If there was one image that defined the pop culture zeitgeist of 2014, it was this:
During Beyoncé’s VMA performance of every track from her tour-de-force self-titled album this August, this moment happened. The singer defiantly stood in front of a massive display of the word “FEMINIST” as a spoken-word sample of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TEDx Talk rang out in the background, defining the word as "a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes."
It’s an undoubtedly iconic image, especially for someone as biased as I am -- but biases aside, no other image captures the focus our collective cultural conscious placed on feminism and social justice in 2014.
Because in 2014, nearly every musician, actor and public figure imaginable was subjected to intense scrutiny over their social views. Discussions over whether or not a celebrity’s words or actions are “problematic” have transfixed us as a society throughout the year. One wrong answer to a journalist’s question on feminism, racism or any other of the multitudinous -isms of social justice, and you could find yourself lambasted by the masses on the web.
What does it mean to be problematic?
The ever-venerable UrbanDictionary defines the term "problematic" as "A blanket term that describes any action that upholds a system of oppression for any oppressed groups. Most commonly used in social justice communities."
For a person to be considered problematic, he or she usually has to demonstrate ignorance or outright apathy to the plight of oppressed or underprivileged groups. Basically, if you discriminate against, refuse to support, appropriate or make fun of the culture and heritage of anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white man, you’re probably a little problematic.
And the witch hunt for the "problematic" people in the public eye spared very few this year.
One example is "Fault in Our Stars" actress Shailene Woodley, whose misguided responded to an inquiry about whether or not she was a feminist led to widespread Internet backlash:
"No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance," she told Time in May.
That’s not really what feminism is, Shailene!
Many potential fans of Woodley, a relative newcomer to Hollywood, likely saw this quote, labelled her “problematic,” then moved on.
People like Woodley lost fans because people would prefer to spend their time idol-worshipping similar, yet unproblematic starlets like Emma Watson, whose Women’s Studies 101-esque speech on feminism before the United Nations this year garnered widespread approval. Or Jennifer Lawrence, whose portrayal as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games" series is widely hailed as the face of modern feminism (despite the fact that Lawrence has said some pretty problematic things regarding transgender people, eating disorders, racism and sexual orientation herself).
I won’t just critique and nitpick at female celebrities here. Male celebrities were no better in 2014.
Pharrell Williams’s remarks on how racism doesn’t exist anymore were not only untrue, but wildly out-of-touch, considering what went on involving the non-indictments of white police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, MO and New York City this year. Reading that kind of thing coming from Pharrell was enough to turn my mild resentment of "Happy" into outright disdain.
Justin Bieber, once pop’s golden boy, is virtually a non-entity on everyone’s radar these days, with the exception of his diehard, delusional “Beliebers,” because he said and did things throughout 2014 that showed how ugly of a person he really is. There was that DUI arrest in January -- which, despite the glorious mugshot it produced, was pretty appalling. Or the video that surfaced of him singing one of his songs with the lyrics changed to include the never-okay “n word.” These days, there are tons of reasons to hate Justin Bieber that aren’t related to his haircut.
Recently, the movie "Exodus: Gods and Kings" was subject to widespread ridicule, and there was even a campaign to boycott the movie’s release. Why? The movie’s leading cast members are all white, although it’s set in ancient Egypt. The casting directors were nice enough to cast some POC (people of color) in the slave and servant roles, however.
The movie was critically panned. It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 28% positive reviews; even the best worst movie ever, "The Room," managed to get a 33% approval rating. It was probably a combination of the whitewashing combined with good old-fashioned historical revisionism that brought its critical reception down so far.
Why we care
It’s clear that no one was safe from the problematic pursuit in 2014. There’s even an entire blog dedicated to letting you know how problematic your favorite celebrities are. There, you can find "receipts" on pretty much every problematic thing that your favorite famous people have said.
But why is any of this happening? Why do we care which stars consider themselves feminists? Do celebrities’ off-color comments regarding race, gender, socioeconomic status, cultural appropriation or other hot-button social issues really affect that much in the big picture -- other than Internet bloggers’ opinions?
It’s happening because more and more people are being exposed to thoughts, ideas and anecdotes that show how wrong it is to joke about social issues like racism and gender, thanks to the Internet. This grassroots sort of education is helping people unlearn years of internalized and institutional misogyny, racism and homophobia and focus more on treating all people as human beings deserving of respect.
Before 2014, I personally didn’t know why it was wrong for a white person to wear a Native American headdress. Now I do, thanks to the Internet. And celebrities who think it’s cool to wear them as a fashion statement (more than you would think) automatically lose my respect.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that when celebrities take the extra effort to not be problematic -- or to at least keep their problematic ideas to themselves -- they stand to reap the benefits.
Take Taylor Swift, who for years sold millions of records by writing songs shaming other girls for their short skirts and high heels, openly discussing how she now considers herself a feminist thanks to her friendship with Lena Dunham -- remarks made conveniently right before the release of her latest album, "1989."
I’m not saying Swift’s transition to feminism had a direct hand in her album selling an unheard-of 1.3 million copies in its first week, but it probably didn’t hurt. Album sales of that kind in 2014 are no accident.
Swift saw that we expect our stars to be supportive of women’s rights and turned her brand around to cater to that. In response to her newfound feminism, the general public ate out of the palm of her hand. In just the last two months or so, Swift has become the first-ever musician to have three consecutive albums sell more than a million copies in their first week, and the first-ever musician to replace herself at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts.
Most of my faves are problematic. And I’m okay with that. Lana Del Rey might say she isn’t a feminist, but I’m still going to worship her. Azealia Banks might say some incredibly messy things on her Twitter that I can’t excuse, but her album was still one of the best of the year.
It’s okay to like an actor or a musician even if he or she has said questionable things. Not everyone can be perfect like Beyoncé. All of us -- especially celebrities, who live in their own isolated bubble -- were born and raised in a system of institutionalized misogyny, racism and homophobia.
Recognizing why celebrities are "problematic" or not is important because it allows us to unlearn these exact problematic aspects about ourselves. It gives us examples of what not to do. It helps us understand that it’s not just a matter of being politically correct anymore. It’s 2014, and all people deserve to be treated like people.
And when being a celebrity essentially equates with being a brand, no brand can afford to lose out in the court of public opinion by saying something stupid.
That goes for any brand, as well. Brands can no longer afford to make cheap jokes at the expense of a certain group of people in their advertising.
GoDaddy.com, whose Super Bowl ads had long been an institution of female objectification, made a major shift in its branding in 2013 by announcing it would no longer produce racy, innuendo-filled commercials as a response to growing public opposition.
"We've matured. We've evolved," GoDaddy CMO Barb Rechterman said in a statement. "Our new brand of Super Bowl commercials will make it crystal clear what we do and who we stand for.”
Another example of major brands taking the hint? Marvel. For years, Marvel’s film adaptations of its comic books promoted one kind of hero: the white male kind. And Scarlett Johansson in a leather catsuit.
That’s finally set to change after increasingly vocal pressure from Marvel’s fanbase to diversify its films led the comic book powerhouse to announce a slew of upcoming film projects in late October that feature a (slightly) more diverse selection of heroes.
“Captain Marvel” will be the Marvel film universe’s first female-led project, and “Black Panther” will have an African-American lead. And in Marvel’s comics themselves, the decisions to make Thor a woman and Captain America a black man that were made in 2014 certainly aren’t insignificant.
So if there’s one piece of advice that brands and celebrities alike should take in 2015, it’s not to be problematic. Embrace diversity. Respond to your audience. It could mean the difference between your brand thriving, or being virtually abandoned by the public.