By Anthony Chau
In my review for Castlevania’s Season 4, I offered the concession that before watching the series, viewers might want to consider the fact that the show’s creator, Warren Ellis, had been accused of sexual misconduct. Creator controversies like this are not uncommon nowadays. Across all forms of media, people of previously towering stature have come under fire for their personal actions or beliefs. JK Rowling and Harvey Weinstein are two such influential figures that come to mind. But just because someone significantly associated with the creation of a piece of media has questionable or downright unacceptable beliefs or actions, does that mean we can’t enjoy the art they created? Does the art itself become problematic simply because its creators are problematic?
For me, these questions became significant because I had watched and decided that I enjoyed Castlevania before discovering the allegations against the creator. However, in the process of trying to answer these questions for myself, I realized that confronting these questions can be a valuable practice that can inform the way I consume media in the future – particularly because the list of books, films, and TV series that are potentially “tainted” by a problematic creator is surprisingly long, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise given how many “classics” were developed prior to modern standards for how socially aware and progressive creators should be. In her incredibly insightful piece written for the online magazine The Artifice, Emily Deibler names a few examples of such problematic yet vastly influential creators: HP Lovecraft, famous for pioneering the subgenre of horror fiction now known as Lovecraftian Horror, was xenophobic and a racist; Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, is homophobic; and Roman Polanski, famed Polish-French film director, is still a fugitive running from the U.S. criminal justice system on account of charges brought against him for the drugging and rape of a then 13 year old girl. Given how easily we can find that the author or creator of a piece of art we like isn’t who we want them to be, how do we resolve our love for their art with our wariness in supporting the artist?
Deibler’s article delves into the nuances of this question with more poise and more thoughtful research than I ever could, so I urge readers to refer to her article, but a common theme in the articles I found about appreciating the work of problematic creators is that there simply is no right answer. As Deibler concludes, “…there is no simple answer to whether one should choose to avoid the work of problematic artists. Frank discussions on an artists’ public beliefs shouldn’t be dismissed, but many do not think of those behind the pen, camera or computer, and there is no right or wrong way to consume a piece of art or a text.” Despite how ambiguous this may seem, Deibler does offer some guidance on how we can critically assess a piece of art or media for ourselves to make a personal decision on how we want to consume it. Additionally, this IGN report about how Harry Potter fans maintain their fandom despite JK Rowling’s transphobic comments, as well as this intimate introspection on how one woman’s perception of the book that made her a feminist changed after she discovered that the author was an abuser, may also inform us on how we can cope with these unwelcome realizations in a meaningful way.
Deibler suggests several key factors that may assist conscientious consumers on whether or not (or how) to support a particular work:
The first consideration is whether the author is dead or alive. Deibler explains that, outside of the emotional reaction that individuals might have towards a creator that supports a bigoted or outdated belief, an individual might consider whether buying their work would indirectly endorse their views or support the creator in a tangible way. For living creators, some individuals may choose to boycott their work because they don’t want to give monetary support to someone who doesn’t stand for the same things they do. For creators who have passed on, it’s possible to argue that any monetary contribution from an individual would not support that creator, but others may still not want to feel that they are honoring the memory of such an individual.
The second consideration is the severity of the crimes or beliefs of the author. Here, Deibler dives into two scenarios – the case where the creator might be the product of his or her time, and the case where regardless of the time period, some acts or beliefs may simply be unforgivable for certain individuals. In the first, the creator’s beliefs might simply represent a commonly held set of beliefs for that time period in his or her geographical and cultural context. However, Deibler asks an interesting question here: how do we even quantify whether this person’s beliefs were “less” or “more” bad relative to the rest of their geographical and temporal cohort, especially when we can’t really look at a given population in time and assign an “average” mindset or morality to them as a blanket statement? Or more specifically, just because one individual’s mindset was typical for his or her time, does that really excuse it, especially when we have knowledge that others in that time period were actually progressive? The second scenario is simpler. Some actions and beliefs may simply be intolerable to certain consumers, and that’s perfectly valid as well.
Lastly, the third consideration is the appearance of the artist’s beliefs in their works. If an artist’s bigoted beliefs rarely are on public display in their art, that may be acceptable enough for some individuals to separate the artist from their art. As noted with many of these considerations, however, this ultimately depends on an individual’s personal preference.
As you can see, even though these do help to at least formulate some helpful questions for conscientious consumers to ask themselves, the uncertainty lies in the tolerance of each individual consumer… and so the question of whether we can appreciate the artist’s work still remains quite difficult. Maybe the takeaway from these considerations is simply that the burden of introspection is on us, and how we feel about a certain artist and their work is personal to us, and any form that that takes can be valid.
If this isn’t satisfying, then perhaps the next two “case reports” may offer some support. Writing for IGN, Joshua Yehl reported that fans of the Harry Potter franchise have found alternative ways of supporting JK Rowling’s creation without supporting the author herself. Notably, he mentions that the queer Harry Potter podcast, The Gayly Prophet, suggested that fans can continue participating in the fandom responsibly by “obtaining used books and movies, seeking out fan-created content, and supporting queer merch creators”. The suggestion, or rather common theme among the suggestions, that I personally found most helpful from this IGN article is that fans can lean into the fan community for support, and can continue participating rather than abandoning the content altogether. There’s some comfort in knowing that fans can help each other to make the content their own while separating the author from the work.
This message of keeping what’s personally impactful about a piece of art close to your heart while rejecting the creator is one that is also shared by Jessica Jernigan, who wrote about her experience with discovering that the author of the feminist novel The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, was a child abuser. With respect to her thoughts about Bradley, Jernigan writes, “My connection wasn’t with Bradley, though. My connection was with Morgaine and Viviane and Morgause — the characters Bradley created.” To respect the impact that the novel had on her life while coping with the understanding that the author didn’t live to the same standards that she wrote about in her own novel, Jernigan personally decided to focus on her connection with the fiction rather than with the person behind it. I think this can be a powerful example of how we as conscientious consumers can cope similarly, if we were to feel comfortable enough doing so.
That seems to be the key phrase that lingers: “if we were to feel comfortable enough doing so”. What I’ve personally discovered from trying to understand this dynamic between consumer and author is that a lot of this is personal choice, and no one can truly tell us how we should consume our art. That is both comforting and a little daunting, but I think that if we were to look at it positively, we can also understand that this empowers us to try and interact with the art we consume more critically. What does it mean to us and why do we hold it in the light that we do? Such questions might provide us with just as much fulfillment as enjoying the art as it is.