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Challenging Art and Media: The Problem With “Problematic”

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Published February 12, 2018

I recently watched the anime DEVILMAN crybaby. I was inspired to tune in by seeing dozens of posts about it on social media in early January 2018. The series was on the one hand acclaimed and on the other hand repeatedly described in media as “gross” and “shockingly violent”, and by some viewers as problematic.

Beyond being vaguely aware of the decades-old DEVILMAN that this was an iteration of, I had no idea what to expect. At just 10 episodes, I thought it would be a good show to marathon-watch and evaluate for myself. Of course, I was also intrigued to read everybody’s takes on it once I could safely do so without anything being a spoiler for me. I had to find out for myself.

Stolas, best owl-demon ever: “Great Prince of Hell, commands twenty-six legions of demons, and teaches astronomy and the knowledge of poisonous plants, herbs and precious stones.”

I was already a fan of Black Butler and an appreciator of occult weirdness involving demons such as the Ars Goetia and the bafflingly corny Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse With Spirits, so after skimming some information, I was sure that I would find something interesting to consider in DEVILMAN crybaby. I watched it in full in a few days’ time. Spoilers ahead for DEVILMAN crybaby and  — very briefly — Black Butler, though be aware that this essay is going to turn to wider considerations in creative media beyond these; you don’t need to have watched them to understand the point I am aiming for.

Evil angel(s) in Black Butler.

I thought some aspects of the series were clunky or underdeveloped; the awkward rapping or the lack of detail in what Ryo’s life is like when he is away from Akira; perhaps this is meant to be shrouded in mystery, so we don’t begin to guess Ryo’s true identity as Satan too early on. That said, a couple of episodes in I saw Ryo as color-coded for my convenience, concluding he must be an ‘evil angel’ due to his white garb and unflappable attitude, instantly recalling the fallen angel of Black Butler in my mind.

Akira and Ryo/Satan in DEVILMAN crybaby at the end of the series

All told, I found DEVILMAN crybaby enjoyable for two main reasons: 1) its overt queer themes and the varied, complex expression of them: Miko/Miki, Koda shown with another man at the beginning of episode #6, and, ultimately, the sexual tension between Ryo-as-Satan and Akira; 2) its apocalyptic ending: Satan left on planet earth as the only being alive. I feel compelled to check out the older DEVILMAN material now that I’ve seen this to see how it compares.

I was completely flabbergasted by was how un-grossed out by the series I was. I expected to feel annoyed by pointless fanservice (not all fanservice is pointless!) and to wince at old-school Mortal Kombat levels of bloodshed. Instead, I got multiple angles of same-sex (or human/demon) sexual tension or outright depiction, and comedically over-the-top limb-shredding.
It’s dark, heavy content and content warnings are warranted. But callout posts are never in that vein. They take a tone of moral superiority and condemnation if one continues to read any work deemed problematic

— ㋐ Vrai Kaiser ㋐ (@WriterVrai) December 28, 2017

As Vrai Kaiser notes, “The Ryo of DEVILMAN crybaby is a monster because of his lack of compassion rather than his queerness. But even he is offered hope, as the realization that he loved Akira all along becomes a catalyst for change and rebirth.” Further, it has been said that DEVILMAN crybaby subverts many of the earlier incarnation’s potentially questionable tropes.

I searched just about everything I could equating DEVILMAN crybaby with the term “problematic” and its synonyms, just to try to help me wrap my head around how a certain audience has made such an extreme assessment of it. It’s a given that people are going to be impacted by the same piece of media differently. Nonetheless, I wondered: what was accounting for the big disparity of reactions here?

It’s one thing to not like a piece of media; removing oneself from fans of it by blocking, unfollowing, or otherwise distancing and shaming is another. One absolutely has the right to not engage with material that makes one uncomfortable and to critique media thoughtfully: ‘Devilman, Sirene, sexual assault and consent- an earnest breakdown’ is one such thoughtful post.

As for those engaged in more of a pile-on of fans of the series, I wondered: is this a pool of people who don’t ordinarily watch anime, or only watched certain kinds that don’t expect violence and sex from “a cartoon”? Or is it rather people who expect that certain themes ought to be hands-off in creative work in general? The more I searched, the more I began to believe it was the latter, and this concerned me on a level beyond my pondering on DEVILMAN.

Thinking about trends I have seen within anime fandom discourse (which I will return to in a bit) as well as earlier patterns I have researched in literature and art, the picture became all the more clear.

One such example is Dennis Cooper. I thought of Cooper’s body of work and the frequent — and erroneous, to me — application of the word “shock value” to describe his fiction. It’s fascinating to me that one person can review Cooper’s Try and say “the “disturbing” nature of the story seemed to be for shock-value only with no real purpose or message.” and another to say “the writing in TRY is so remarkably fluid and loose, yet completely gorgeous and resonating…throughout the story lies a delicacy, a cuteness that gives the entire book a tone that one would likely find odd and discomforting if they aren’t familiar with the teenage mind.”

Cooper has even responded to this application himself saying in Spin (July 1994): “…people say I’m into shock value, but I’m not. I’m just…I’m really worried about stuff.” In Vice in 2015, again he explains this predominant subject matter:
I started using those motifs [of pretty boys getting killed] when I was a teenager, and obviously when I was thinking about it as a teenager, I was thinking about it being the young one. And now I’m much older and I’m still writing about it, and I’m not really the young one anymore. So… I don’t really know. There’s something about it that’s very scary to me…I find that really disturbing, and I find it really fascinating that people do that to each other.

Not everyone is going to enjoy reading Dennis Cooper’s books, be it because of the subject matter, Cooper’s writing style, or anything else that may not necessarily appeal or even squick one out; totally understandable. The aspect that intrigues me is a pervasive notion in some circles that some topics either should never be written about or — if they are written about — they intrinsically have a negative or exploitative outcome or act as endorsements for the content within. In this view, there is no room for the author’s intent, divergent audience interpretation, or even frank discussion.

Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous)

Returning to anime and manga, one controversy around creative subject matter that hit my timeline was a post on Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous) creator Haruko Ichikawa’s earlier works. The post in question, ‘Houseki no Kuni’s Mangaka Makes ¥ off of Incest & Pedophilia’, has, at the time of my post, nearly 3000 notes on Tumblr. Despite not being familiar with HNK myself, I saw a reaction of great distress among people I was following who were into it. Everyone seemed to be questioning whether they could go on being a fan of anything Ichikawa-related whatsoever. I had to delve deeper to see what was going on here.

This is all not to say that those who decide they are done with Ichikawa or are at least concerned about their consumption of Ichikawa’s works are in the wrong, and that those who approach it from an angle of allowing for dark and heavy content are right. One must decide for themselves where to draw the line with the media they partake in.

Indeed, nuance is key: it is the all-consuming destructive decrees that one must avoid [xyz] to be a good fan or a socially acceptable member of a community. This has in some cases led to bullying creators, including into attempting suicide for creating “problematic” fanart.

I have discussed some of these works and ideas with friends as I was preparing this post. A few people have expressed the notion that this debate is insular, taking place chiefly among teenagers on social media who are concerned with social justice. It does indeed appear to be primarily young people engaged in this type of discourse. In this case I think it is even more important for people to be aware of and engage in the freedom to explore creatively without fear of censorship or bullying.

Imagine being a teenager and feeling afraid or shamed out of of writing a story, drawing a picture, shooting a video, or making a game because your thoughts or curiosities of themes to explore aren’t as wholesome as a Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good For This World, Too Pure.

Consume or create one Pure Cinnamon Roll per day to meet your daily nutritional value for media health. [laugh track]It is of course crucial to also be aware that depictions in media that appear to endorse or glorify stereotypes and violence can inform real-world behavior; accountability, criticism, and a mixture of audience reactions are all part of a healthy media culture. There are also many incredible fictional works more explicitly articulating social justice themes, as there should be.

The social mode of call-out culture, of appointing oneself an an ‘anti‘, however, is another thing altogether. It is deeply unhealthy and discouraging to complex artistic expression. This is especially true when taken to extremes of shaming, harassment, and even death threats towards fans or creators with different taste or opinion on media than oneself.

We cannot, and should not, wield a kind of media banhammer against works simply because we do not understand them or they squick us out. We should critique, discuss, and share. We certainly should not enforce a kind of creative purity or list of rules that aim to prevent people from exploring the darker recesses of their psyche, fantasies and what-ifs, and articulating confusing or traumatic lived experiences through art that don’t meet some imaginary approved codes or quotas of representation.

Deeply personal work in particular will not speak to everyone in the audience, and this is okay. Art can act as catharsis for the artist and, ideally, connection with like-minded souls who will bring their own reading of the work to the table.

The banhammer itself. (Super Smash Bros. Brawl)

Rather than making the immediate assumption that creators are acting in bad faith or exclusively attempting to shock or titillate by including certain themes in their work, let’s move forward to unpack a deeper or alternative meaning as step number one as well as dare to dive deeply into the dark in our own work when expression calls for it.