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Your fave is problematic

/ 05:03 AM July 16, 2018

Self-absorbed, quick to cry out against any perceived injustice, and virtually inextricable from social media, we millennials get a bad rap. There are, by now, too many articles either championing millennials or highlighting the ways that we are weak or soft.

Still, one of the millennial contributions I find valuable is our bringing of academic jargon to the mainstream, particularly in the context of social activism. One of the most commonly used of all of these words is “problematic.”

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The term previously belonged in universities and is now part of the parlance of every Twitter or Tumblr user. It’s used as a blanket term describing any action or belief that upholds a system of oppression—all very academic, but surprisingly usable in daily contexts.

Whatever one thinks about Chris Brown, liking him is “problematic” because of his history of domestic violence. Scarlett Johansson is problematic because of her decision to portray roles she could leave to those of the appropriate sex or ethnicity, as in “Ghost in the Shell” and the upcoming “Rub and Tug.”

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The Urban Dictionary also points out wryly that the term allows the user to avoid more hostile wording or to say that something, for example, is racist, sexist, homophobic or colonialist. I can simply say that Donald Trump’s policy on immigration or President Duterte’s campaign against “tambays” is “problematic,” rather than any of the more colorful words that come to mind. It’s true that the term has become a sort of euphemistic cliché, but it’s also a useful gauge on how millennials view public personalities and their behavior.

Millennials embrace fandoms, not just of shows, bands, books or films, but also of people. The highest praises are saved not just for the talented or the good-looking, but also for the humanitarian, the progressive, the open-minded, the inclusive and the oppressed. Public personalities get ticked off a list of millennials’ darlings when something comes to light that they have done, worn or said that is “problematic.”

The notorious Tumblr blog “Your Fave is Problematic” has listed celebrities alongside some ethical failures and “problematic” quotations. Justin Bieber’s take on rape, for instance: “It’s really sad, but everything happens for a reason.” Or Donald Glover’s “Filipinos are the black girls of Asians.” It’s an excellent example of the way the internet remembers everything, and the way we could be saying something ableist, sexist, racist or a bunch of other “-ists” without knowing it.

It’s also our way of holding people to a standard of behavior—calling it into question and opening up discussions without directly antagonizing. Public figures live in an age of unprecedented scrutiny, where the smallest action or microaggression can be broadcast.

Your favorite local celebrity publicly supports the offspring of a late dictator? Your beloved deceased senator apparently supported the burial of the dictator at Libingan ng mga Bayani? Problematic. Local celebrity boy solicited graphic design online without intending to pay? Problematic. “Maalaala Mo Kaya” used blackface in an episode? Problematic.

The culture of calling things out as problematic, while prone to public shaming and overreaction, also produces the wonderful side effect of holding our favorite artists accountable for their behavior. And, sometimes, as in the case of the local celebrity who asked for free graphic design, or Scarlett Johansson who has now stepped down from playing the role of a trans man, it produces change, and an apology, and the admission that some things are Not Okay.

Henry Cavill issued an apology mere days ago for a statement he made in a GQ interview about the way the #MeToo movement has supposedly made him apprehensive about approaching women, lest he be labeled a rapist straight away. That statement is clearly problematic, because the most important thing he shouldn’t do so as not to be labeled a rapist is, well, not to rape anybody.

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Looks and talent are no longer enough as barometers for celebrity fandom. Progressive thought and inclusivity now count as much, if not more—and I don’t see a problem with that.

kchuarivera@gmail.com

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