic about it. There was no overt sexism, no toxic masculinity, no gratuitous violence. The show is so uncontroversial that I’m sure even the American Family Association, which loves to boycott anything, would give this show a pass. I still felt that there was something wrong with me watching it, however. It was something I restricted to watching by myself on my computer when everyone else had gone to sleep. It all boiled down to “I am an adult male who analyzes pop-culture TV shows. Why am I enjoying this childish drivel?” I was feeling guilt. I had found a Guilty Pleasure.

That got me thinking: What is the difference between a Guilty Pleasure, and a Problematic Fave?

To begin to understand the difference I had to give myself examples. It was easy to find a Guilty Pleasure, since my analysis of one was what got me started on this whole thing. Mako Mermaids: An H2O Adventure is a spinoff of the series H2O: Just Add Water. The story is about a boy who accidentally turns himself into a merman, which prompts the local mermaids to flee for fear of what a human/merman hybrid might bring. Three of the mermaids stay, however, and after they get legs of their own they attempt to turn the boy into a human again so that the other mermaids will return home. The show follows the Splash tradition in that the four main characters become merfolk only when wet, and the three mermaids fulfill all the fish-out-of-water tropes made popular in The Little Mermaid. All of this is complicated by a mysterious trident that is very powerful and maybe super evil. Along the way, they all learn the value of friendship and how to control their magical powers through goofy shenanigans and misunderstandings.

…and that is about it. The show is good, do not get me wrong, I enjoy it, but it is good in a Fruit Loops kind of way rather than a filet-mignon kind of way. The characters are nice, the production values are great, and the acting is passable (occasionally verging into “Oh my God why did you hire them”). Episode 11 of Season 1 has one of the most beautiful moments of Netflix TV that I have ever seen, and it is a scene that I can watch on repeat until my eyes fall out. That said, most of the time it is all just “meh.” The episodes that are not about the over-arching plot can become very childish; people get shrunk, cats turn into people (yes, this actually happened), things like that. Any character development is reset at the end of each episode so that there can be tension for the next episode. The morally ambiguous characters are written off at the end of every season, usually very cheaply. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but as I said it offers very little. Having watched up through Season 3, the only truly problematic thing about the show is that they use COMIC SANS for the title sequence. I am not kidding.

Compare this to the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I will be the first to admit it; those movies are so problematic that I could write a series of essays about all of their problems. Lots of people already have. For now though, I will focus on how it is my problematic fave.

The word “problematic,” as it is used within fandom communities, implies some kind of awareness and knowledge both within the narrative and the real world. For example, a morally complex characters can be a problematic faves because while they have redeeming qualities they also have many negative traits as well. Narratives can be problematic faves because they include some kind of objectionable content either intentionally to make a commentary or unintentionally from a place of ignorance.

The prequels in particular stand out because they fulfill both categories to their fullest degree. Anakin Skywalker is a problematic character; he wants to to good but fails at it spectacularly. Being born as a slave, Anakin has a very poor concept of self worth so he constantly strives to become the greatest Jedi ever to convince himself, and others, that he is worthy of love. Raised among the emotionless and detached Jedi, Anakin never learns how to interact with people properly or express his emotions healthily. This manifests in various ways, most notably when Anakin massacres an entire village of Sand-People. Eventually all of Anakin’s failings and weaknesses are used to turn him into the ruthless Darth Vader, who becomes THE Problematic Fave because even though he is evil he is the best kind of evil in this or any galaxy.

The narrative itself tries its very best to be mature, even though it fails almost as spectacularly as its protagonist. The Galactic Senate is stagnant and corrupt (they have senators for the Trade Federation, a BUSINESS), and acts very slowly, if at all. The religious Jedi Order gets drawn into an armed conflict that eventually turns public opinion against them, leading to its eventual destruction. There are even light touches on the nature of good and evil, if you consider Anakin’s moral ambiguity and Palpatine’s speeches. However, all of this is handled by the narrative the way a sledge-hammer is wielded: heavy-handed and with all subtlety of a freight-train. The dialogue is terrible, and the plot is all over the place.

All that having been said I enjoy the prequels for some strange reason that even I do not completely understand. Rest assured, I have met people who think that the prequels are masterworks of cinema. They are terrifying. I am not one of those people. I will brazenly admit that my Fave is Problematic as hell, but it is still my Fave.

TLDR: Guilty Pleasure must be simple entertainment that has no great ambition to its narrative, with little controversial content. Problematic Faves are characters coded to be ambiguous, or a narrative that uses harmful tropes (intentionally or not).

Images courtesy of Netflix, Disney, and Lucasfilm

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