How to Sleuth Other Fandoms: When is it OK to Yuck Other People's Yum?

Joey Stern
So, we're gathered here today to talk about Pretty Little Liars (PLL). But more succinctly, to talk about problematic media and when/how you call it out. Rachel, how did you hear about the SNAFU and what's your impression?

 

Rachel Greeman
I heard about it on Tumblr from people who watch it and are very disappointed. I came for the "Dan Humphrey is a..." memes and got "CeCe is Charles, made out with her own brother." It very much seems like they're treating trans as a gotcha! kind of tactic. Like it's a disguise.

 

CeCe

Joey
Right, but you also don't watch the show, right? So is it hard to comment on it? Or is this a bit about backing up friends in their frustration?

 

Rachel
I'm backing them up with what I know about trans issues and trans rights. But I myself don't watch the show. I still think I should be like "this is shitty and here's why" but I can't give too many specifics.

 

Joey
And I think that gets to the heart of the conundrum.

 

Aria Baci
And it is a conundrum, because I certainly don't want to object to something I haven't actually read or watched, but if I hear that the big twist in this popular TV series is that all the sympathetic characters were tricked by this conniving transsexual, I want to say something about that.

 

Rachel
Also! This isn't really considered a nerd thing. It's an LGBT thing. But this is not a geeky show.

 

Joey
When do you feel like media that you aren't interested becomes important? Are there times that you feel like you can't judge it? Or do you feel like it's all up for grabs?

 

Aria
Again, I try to reserve judgment until I see the sexism or hear the homophobia for myself. But! For example. When I heard the Fables: Arabian Nights (and Days) arc featured Arab stereotypes and an obvious pro-war sentiment, I thought: "All right! I don’t need to read that comic!" It was enough for me to read some intelligent reviews to know that I didn't have to read it for myself to be sure.

 

Niala Terrell-Mason
I feel like media is ALWAYS important—whether it's your shiny or not. Media is always worth study and close scrutiny. However, when it's media that you aren't involved in, you have to do you due diligence before you jump into a conversation about it. Now, I'm not saying you have to watch 10 seasons and the movie first, but any popular media will have detailed analysis done by other people that's just out there for you to see on your own. And if the issue a particularly problematic thing, like an episode or character, then maybe WATCH that episode yourself first. A lot of things that happen on shows are the result of maybe seasons of storytelling. 

Let me give an example: 

Glee. There was a popular post recently (on Tumblr) about how Glee is a biphobic show. The post had gifs from two very biphobic exchanges in different seasons. Everyone was like OMG this show is such shit and so biphobic and so is Ryan Murphy. Now, admittedly, if that was ALL you saw of the show, you would be forgiven for thinking it's all full of biphobia. However, I'm a Gleek from WAY back. From the beginning. What you are missing from the gift sets is context. Specifically, which two characters are spouting this stuff is very important. The two characters who are expressing these views are Kurt and Santana. Both are monosexual queer characters. Kurt is gay and Santana is a lesbian. Both struggled with their sexuality and coming out and all that. Both characters are often douches outside of their sexuality. In the case of Kurt, when Blaine is saying to him that he thinks he might be bi and Kurt says that bisexuality doesn't exist and it's just gay men who can't come to terms with being gay, it's important to know that a) Kurt is like 16. He's a teen with a very limited and narrow view of sexuality. b) He's in love with Blaine and is hardcore jealous of him going out with Rachel (who is his RIVAL). In that circumstance it's the character that is biphobic, not the show. And the stuff that Kurt and Santana say are things that are very commonly said about bisexuals. The show KNOWS this. You are supposed to hear them say these things and think "that's bullshit." Santana is talking shit about Brittany being bi and how she's afraid she'll leave her for a boy (which is why she's glad to be going out with a "real lesbian"), but when she grows up (physically and emotionally) she MARRIES Brittany. All the shit she said about that was obviously that.

This isn't to say that sometimes media IS just BAD and deserves to be dragged, but things may not be what they seem and/or a deeper game might be at work. Like Sherlock queerbaits. The showrunners have no intention of doing anything with Johnlock. But there was clearly a plan at work on Glee.

 

Blaine

Rachel
That was so good, Jesus Christ Niala. Though I also watched Glee, admittedly on and off, and Kurt and Santana always bothered me. BUT ESPECIALLY KURT. But that's not the point, and I think everything you just said was so on point.

 

Niala
No, same. Kurt was the woobie everyone loved BECAUSE Chris Colfer is adorable and has the voice of an angel. But his character was so mean and shitty a lot of the time. But no one (well except Santana ironically) called him out on it. That was a fandom problem. Fandom will often overlook the shitty behavior of a character and then bend over backwards to justify their behavior. See also: Loki in the MCU. It's fine to like a problematic character but at least recognize that they ARE problematic.

 

Aria
I've read online that there has been some casual transphobia on Glee, but I've never watched it, and whenever I've asked someone who does watch it, they don't seem to know what I'm talking about...

 

Rachel
(In response to Niala) But this thing in PLL goes beyond that idea because it's the show in and of itself that's been problematic. The characters themselves haven't really done anything but like, get blackmailed a lot???

 

Niala
See, that's a different thing. If the show has a record of problematic storytelling that doesn't have a point OR doesn't seem actually aware that it's being problematic. Intent is so important.

 

Aria
Intent is important, but creators need to be accountable for the ways in which they present their intent. Otherwise, writers could make the same attempts at humor as Kelly Osbourne did on The View recently, and we would be left, shaking our heads like Rosie Perez, wondering if they have no talent for social satire or if they're actually just racist.

 

Joey
So when is there, let's say, a "soft touch" versus a "take no prisoners" attitude? Like, what kind of things get some credit (Batgirl comes to mind).

 

Rachel
I feel like there's a lot of ignorance and a lot of use of tropes that the writers don't realize are problematic. And I also think there's a LOT of hubris going around.

 

Aria
I totally agree, Rachel! I think a lot of writers are naïve to any human experience outside of able-bodied, heteronormative whiteness. But for me, being naïve is not an acceptable rationale. I expect more, as a reader and a viewer.

 

Niala
I think Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV), but for me it comes down to intent and if something is a matter of just not knowing or getting it (which means education can happen and change) or if this a matter of them not caring. Like do the showrunners DOUBLE DOWN on the shittiness when confronted or do they say "Oh shit! We'll do better"? Again, two examples: Agent Carter and the lack of racial diversity. People spoke out, Hayley Atwell agreed and real change happened. People call out Sherlock and Moffat doubles down on the BS and gets defensive.

 

Aria
BECAUSE ENGLAND.

 

Niala
And yes, I still watch Sherlock. And kinda hate myself. Because I love that show more than I hate the problematic elements of it. Amber and I once talked about doing a post on enjoying problematic media. LOL

 

Joey
Ohhh. I think you can still like things that are problematic, you just have to acknowledge them.

 

Aria
I'm more forgiving of older material, even though I know I shouldn't be, because I know that not everyone shared these problematic worldviews back when they were more socially acceptable. Sometimes I struggle with being "forgiving" in that way.

My favorite Science Fiction film (and one of my favorite films of all time from any genre) is Blade Runner, which features a scene of non-consensual sex that—every time I watch it—I have to rationalize as a delicate complexity of the characterizations just to make it work for me. Because another part of me is thinking, "no, no, honey—that is not OK!"

 

Rachel
I'm really known for being upfront about liking or consuming ships and/or shows that are problematic. There are some things that people call "problematic" that I disagree with, but a lot of the time I see and acknowledge it.

 

Aria
Yes! I like a lot of what Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency) has to say, but I totally disagreed with her reading of Dollhouse as somehow condoning rape. Because that was a series I watched, and I feel like I watched it more closely than she did.

 

Rachel
And the thing is, when do we separate what people call interesting fiction from problematic media? I think the interesting story, if it's "interesting" needs to know itself as fiction and acknowledge that it's weird/dark/whatever.

 

Niala
That's it exactly. I'm like "I KNOW THIS THING IS SHITTY OK! I CAN'T HELP BUT LOVE IT. BUT I RECOGNIZE ITS PROBLEMS." Yeah. Again I think it's whether or not the show/thing is self-aware. Like have your shitty character, like Kurt, but you need other characters to recognize them as being shitty. And that's where a LOT of shows fail.

But it's a two-way street. The show can do that but if the fans don't see it or don't care...? Well.

 

Rachel
And then you just sort of have Santana give him a verbal beatdown (the highlight of 2015) but it's like... She's the mean character, so no one is going to listen to her? Santana's been so petty and needlessly mean the entire show that really everyone's stopped taking her seriously.

 

Niala
I feel like Blaine put him in his place a few times too. I've heard a lot of creators talk about being disturbed by how fans excuse or glom onto their problematic characters. Like JK Rowling saying how she would tell young Draco fans that there isn't a heart of gold hidden inside of him. Or James Marsters talking about how disturbed he is by fans' love for Spike.

 

Rachel
And in that vein, I have seen A LOT of people criticize JKR for many things, but this Draco thing most of all. I feel like there are a good number of fans that UNDERSTAND Draco doesn't have a "heart of gold" but still like him and emphasize with him. And given that Snape, who is a terrible person and a terrible character, is redeemed by the books for stalking a woman that wanted nothing to do with him, I'd say JKR may not have her priorities 100% straight.

 

Aria
I feel like describing Snape as "a terrible person and a terrible character" is yucking one of my personal yums.

 Snape

 

Niala
I'm one of (those Draco fans). But I don't think those are the fans she's speaking to. She specifically said that she was concerned about young girls who might take that into real life with their own relationships. Which is legit.

 

Rachel
I understand that completely. That's a concern people have with shows like The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and the famous Twilight spinoff, 50 Shades of Grey.

 

Niala
I need to catch up with Vampire Diaries. I do love me some sexy vampire shows. LOL

 

Rachel
I do too! I was just yelling on Tumblr about how I will always be a sucker for vampires, even if KIDS TODAY think they're overdone. KIDS TODAY, AMIRITE! But if we bring up vampires, you bring me to my most beloved enemy, True Blood.

 

Joey
GOD THAT SHOW.

 

Niala
HAHA. I'm here for it. I feel like a lot of the focus was on the wrong thing in terms of Twilight and that's why it's problematic. Like get over the age difference thing. That's a trope inherent in vampire lore. That's not the worst thing going on there. Not by a long shot.

 

Rachel
TRUE BLOOD THE MOST PROBLEMATIC SHOW IN THE UNIVERSE I CANNOT

 

Niala
I haven't finished True Blood but I WILL. LOL

 

Rachel
Don't do it. Save yourself.

 

Niala
Nope. I'm going down with that ship eventually. I need to see how it ends. I need more sex. LOL

 

Aria
Don't we all...

 

Lafayette

 

Rachel
Now I will admit, as I've gotten older I've noticed a lot of subconscious anti-Semitism in Harry Potter, and so I am not a big fan of JKR like I used to be. So when people bring her up I am very quick to be like OH JKR? LET ME TELL YOU.

 

Niala
She didn't say Draco was a total bad guy. She said that he's not the total misunderstood angel a lot of the fandom claims him to be. Draco is complicated and has layers. I don't like Snape, at all, but I recognize he isn't a straight villain. He DID risk his life and give it for the cause. Does that negate all the shitty stuff? No. But sooooo much of HP fandom is like Snape was completely misunderstood and innocent!! Yeah...not so much.

 

Aria
This Snape-hate is hurting me. Seriously. And I'm not even a Slytherin.

 

Joey
Is part of that shame? Like I feel I am strongest in my complicated feelings with stuff that I feel bad about liking.

 

Niala
I think so. I always worry about whether or not I am blindly standing for something or someone because I want to like them/it so much.

 

Rachel
I think if you truly like a character you need to know and discuss their flaws and why it makes them interesting. Unless that character is Scott McCall and the flaw is "cares too much" but even then! That makes him interesting! 

There are very few characters these days that are morally black or morally white. And so I see a lot of one-upping where people try to have a less problematic fave, or act like the character has done nothing wrong in order to look better. Who are you trying to fool? Why do you refuse to have a discussion of character as a complex archetype?

 

Niala
But when you really like a character it can be so hard to actually see any flaws.

 

Rachel
There's a difference between complication and problematic BUT I think people are super willing to call the former the latter and that's frustrating.

 

Niala
I think it's a legitimately fine line and shows don't always do characters well enough for that line to be clear.

 

Rachel
That is such a good point. And I think shows like to play with problematic fire for ratings without understanding who they're baiting and ultimately hurting.

 

Niala
Right. Or like you said earlier, they do tropes without knowing they are tropes

 

Aria
Which is what I mean about writers being naïve and for me, being naïve is not an acceptable excuse.

 

Rachel
SUCH AS, to bring us back to PLL, trans characters! And we ALSO have to look at the fact that sometimes people can be really shitty in terms of depth. Like they don't want to see it. For example, Laurel's addict arc was not problematic. It made sense. Katie Cassidy knocked it out of the park. What was problematic was the flood of people who have clearly never dealt with an addict in their lives calling her "pathetic" and "weak." 

But this isn't about fans, per se, because fans also are so important in like, calling out this PLL BS. It's like, guys, when we're good we're really good and I love all of you and want to come give you cupcakes. When we're bad, I want to come to your houses and delete your blogs personally until you get a handle on life.

We jump to extremes sometimes, which can hurt actual issues. But I will NEVER tell anyone to be gun shy. I love that gun.

 

Niala
When did this episode air? The one in question?

 

Rachel
(Tuesday, August 11, 2015)


The Reveal of "A"


Niala
So an established character came out as trans? Wait. The show isn't on summer hiatus?

 

Rachel
It's a summer show. And it's not so much that the established character came out as trans. We knew Alison had a brother. We knew there is a character named CeCe. And so the twist is CeCe was Charles the whole time! CeCe is trans! surPRISE!

 

Aria
Because the trans experience is just another plot twist? All right, yuck.

 

Rachel
Also this is not what happened in the books.

 

Aria
That makes even worse! HAHAHAHAHA!

 

Niala
Ohhh. So "Charles" is just known about, but when they are finally seen on camera they are CeCe?

 

Rachel
Yes. And CeCe has been an established character played by a cis actress as a cis woman.

 

Joey
It's so awkward.

 

Aria
What the real-life fuck, though? If CeCe is a trans woman, why does Charles even need to be a character? Unless CeCe's transition is a part of the narrative. Is it?

 

Niala
Was it that she was in the closet as cis? And she came out as trans? Like everyone assumed she was cis.

 

Aria
So many question marks...

 

Rachel
I mean, I think you could call it that, but it's one of those things where, like, did they plan this in advance or did they just make it up à la Dan as Gossip Girl? And then again, cis actress playing a trans character.

 

Niala
That is the question. I would be shocked if a trans actress played a trans character on a TV show that isn't on Netflix.

 

Joey
Also how long have they been planning this? Did they know in initial casting?

 

Niala
Has someone asked The Powers That Be (TPTB) if CeCe has been a trans woman this whole time?

 

Rachel
Do you mean everyone knew she was trans but didn't know she was Charles?

 

Niala
No. I mean did everyone think she was cis because that's the default until otherwise said. Like did the character (and her sister) know that she was trans but it's everyone else who assumed she was cis the whole time?

 

Rachel
Her sister didn't know nor did her brother.

 

Aria
Have these characters even met each other?

 

Rachel
It was a twist. The whole mystery was "Who is Charles?" since Charles was unstable and had left town when he was younger, only to return with a new identity.

 

Niala
Ooohhh.

 

Rachel
That no one but their mom, apparently, knew.

 

Niala
OK, I was about to ask that. Did it say that they left home because of their trans identity and worry about their siblings reaction?

 

Rachel
Nope. I don't think so.

 

Niala
I would want to see how the show handles it from here, in the next episode.

 

Rachel
Good point. And I think that brings us to our original thing, which is: when do we jump in? Even without having watched this show.

 

Aria
But knowing even this much suggests to me that the writers don't know enough about trans identities to be writing about them. And that's a deterrent for me watching the show.

 

Niala
I would personally stay in a background capacity and listen. I would see what others are saying and what the show is saying, plus the actors. Then maybe I would venture an opinion. I just try to stay in my lane when it comes to fandom issues outside of my fandom. I mean, they are obviously up for debate in the wider world, but I try to be careful and not jump to conclusions. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt.

 

Aria
I also try to stay in my lane in regards to fandoms outside of my own. But when it seems like creators are trying to speak to identities they know little or nothing about, I start to have a problem. Especially if it has to do with my identity. (The comic Airboy comes to mind.) So, a part of me wants to know more about CeCe, and a part of me wants to treat PLL like I treat Bill Willingham comics, and just not.

 

Airboy

 

Aria Baci's picture
on August 15, 2015

EDITOR IN CHIEF