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It’s OK to Have a Problematic Fave Character, but Don’t Expect Everyone to Agree

Look, everyone's got at least one.

Thor: Rag Loki

It would be hypocritical to say that one doesn’t have a “problematic fave” when it comes to fictional characters. Everyone has a few characters who are problematic at best, and irredeemable scumbags at worst, but who they cannot get enough of. We’re talking about folks running the gamut from Loki to Kylo Ren to Hannibal Lecter (usually the NBC series version). Some problematic faves are less awful than others, but without a doubt, all fall under this particular label.

The problem is not, however, the fact that people have problematic favorites. Liking villains and anti-heroes and everything in between does not mean you’re a bad person; it means you’re a person who has a favorite who isn’t just a hero character, and that’s okay. But with fandom being what it is, there are a few layers to unpack as we talk about problematic favorites.

Let’s get one thing straight, though: If we’re talking problematic ships (or relationships between two characters, oftentimes romantic) and your ship is pedophilia or incest, then I’m not going to defend your right to ship. That’s just unacceptable behavior, and please reconsider what you’re doing.

With that disclaimer aside, here’s where the critical thinking has to come in when you’re stanning a problematic character: Understand why others don’t like the character, make sure you’re not actively excusing the character’s actions, and ask yourself why you like a certain character despite their shortcomings.

The third step is hard, as it requires self-reflection, and that’s enough to make anyone get defensive, but we need to check why problematic faves are oftentimes white men who behave badly. They tend to be the popular characters who develop fanbases despite being evil, nasty pieces of work. Take the Star Wars fandom, which loves its problematic white guys (Kylo Ren, Anakin Skywalker, Agent Kallus in Rebels, etc.) or characters who are male aliens (Thrawn, also from Rebels), but fandom rarely talks about Imperials who are women of color, such as Rae Sloane or Iden Versio—or even goes out of its way to minimize their accomplishments. Or Marvel, which has plenty of people swooning over white villains while the actual heroes, such as Sam Wilson, got labeled a Hydra agent when Captain America: The Winter Soldier first debuted in theaters.

It’s possible to like any of those characters while still recognizing that white, cishet, able-bodied men get more second chances in reality, in fiction, and in fandom. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you love some Anakin Skywalker fic. It just means that you can be critical of it, too, while still enjoying it. Applying some critical thought to fandom won’t ruin the enjoyment, but rather helps to make sure fandom is an enjoyable space for everyone rather than just you and people who feel the same way you do.

Not “woobifying” (see: turning the character into a cinnamon roll who has done no wrong) a character can also be difficult, because when you’re called out for liking Loki, the knee-jerk reaction is to defend yourself by saying, “He’s not that bad! He had a hard childhood!” But to quote the fantastic Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Cool motive, still murder.”

A character’s tragic past does not give them the right to behave like a jerk. It can make them a richer character with more depth, but it also cannot excuse them behaving badly. So if your favorite does horrible things, own up to it. Admit that their actions are not blameless, but that they’re a villainous or anti-heroic character. Trust me, instead of going through mental leaps and bounds to justify their actions, admitting your favorite is the worst is freeing.

Here’s the part where it all comes together: You also have to respect that not everyone will agree with you on your favorite. Some people will hate them, whether because fandom keeps trying to make them seem like a poor innocent lamb or because someone has a very real, personal reason to dislike them. Just like you can relate to a villain because of the darker elements present in your own life (my high school self related to Loki because of my own feelings of jealousy and isolation, due to being bullied), someone can have a very real reason for hating a character. They shouldn’t have to disclose their trauma to make it okay for them to hate a specific character.

On the flip side, don’t make someone disclose their trauma to justify them liking a character, either. Basically, don’t force someone to disclose their trauma.

Fandom does not exist in a vacuum, and the media we consume does affect our sensibilities in real life. However, that does not mean that you cannot like a problematic character. It just means that you should be aware of how you’re consuming media and be aware of how you’re interacting with fandom spaces. Find a group of similar-minded fans and create your own private space to celebrate the character while still being aware of how awful they are. If that makes it even more fun, that’s great! But also be aware of how you’re interacting with the general fandom space. If your favorite is triggering for fans, maybe stick to your own Tumblr tag or your own blog/Twitter/AO3 account. That’s not censorship; it’s just common courtesy.

But again, this is not an invitation to attack those with problematic favorites, or vice versa. Be considerate, yet critical. It is possible to separate the fan from the fanwork, if the fan themselves are not engaging in cruel or bigoted behavior. Fandom should be a space for people to explore all elements of fiction that they like, but it should also be a safe space for all fans. That might seem like an impossible task, but trust me, it’ll work.

Just apply critical thinking to the media you consume and the way you interact with it and your fellow fans, and you’ll be fine. It’s not the end of the world to have a problematic favorite. It is if you yourself become problematic or harmful. Just enjoy the character for what they are, and chances are, your fandom experience will become infinitely better.

(image: Marvel Entertainment)

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Kate (she/her) says sorry a lot for someone who is not sorry about the amount of strongly held opinions she has. Raised on a steady diet of The West Wing and classic film, she is now a cosplayer who will fight you over issues of inclusion in media while also writing coffee shop AU fanfic for her favorite rare pairs.