Honestly, we were all fine with Jennifer Lawrence until she made a rape joke.

OK, maybe not all of us. But that was the first time I had seen such an uproar on the Internet about this infamously GIF-ready, cool-girl-epitome celebrity. BuzzFeed reported in May that a “Vulture” reporter at the Cannes Film Festival party overheard Jennifer Lawrence say “I broke out my rape scream for you!” to Alfonso Cuarón to describe how excited she was to see him. When this story blew up on the Internet, some defended her, citing past feminist remarks as proof that she was OK or characterizing the comment as dumb but not offensive, but some were outraged that she felt comfortable making that joke.

But despite those black-and-white gut responses, I’d say the vast majority of the reactions that I saw on the web consisted of people just chalking it up to JLaw joining an ever growing list of “problematic faves,” and this is what intrigued me — especially now, only a few weeks after she has been commended for speaking out against pay inequality in Hollywood.

The term “problematic fave” (sometimes spelled “fav”) feels like it has been ubiquitous for a couple years now, and it seems like everyone is using it in more or less the same way: to describe a person in the public eye who, despite being lovable in some ways (“fave”) also holds or expresses controversial opinions or behaviors — “problematic.”

Some of the first examples of popular problematic faves that come to mind (other than Jennifer Lawrence) are Lena Dunham, Azealia Banks and John Green. Dunham gets credit for bringing women’s stories to TV in a big way — but loses points for whitewashing New York City and not being inclusive (and also for some of the more questionable things she writes about in her book). Banks calls out guys on their misogynistic music, but at the same time has used and not apologized for her using a very derogatory gay slur on more than one occasion. Green is interesting because people who care about Young Adult literature usually have very strong opinions about him — he’s either adored or abhorred. He’s one of the most popular and prolific writers of our generation, but he has been accused of being problematic for writing female characters who fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. 

These are just a few, but the list goes on — Amy Poehler, Trevor Noah, Taylor Swift, Jerry Louis, Iggy Azalea, etc. And sometimes, people who start off as faves become problematic faves and then just problematic. Take Miley Cyrus. A few years ago she was a champion for women owning their sexuality and breaking out of the mold. But now, it seems that every time the camera is back on her, she’s saying something inappropriate — like calling Snoop Dogg her “real Mammy” during a VMA sketch.

Even the term “problematic” itself bears scrutinizing. Sometimes it’s used to signify something as insensitive, uncomfortable, non-inclusive or obviously biased. But it has also become an occasional stand-in for more condemnatory words, like racist, sexist or homophobic. This discrepancy invites the question: Does using the term problematic fave mean we’re accepting that people can’t be perfect? Or does it mean that we’re excusing inappropriate, insensitive or even unacceptable behavior?

And who gets to decide?

It’s worth noting that all of the people I listed as problematic faves are entertainers in some form or another. These are all individuals who have an open relationship with the American public — fans and haters, alike. Whether they think of themselves as role models for their fans or not, they still rely on the public for their continued success, as we rely on them for entertainment. It’s a symbiotic relationship; their constituencies have given them a responsibility, whether they want or are equipped for it or not.

I’m not saying it isn’t complicated — it is. I’m still unsure of the best way to deal with these past difficulties. For example, Trevor Noah has been painted with the problematic brush for tweets that he posted from 2011 and 2012. While some of them are gross, are we supposed to assume he can’t change? Despite having similar definitions for problematic fav, everyone seems to have a different opinion on how far back we are allowed to pull for evidence that someone is problematic when analyzing their place in society.

To be more optimistic, maybe the use of problematic indicates a positive trend in society. If people who are uncomfortable calling someone out as racist or sexist or homophobic — or legitimately can’t see an action or remark as indicative as being one of those things — then their use of the term problematic could be an introduction to opening up conversation. At least they recognize that something is wrong. And this is especially useful when we’re talking about our own personal problematic faves: grandparents, neighbors, parents of the kids we babysit, professors, university presidents, roommates, etc.

I think that the widespread use of “problematic fave” signals that yes, we accept that people can’t be perfect and they can produce interesting or quality art while not being paragons of intersectional social justice. But at the same time, calling someone a problematic fave is acknowledging that we have given them a platform — and we’re holding them to certain standards when they’re speaking from it.

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