Content warning for discussion of sexual violence.
Here at the Fandomentals we talk a lot about the importance of stories, but the people involved in bringing them to life matter too. Writers, actors, directors, showrunners, game designers, illustrators… creators and artists in general. Sometimes we don’t even pay attention to their names, but sometimes their names are part of the reason we’re interested in that story in first place.
These are the names that make you buy the ticket, or the comic book, or the game. These are the people that constantly create stories you love. The people whose performances always cause a lasting impression on you. The people who inspire you to create art yourself. Or maybe you just really love what they say in interviews or in their social media. Maybe you have a huge crush on them. Maybe they use their influence to defend causes you care about. Whatever the reason, these people become your favorites.
This isn’t exclusive to media, mind you. No matter your field of interest, I’m sure there are people you look up to, who mean more to you than just their work. When it comes to storytelling, it’s no different. We always find people who inspire us and who we genuinely admire.
Until they fuck up, that is. Now what?
When the problematic creates the fave
I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of “problematic faves.” Sometimes our problematic fave is not a story or a character, but the person behind them. When it comes to real people, all our faves are somewhat problematic, since making mistakes is part of the human condition. Sooner or later your faves will say or do something that disappoints you. Maybe they were rude to another fan, or they said something rooted in ignorance, or made a joke that backfired.
Your mileage may vary as to what how much that will taint your appreciation for your problematic fave. The relationship we establish with our favorites is very personal, and so are the things that offend us and disappoint us. I’m in no place to tell you not to be offended, just as I am in no place to tell you not to appreciate someone you do.
Besides, people can learn, people can change, and it must be truly complicated to have all your mistakes publicized and judged. However, not all mistakes are equal. At some point we have to draw a line. We have to agree on which things we, as a society, won’t tolerate. The ideas that nobody should be defending and the actions that nobody should commit. Sometimes one of our faves will cross that line, and those are the cases I want to focus on.
Has your problematic fave gone too far?
Help, my fave is problematic!
This discussion isn’t new, but it gained traction with the long list of creators and artists exposed for sexual violence over the past few weeks. For most of us, that list included at least one of our faves. What should we do with this kind of information?
How do we feel when we learn someone we admire did or said something terrible? Or defended someone who did? Can we still continue to admire their work? Should we stop consuming the media they’re involved in, even though it may deprive us of some of our favorite stories? Or should we still consume those stories, even if that means supporting deeply problematic people? How much can we separate art and artists?
I have no intent to discuss these people or their actions, but rather our reaction as fans, audiences, and consumers of stories. Ultimately I think there’s no easy answer for those questions, so all I can offer are points for your consideration.
Who are these people, anyway?
When one of our faves is exposed, we are forced to examine what we know about them. Most of the time, everything comes from interviews, from social media, from autobiographies, from statements… But how much is that? Because, let’s be honest, how many of us are entirely sincere in our public social media accounts? Or in our job interviews?
For artists and content creators, their public image is part of their job, too. They try to show us their best selves, because they’ll be subject to scrutiny if they don’t. This isn’t to say that everybody lies, but people select what they want others to see. Sure, you could still have an incredibly powerful person tweeting absurdities with no supervision, but most people have more sense than that.
Our culture creates celebrities and invites us to worship or hate them accordingly, but we don’t really know these celebrities as people. We don’t know them beyond what they or the media allow us to see. Much of the relationship we establish with them is a projection of our feelings and expectations, not necessarily the real deal.
That’s okay, everybody does that. But it’s something to keep in mind whenever we feel the urge to judge them or to defend them from accusations. Do we actually know these people? Do we truly know what they’re capable of? Then how can we be sure they would or wouldn’t do something they’re accused of?
Stannis was right: on good acts and bad acts
How do you feel when one of your faves messes up? Besides all the rage, disgust, and disappointment, I feel conflicted. How could the same person be responsible for a story I love so much and for actions I find so despicable? How could they defend some of the same causes I do, but also defend what I consider to be inexcusable? How could their work touch me so deeply when they’re so capable of dehumanizing other people?
Our brains like to classify and label things in black-and-white terms, but it’s seldom that simple. A perpetrator of sexual violence isn’t just some stranger in a dark corner in the middle of the night. That’s valid for whatever other despicable behaviors or beliefs you can think of. Evil isn’t easily identifiable by pointy horns and a mischievous laugh. People using their influence for good causes or creating beautiful art aren’t automatically sweet cinnamon rolls who can do no wrong.
Everyone is capable of good and bad acts, and one doesn’t wash away the other. All the good things your fave created are still true. The positive influence they had in your life is still valid. All their contributions to art with their unique vision are still important. It’s just not mutually exclusive with them having committed a crime or harming other people, and they still have to face the consequences for that.
Separating art & artist
Maybe the terrible things you learned about your fave spoiled your love for their work. Maybe not. How much can we separate art and artist? How much can we separate a creation from the person creating it?
That’s not easy to do, particularly when we consider how little we know of those artists and creators in first place. What were their intentions with that work? How much of themselves they put in their creations? Were the things you loved about their work intentional or just happy accidents? We can speculate, but sometimes we just don’t know.
We establish different relationships with creators and creations. Sometimes a person you admire was involved in a project you consider mediocre, but you still admire them for other reasons. Sometimes you absolutely love a story or performance and you don’t really care about the person behind them. The reasons that make us appreciate artists and creators are not necessarily the same that make us appreciate what they made.
Stories touch us for a multitude of reasons and that can be very personal. Maybe it was the story you needed at the time. Maybe it put in words or images something you couldn’t express yourself. Maybe it encouraged you and inspired you when you needed that. I don’t think that’s nothing. It’s why we love stories in first place.
We don’t have to pretend we never enjoyed our favorite stories or performances just because the people the involved in them were exposed for something awful. But we don’t have to defend these people just because we enjoy their work. That’s where the separation comes in.
A problematic fave on the loose
Sometimes separating art and artist is more complicated. See, we live in a world that facilitates certain people never having to examine their faults or face the consequences for their actions, even if said actions were crimes. Some of our problematic faves may have their careers destroyed, but some will simply continue to work. What should we do? Should we still consume the media they’re involved in?
I have no right to tell you how to spend your money or your time, but you should think about what supporting your problematic fave means. When you support their work, they get more money and fame. They’ll continue to be a profitable choice for studios, publishing houses, producers, etc. That means they’ll still be hired for new projects. It also other people will see that they stayed around despite whatever they did.
That’s where the separation of art and artist becomes blurrier. Does it really matter how much you disagree with a creator or artist if you keep giving them your money and attention? A movie ticket that you bought filled with anger and disgust is still a movie ticket that you bought. Whoever is giving these people opportunities will see a positive return for their investment.
Continuing to support a person’s work sends a message. Giving them awards sends a message. Praising their work sends a message. Hiring them sends a message. That message is either that we don’t believe the victims or that we think their suffering is less important than the perpetrator’s art. Is it, though?
Maybe we’re talking about genius-level here. A person that redefined an entire genre, that created stories so unique other people could only dream of, who is a reference for everyone in their field. Is that enough to give them free rein for whatever they want to say or do? Enough to forgive even criminal acts? Is that the sort of art we want, one that demands human suffering as a sacrifice to continue to exist?
Problematic faves & you
What should be our response when our faves do or say something awful? How much can we separate art and artist? How does the knowledge of their actions impact our relationship with people we like? That’s a complex topic and ultimately you’ll have to find the answers yourself. Hopefully, the points I brought here will help you think about it.
It’s never easy to discover that a person we admire and whose work we appreciate is a problematic fave, especially when “problematic” is an understatement. We may want to dismiss the victims or people affected by their actions, we may want to ignore what we learned, we may think their art speaks louder.
It’s not about us, though. That’s an odd conclusion for an article about our feelings as fans! Yet it’s something we should keep in mind, too. This isn’t about us as individuals, about our fandoms, or the stories that personally impacted us. This is about our society and what we want for it; it’s about the patterns in that society and the people suffering because of them. It’s about the kind of art we want and the price we’re willing to pay for it.
Appreciate your favorite stories all you want, but be careful when idolizing people. Don’t rush to defend your fave for actions they choose to do and words they choose to say. When an action wasn’t committed against you, it’s not yours to forgive. Especially not if that means we’re putting our entertainment above the suffering of the victims.