Liking problematic media

12 May 2016 · 3 minute read · society, popular culture and rc

Note: This post uses and discusses strong profanity, gendered and racist slurs.

Last night at RC we had a karaoke night of sorts. I queued up Nosebleed Secction and the few Australians in the room sung it with great gusto. It’s the first time I’ve felt any kind of nationalistic sentiment since I’ve been here.

There’s one particular sequence of lyrics which triggered the writing of this post:

I wanna hear some lyrics when I wake up

Write rhymes to get me through a break up


For those who know the song, this is a somewhat iconic line. There’s little more fun than screaming “bitch!” as loud as you can in that little pause. It is cathartic in some ways, entertaining in others. It’s memorable. And it’s a significant element of what makes that particular song so real. It’s reflective of the culture in which that song exists, and which that song is about.

The trouble is that “bitch” is a pretty terrible word. It is, I think, an exclusively gendered insult. It is used to denigrate women who are assertive or show power. I think its use in this way is oppressive. In particular, the common claim that an ex-girlfriend is “a bitch” or “crazy” is a problem.

(As an aside, I don’t have the same degree of concern with “bitch” as a verb, because that is not normally gendered. Arguably its origins have connotations of “gossipy women”, but I don’t think its use this way is nearly as bad as calling someone a bitch. I am also relatively unconcerned about “cunt”, for similar reasons: its meaning is not descriptive of oppressive gender attributes, even if its origins in gendered language.)

There’s another occasion where I face this challenge, which is perhaps even more obscure. I am in general a fan of the music of Weird Al Yankovic. The following are some lyrics from The Night Santa Went Crazy:

Broke his back for some milk and cookies

Sounds to me like he was tired of gettin’ gypped

For those who don’t know, “gypped” is a very offensive racial slur: it was described in 1914 as being “derived from the popular experience with thieving Gypsies”. The word “gypsy” is itself a slur, just in case you don’t know (apparently some people don’t). There are other problematic elements in his songs, sadly including the “big fat hermaphrodite” in Albuquerque, a song I otherwise quite enjoy.

So, how does one deal with this? Not the fact that I like Weird Al (I’m beyond help there; save yourselves), but the liking of problematic stuff?

Thankfully, the Social Justice League published a guide to being a fan of problematic things nearly five years ago (Wayback Machine link because the site is currently broken). Basically, just acknowledge that it’s problematic. Be prepared to have that discussion. Respect others who don’t like it because it is problematic.

I think that also means not putting others in a position where they are pressured to consume it. That’s why I don’t sing along to Weird Al these days. And why I felt uncomfortable enough about the karaoke to write this blog post (but also not sufficiently uncomfortable not to sing the line, because it’s fun to sing and I judged it as being okay in the context).