The Problem with “Problematic”: The Importance of Critical Reading

Last week, a friend of mine at work was telling a story about watching TV with their Kindergarten-age daughter. They were watching a popular show which her daughter has been obsessed with for about a year now, when her daughter suddenly turned to her and asked “Why aren’t there more girls on this show?” In the cast of about 10 anthropomorphic characters, only one or two of them were female. Her story got me thinking — we should all be more like her daughter.

I think it’s worth noting that the child was not necessarily complaining about the lack of female characters, although it seemed like she thought it was unfair. She was simply questioning why the writers had chosen to skew the characters that way. This is something I think we need to do with books as well. I’ve been struggling to write a post on this topic for months now, because I know it can be a sensitive subject. I think we are sometimes too quick to label books as “problematic.”

To be clear, I am definitely not trying to imply that books are never problematic and that everyone is being too sensitive. There is definitely problematic representation, and it can and should be called out. What I’m suggesting is instead of jumping straight to assuming that the content is a problem, we should take a moment to ask ourselves why the author chose to write the character that way.

Essentially, what it comes down to is that both the author and the reader have some degree of responsibility when it comes to books. The author is responsible for thoughtful and accurate representation of their characters, as well as the responsibility for creating compelling, well-written stories that interest people. The reader is responsible for putting some thought into what they read and to be unafraid to question what the author was trying to say.  Was the author intentionally offensive with their representation, or were they trying to convey a message? If they were trying to convey a message, what was the message and how well did it come across?

There is also the important distinction to be made between content that is actually problematic, and content that the reader on a personal level just doesn’t like or agree with. For example, there are many people who disagree with stories about characters who have mental illness having a negative ending, but that does not necessarily mean that the book itself is problematic. Just like we have to be critical of what we see on the news, we also have to be critical when we are reading. I’m not trying to turn every book we read into a school project or a game of “analyze this to death,” but I think it is important for readers to put some thought into what they are consuming the same way we are taught to do with movies or TV. An unhappy ending is not necessarily problematic.  At this point, it actually seems to be difficult to find any books that have not been deemed problematic in some way.

My issue with labeling a book as problematic is that it seems to be a blanket statement for the idea that the book might be upsetting. Again, there are definitely books out there that are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. but instead of rushing to label, I think we need to take a deeper look and think about why the characters were written that way. Sometimes, it really is a problem of poor representation or an author who really does have a bias. Sometimes it might be that the author was trying to be diverse but didn’t know how to do it well. And sometimes, it might be that the characters were written that way purposely to convey something that the author wanted to say. We are often quick to assume that characters who are racist, homophobic, etc. condone those attitudes, and we miss the bigger message. I don’t think the mere presence of problematic material is a problem in itself. It is how the author handles it and what purpose that representation serves that is more important.

I’d like to have a little faith in people that they are able to notice when there are problems with how people or groups are represented. When I say that the presence alone is not enough, it’s because I’d like to believe that the average reader can and does notice when the content could be offensive. We should all be doing exactly what my friend’s daughter did with her favourite show, and question why it was written that way. Not to take away from the fun of reading just for our own enjoyment, but it is up to us to think about what we read and acknowledge the problems if and when they really do exist.


4 thoughts on “The Problem with “Problematic”: The Importance of Critical Reading

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