Sometimes it’s okay to like something problematic.
One of my earliest experiences of ‘fandom’, or of interacting with other fans, was actually a few years before I’d even heard of the Internet.
I was the weird kid at my school, the one that literally everyone else picked on. I wasn’t into the stuff everyone else was – pop music, TV soaps – and I had a weird sense of humour. I liked late-night cult TV on Channel 4, and I’d been watching Red Dwarf since it started, when I was seven or eight years old. It fit my bleak, off-kilter humour and world view perfectly.
Then, on one of my school’s regular non-uniform days, a boy in my class turned up wearing a Red Dwarf T-shirt. I was gobsmacked, and I think he caught me staring. I confessed that I didn’t know anyone else at school was a fan of the show. We ended up talking about favourite episodes and quotes and where to buy merch (tricky in pre-Internet days). I want to say that we became friends, but he was friends with one of my bullies, so most of the time we didn’t talk much. But sometimes one of us would make a reference to make the other laugh.
‘Red Dwarf’ was the first show that I ever called myself a fan of, in the sense that I wanted to do more than just watch it when it came on TV. I bought the videos, read the novels, learned the ‘Toungue-Tied’ dance (don’t ask). I watched practically every new episode as it aired, and kept doing so, even through the dodgy series 7 and questionable series 8. I went out of my way to watch the Blade Runner-esque mini-series, and was thrilled when they announced a series 10.
Except at some point during that tenth season, I realised that the show I had loved for so long was…problematic. There were gay jokes, and trans jokes, and any women were either there to be lusted after or were ugly monsters to be feared and laughed at. I know, shocker, right? A show from the ‘80s/’90s, written by men and starring men that wasn’t exactly kind to women or queer folk.
I was torn. The oddball humour I remembered was still there, and the characters were still recognisable. Had it always been so awful, and I just hadn’t noticed? I looked back through old episodes. Yep. Rimmer made gay jokes about Ace. Men in dresses were walking visual gags. How had I missed this?
The show, I suppose, is ‘of its time’, meaning that jokes that are blatantly unacceptable now were nothing out of the ordinary twenty or thirty years ago. While a lot of the humour holds up well today – “If Death comes anywhere near me, I’ll rip his nipples off” will never not be funny – I still cringe at the thought of Rimmer trying to undermine his alternate-universe counterpart with implications that he’s gay. And that type of humour carried over into the post-2000 episodes, when one would expect the writers to know better.
So now, this show I have such fond memories of also brings with it conflicting feelings of distaste.
Cancel Culture would require that I drop all positive feelings for ‘Red Dwarf’. Certainly, I feel less inclined to seek out fanworks, and I haven’t touched the DVDs for a while. There are episodes from series 11 that I still haven’t watched. But I can’t erase the positive feelings I have for it: the nostalgia that comes from seeing old episodes when the actors were still young, or the ‘90s cultural references that make this future-set show feel kind of dated, the laughter at some of the classic visual gags (Rimmer’s Give Quiche A Chance T-shirt, or his endless Rimmer-salute in series 8), or the way the show introduced me to the concept of fan spaces and interacting with other fans. I’ve met some of the cast and they’re lovely people, and the other fans I’ve met are great too.
So is it possible to like a thing that has such blatant flaws?
Again, Cancel Culture would argue no. It has misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic jokes, therefore it’s bad.
But surely it’s possible to approach a thing with a critical eye; to be able to say, yes, certain things could have been done differently, but other things still hold value. The show had two black lead actors – a big deal in the ’80s. It introduced real science and speculative-fiction theories into what was otherwise basically a sitcom. The later series, produced in a time when the writers and actors should have shown more awareness and forethought, are the ones that make me most uncomfortable, and I generally avoid re-watching those. But if I catch anything from series 1-7 on TV, I’ll happily sit and watch.
Because this stuff is complex, and nuanced, and isn’t as simple as saying ‘this is bad and you shouldn’t enjoy it’. It would be different if I enjoyed the thing because of its flaws – if I still laughed at the gay jokes or the cross-dressing jokes. It’s like watching a Tarantino film and being able to talk about things like direction or narrative devices, versus watching a Tarantino film because you enjoy the violence and the misogyny and the racism. I have watched precisely one Tarantino film (‘Pulp Fiction’, at the request of a friend). Afterwards, we had a conversation about the timeline and the way in which the different stories are told, and I could appreciate those things from a media critic point of view. But it gave me enough insight to know that I would not enjoy Tarantino’s other works.
If you want to talk anime, then consider ‘Space Dandy’. I’ve mentioned a few times my complex relationship with this show. When it first debuted, anime reviewers (at least the ones for UK-released publications like Neo) were raving over it. They praised the cast, both Japanese and English, rhapsodised over the direction and the visuals, and generally hyped the show like it was what anime had been invented for.
So I tuned in, and made it through about six episodes before I realised: this show does not like women.
The show has two regular male heroes (Dandy and Meow), a non-gendered robot (QT) and two recurring female characters (Honey, a server at a Hooters-style outer-space restaurant chain, and Scarlet, a bureaucrat at the Alien Registration Centre). So numbers-wise, there isn’t a massive gender imbalance. But the two women we see most often also represent the two most common ‘types’ of women in media aimed at men: the eye-candy and the bitch.
In episode six, Dandy tells a young girl that he’s only interested in ‘real women’ with curves (Dandy has a thing for prominent buttocks). By the end of the episode, the girl pledges to herself that she’ll grow up into such a woman so that she can join Dandy’s crew. I gave up on the show not long after that.
For several years, I despaired whenever anyone praised the show. How could they not see these blatant flaws? Why didn’t anyone care about the awful way the show treated its female characters?
At some point in 2018, I discovered that Dandy and Meow’s seiyuu had been ‘paired’ again as Eraserhead and Present Mic in ‘My Hero Academia’. Being a seiyuu fan (and an EraserMic fan), I was curious about how they had worked together in roles that were effectively polar opposites – I even came up with a plotbunny for an EraserMic fic in which the MHA universe crosses with the Dandy universe via a cosmic string (a season 2 plot point I’d read about and found interesting enough to check out clips of the episode). Eventually, I gave in to temptation and went back to revisit the series, picking up where I’d left off.
The show did have some genuinely interesting story ideas. And there was no denying that the visuals were stunning. The show had a lot going for it.
But the misogyny was still there.
I came to the conclusion that everyone has things they’re willing to overlook and things that they can’t get past. Take into account differing cultural values and different audience tastes, and I can understand why ‘Space Dandy’ is so well-liked. It’s not a show I recommend to anyone, and I don’t think I’d ever re-watch the whole thing, but I do get it.
I think as fans we sometimes need to draw a line between enjoying a thing and appreciating it. I can appreciate a show that has some flaws, but that’s different from actively enjoying it. Same goes for stories that deal with particularly heavy themes, like ‘Elfen Lied’. I can appreciate that anime, even for all its gore and violence, because I get the point it’s trying to make, and it makes its point effectively and with style. But I don’t consider watching it to be an enjoyable experience.
Likewise, I can still enjoy the story and themes in series like ‘One Punch Man’ or ‘My Hero Academia’ while also acknowledging that both have things that could be better, such as the inclusion of predatory gay man PuriPuri Prisoner in OPM or the sexualisation of certain female characters in MHA. Those flaws, while irritating, are not the sole focus of the show, unlike something like ‘Ao-chan Can’t Study’ which is entirely about laughing at a teenage girl forced into sexual situations (which her father actively encourages).
It’s also important to remember that there is a line between fiction and reality, and that we are allowed to feel differently about fictional things than we are about those things in real life. I love ‘Baki’ for its over-the-top comedic violence, because I know that the violence is not motivated by prejudice against whole groups of people, but at the same time I can condone real-life violence. Just as I love ‘Osomatsu-san’ for all its off-colour jokes, because the characters making those jokes are not meant to be admirable. And the comparison I often use for this is the popularity of crime fiction – no one bats an eye at people who read crime novels, and no one expects the readers or writers of the genre to be either aspiring detectives or potential murderers.
If you like a thing because of the problematic aspects (realistic violence, depictions of prejudice or harassment, jokes at the expense of marginalised groups) then that genuinely is a cause for concern.
But if you can approach something with a mature, critical eye, and accept that every story will have something that could be better, then I think it’s perfectly possible to appreciate, if not enjoy, that story. Let people like what they like, and let yourself like things too.