I’ve said it before: pointing out creepy or otherwise problematic content in bad stories is easy. Bad stories are less likely to have legions of defenders, but more importantly, we’re more inclined to see harmful elements in stories we already dislike. But critics and fans alike cannot keep their analysis contained to low-quality fiction. It is just as important, perhaps more so, to highlight the mistakes of good stories, since those are the ones most likely to spread their message. Today we’ll examine some of my personal favorites and see where they go wrong.
Content Notice: Discussion of sexism and ableism.
Spoiler Notice: Lords and Ladies, Artemis, and Searching
Have I mentioned that I love Discworld? It’s probably come up a time or two, and this book is one of my favorites. It subverts the overpowered Tolkien-style elves by casting them in the role of older folktale elves. They’re magnificent, but with that magnificence comes a mile-wide streak of cruelty. They have no empathy for human suffering; to them, humans aren’t even people. And yet humans can’t help but summon the elves, because our species never could ignore a promise of wealth or power.
In addition to its terrifying villains, Lords and Ladies has a host of compelling characters and themes. We have soon-to-be Queen Magrat who must save her country with nothing but determination and an iron breastplate. We have the venerable Granny Weatherwax, wondering if she’s finally gotten too old for this nonsense. The novel teaches us that steady work beats flashy theatrics every time and that kindness is more important than cruelty. It’s a story I’d happily read again, and I just finished a reread.
Unfortunately, Lords and Ladies is also home to our old friend the Persistent Suitor trope. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the trope of a man* who courts a woman, and when she says no, he redoubles his efforts. Her resistance is portrayed as a barrier to overcome rather than a sign that she’s not interested.
In this book, we see Archchancellor Ridcully try to rekindle an old romance with Granny Weatherwax. On its own this romance could have been great; very few stories ever show older folks* in amorous relationships after all, but it’s ruined by Ridcully’s approach. He repeatedly makes advances on Granny, long after she’s firmly told him she isn’t interested. At one point, he even teleports her out of a party against her will so the two of them can be alone.
The Persistent Suitor is toxic because it teaches us that women don’t actually mean it when they say no. They’ll eventually come around if the man just redoubles his efforts. What happens if the woman doesn’t change her mind is usually left to the imagination. This belief is incredibly harmful in real life, as anyone who’s ever been pushed further than they wanted to go can tell you. Pushing past a person’s refusals isn’t romantic; it’s rude at best and criminal at worst.
Unlike most Persistent Suitor stories, Ridcully’s efforts don’t actually pay off, but that isn’t much consolation. The only reason he and Granny don’t get together is that Granny can’t have romance interfering with witching; Ridcully’s efforts are painted as charming if ultimately futile. That’s especially ironic, considering that the evil elves’ most prominent trait is not caring how humans feel about what is done to them.
Stan Against Evil is a comedic horror show, and its title is an amazing pun, so I love it already. It focuses on Stan, an irascible retired sheriff; his eccentric daughter, Denise; and Evie, the new sheriff.* The three of them fight demons in their small New England town, with Evie usually playing the proverbial “straight man” to the other two.
The show is a blast to watch. It makes fun of numerous urban fantasy tropes, and despite its high levels of gore, the theme of the show is usually light. In one episode, Stan and Evie trade jokes as they dig up Stan’s dead wife for her magical amulet. In another, Stan and Denise defeat a powerful demon by reenacting scenes from Jaws. This light tone is especially welcome nowadays, when it seems like every piece of media out there is drenched in grimdark. The show’s acting is excellent, its comedic timing is spot on, and the characters’ personalities complement each other beautifully.
Well, mostly. There is one major problem, and that’s the way Stan, an older white dude, loves to make sexist quips about women. He’ll “joke” that women suck the life out of men they date, or that women always need to get the last word, or that women act irrationally when menstruating, etc. I could go on, but you get the idea.
These jokes are a classic example of punching down: joking at a less privileged person’s expense. The same thing happens when white people make jokes about black people, when straight people make jokes about gay people, and so on. In all of these cases, the joker is reinforcing stereotypes and cultural prejudices that cause real harm to get a laugh. No matter the joker’s intent, prejudiced jokes won’t be very funny to people who suffer from that prejudice.
In the case of Stan Against Evil, the sexist jokes are a serious problem for the show’s comedy. Most of the humor depends on the characters trading barbs on even footing, but there’s nothing either Evie or Denise can say in response to Stan’s misogyny because our culture doesn’t have the same kind of stereotypes about men. This makes Stan seem cruel rather than adorably cantankerous. It’s not until he moves on to more neutral territory that the laughs can start again.
In Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, he demonstrates incredible skill with plot, pacing, and integrating technology into the story. In Artemis, Weir repeats his trick, this time set on humanity’s first and only lunar city. It’s a story that demonstrates excellent fundamentals. We start with protagonist Jazz having a real problem: she needs money, and there aren’t a lot of job opportunities on the moon. From there, the problem escalates, until Jazz and her allies have to save the entire city. Along the way, Weir establishes how the lunar city’s technology works in a way that’s understandable even for English majors.
Weir is really good at worldbuilding* and plotting, but he stumbles on character. This isn’t super noticeable in The Martian because the protagonist spends the entire book isolated on Mars, but in this story Jazz has to talk to other humans. That still could have been fine if Artemis had stuck to simple relationships, but instead he decided to give Jazz a romance with an engineer named Svoboda.
At first, it doesn’t seem like Svoboda is a romantic interest at all. Typically, potential paramours have some quality to make them desirable. In the best romances, this is a personality trait that complements the protagonist in some way, but at the very least you expect the love interest to be attractive. Svoboda doesn’t have any of that. He’s described as totally unattractive and more than a little creepy, displaying an uncomfortable interest in Jazz’s sex life.
That’s not a total deal breaker though; maybe he’ll develop some more desirable traits over the course of the story. Spoilers: he does not. The closest he ever gets is lending Jazz his technical expertise for her work, but Jazz has a number of useful allies, so that’s not enough to stand out. Instead, Svoboda’s creep factor just gets worse. He convinces Jazz to test out a new kind of condom for him, and from that point on, he won’t stop pestering her about when she’ll have sex next.*
By now you’re probably wondering when the romance comes in. The answer is really suddenly, right near the end. For no discernible reason, Jazz decides she’s super into Svoboda, and they smooch soon afterward. This goes from weird to creepy when you consider that the book constantly reminds us how hot Jazz is. She’s so hot, you won’t believe how hot she is. And she ends up with totally unattractive* Svoboda for no reason.
This ending feels like Jazz is being given to Svoboda as a prize for completing the quest of saving the city. This trope usually plays out with a male protagonist and a female love interest, which is still toxic, but it feels so much worse with Jazz as the protagonist. She’s the character we inhabit throughout the story, and her agency is casually tossed aside in the name of some random dude getting a hot girlfriend. She deserves better, and so do we as readers.
At first, My Hero Academia looks like yet another anime about punching and grunting, this time with superhero flavoring. Yawn. But a closer examination reveals something more. First, the animation itself is really well done, and while there are a lot of fights, they’re beautifully choreographed. No reusing frames or prolonged power-ups here, no sir! The powers are a breath of fresh air for superhero fans. In the place of old standbys like laser vision and super strength, we get a girl who can make objects immune to gravity by touching them and a guy who can grow extra limbs.
The characters are also deeper than you might expect. The protagonist is part of a small minority that are born without powers, but he wants to be a superhero anyway. That’s not revolutionary by any means, but it’s easy to sympathize with. Meanwhile, his mentor All Might is a fascinating take on the Superman trope, an extremely powerful hero whose public image as a do-gooder is at least as important to him as his power. The split between All Might’s press-facing persona and the way he acts in private is complex and thought-provoking.
But just when you’ve started to get comfortable with this superhero anime, you start to notice how the show treats its female characters. First, there are barely any female characters. The protagonist is part of a superhero training program, and in his class of 20, there are 6 girls.* That’s an awfully skewed ratio, especially since the show tells us that in this world, the primary factor in people becoming heroes is how strong their powers are. That would seem to rule out in-world prejudice as a factor. Among adults, things are even worse. We see dozens of heroes in just the first season, and three of them are women.
Then there’s the costuming. Inappropriately sexy costumes in a superhero story may not be surprising, but they’re still disappointing. One of the few adult women we see is explicitly dressed like a dominatrix.* Another female hero wears a more traditional skin-tight jumpsuit, but the camera still hugs her chest and butt like they’re going out of style. Because we haven’t yet reached maximum creep, a lot of the kids get this treatment too! One of them has a power that destroys her clothes when she uses it, while another has to take off her clothes in order for her invisibility power to be useful.* And these kids are supposed to be 14 years old. Gross!
My Hero Academia combines a small number of female characters with oversexualized costumes: two terrible tropes that are even worse in tandem. The small number of women reinforces the idea that women are strange and unusual in traditionally male-dominated spaces, which is bad news for any women trying to break into those spaces in real life. Meanwhile, the oversexualization problem is pretty straightforward: it sends the message that women are primarily valuable for titillating straight men.
To be fair, there are exceptions. One of the female teachers has a costume that looks like a space suit, which is pretty neat, and some of the kids have non-objectifying costumes. The female characters with screen time are also generally written as well as the male ones. But if anything, that makes it worse: the creators* know how to do better, and they’ve simply chosen not to. It’s insulting, like they think boys won’t watch their show about superheroes if it has too many girls who aren’t super sexy all the time.
Searching is, without a doubt, the best film I have seen in years. The basic premise is simple: John Cho’s daughter goes missing, and he has to help the police find her by searching through her devices and online history for clues on where she might have gone. It’s a delightful subversion: in most movies, the father would have to find his daughter with machine guns and punches, but Cho’s path allows him to get to know his daughter better after a long period of estrangement.
From there, the plot is gripping and intense. It’s paced so you always have hope that Cho will find his daughter, but that goal is always just out of reach. The stakes rise with each passing hour, and the movie throws out more than one red herring to keep you guessing. Then there’s the filming conceit: The entire movie is shown through device screens. Sometime it’s Cho’s phone, sometimes it’s the daughter’s laptop, and sometimes it’s a random YouTube page. The film never deviates from this conceit.
Normally, I’m not one for film gimmicks, but Searching had me hooked. Beyond the sheer novelty, using device screens provides two important advantages. One, it helps us connect with Cho’s character as he struggles with the same technological problems we all deal with. He has to retrieve passwords off multiple accounts before he can finally access his daughter’s email, he spends precious time refining his search terms, and he has to deal with the dreaded YouTube comments section. This is the first film I’ve ever seen where it feels like the characters use technology the same way I do.
The second benefit of Searching’s screen conceit is that it lets us get to know the daughter. We see her chat messages, listen to voicemails she left, and watch old videos of her with her family. The acting is top quality, but the use of device screens is also key. It allows us to emotionally invest in the daughter’s character without ever seeing her in the present, which would have given away the final reveal.
It’s that final reveal where the film veers into harmful territory. Cho discovers that the detective assigned to him is actually behind the disappearance, oh no! She’s covering for her son, who cyberstalked Cho’s daughter before meeting her in real life, accidentally injured her, and left her for dead in the wilderness. That’s pretty complicated, but it isn’t problematic until the son is revealed to be neurodivergent. The film isn’t clear on exactly how, but it seems like he’s on the autism spectrum and may have some kind of intellectual disability.
This reveal has two harmful messages. First, it plays into the stereotype that disabled people are dangerous. More specifically, there’s a commonly held image of the cyberstalker as a lonely, socially maladjusted guy who creeps on girls because he doesn’t know how to talk to them. Of course in reality there’s no connection between neurodivergence and predatory behavior, but too many people still think there is. This is a major issue, especially for autistic folks, who are often the victims of violence because neurotypical people don’t know how to communicate with them.
At the same time, the film strongly implies that the son’s condition absolves him of responsibility for what he did. He never meant any harm; he just set up an elaborate deception so he could get close to a girl online after she rejected his more overt advances. This is another harmful stereotype about disabled people: that they aren’t responsible enough to be treated like equals.
Adding insult to injury, all this ableism could be taken out, and it wouldn’t change the plot at all. It would still make perfect sense for the detective to be covering for her abled son who creeped on a girl and accidentally took things too far. Better yet, the film could have made a different character neurodiverse. That way it could have had its representation without any ableism gumming up the works. Alas, it was not to be. Searching is still a great film, but it will be forever hindered by its harmful reveal.
We say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating: it’s okay to like something with problematic or even outright harmful elements. If we had to reject a story the moment we found something wrong with it, there would be no stories left! However, that makes it doubly important for us to recognize the problems in our favorite stories. The creators among us can avoid those same problems in their own work, and the fans can demand better in the future. What’s more: when we see a harmful message for what it is, that message is less likely to influence us.
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