At the risk of calling into doubt my cool Internet image as a man of impeccably erudite tastes, my favourite film is probably the first Back to the Future. It's also a film that over the years I have come to see as flawed in some quite important ways. 

Take Marty, for instance. In the first film he is an incredibly boring protagonist. He's cool, brave and talented. He has no discernable flaws (the 'nobody calls me chicken' bit comes along in the second film, presumably invented to sustain the character for another couple of films). By the end credits he succeeds not by overcoming anything personal - no, everyone around him has to change. 

Having a terribly uninteresting main character seems like a pretty major flaw for any film to have (and it's hardly the only one), yet I still call BTTF my favourite film. Why? I mean, not 'why do I like it,' but 'why do I give such big flaws a pass?'

The answer has two parts. First, I don't think I am giving it a pass. If anything, I'm harder on Marty than any old protagonist in some film I don't care about. And second, I'm desperately trying to outrun a version of myself that could easily become an embittered cynic about everything. Being aware of flaws while still being enthusiastic in my appreciation of something is one way of achieving that. 

I want to be a bit careful here. I'm not trying to imply that no problem should ever be too big. I don't want to be the guy saying stuff like "yeah, but if you look past the obvious racism that drives the whole plot and characters and infects everything then it's really got a lot to recommend!" 

It's not about looking past, it's about looking at. And sometimes looking at a problem can reveal depths to it which make the whole thing harder and harder to like. And your conclusion might be that for you this is a fatal problem; you can't enjoy this any more. It's not up to me or anyone else to tell you when or why it's okay to 'nope' out of a piece of media.

But other times it's not a choice between perfect and fatally flawed. Often it's entirely possible to recognise a problem, even a major one, and rather than dismissing it or excusing it, giving yourself permission to direct your enthusiasm towards the parts of something you like for a while. The flaws will still be there to talk about.

Persona 4 is a video game which is among my most cherished of all time, and it is another one that is far from free of flaws. In some ways they're even harder to untangle than the Back to the Future example.

Take the character of Kanji Tatsumi, by a long way my favourite character in the game. At first it appears that this is a tough-guy character who is struggling with accepting his homosexuality, and that was a character I was very excited to explore. It doesn't turn out that way.

I don't mind that they wanted to tell a different story, and in fact I like a lot about the story they do tell. In the end it becomes a story about Kanji Tatsumi, tough-guy who has a soft side to him that enjoys cute things and this causing him to have a crisis of confidence about his masculinity - which manifests itself as doubts over his sexuality. 

This is interesting in itself. I am all for stories which delve into and question society's expectations for masculinity, and Kanji's awkward teenage struggle between appearing tough and also enjoying traditionally 'girly' hobbies endeared me to the character immensely. That the character's sexuality questioning turned out to be a fake-out isn't really the problem, it's what they do with that later.

From that point, misunderstandings over the possibility that Kanji might be gay are played purely for laughs. In particular, major character Yosuke 'Literally The Worst' Hanamura never misses an opportunity to call into question and be troubled by Kanji's sexuality, at which point Kanji has to emphasise how in fact he isn't gay, and that was all just a misunderstanding. Ha ha, what japes, etc.

"Don't worry," the game seems to be trying to reassure us. "He's not gay. He just seemed that way at first. But he's not. So it's fine."

While the game takes the time to say that masculinity isn't defined by your hobbies or only enjoying stereotypically manly things, it stops short of extending this courtesy to gay people. They didn't have to make Kanji gay for this to work - there's plenty of ways to explore this subject, but it still would have been much more in keeping with the themes of his story if the the game acknowledged that even if he were gay, that wouldn't make him any less of a man. Instead, it is repeatedly turned into a rather cheap joke. What a wasted opportunity!

Did I mention that Kanji is my favourite character in one of my favourite games? It's not because I deny or choose to ignore these problems with the way the character is handled (although that has a lot to do with why Yosuke 'Please Just Stop Talking' Hanamura is one of my least favourite characters). Rather, being able to engage critically with things that I like helps me to understand better what I like and why I like it.

And so Persona 5 finally emerges and, with its strong themes of breaking free from society's harsh expectations and judgement, I had some hope that maybe this one might be the one finally, to explore sexuality properly instead of stopping short and treating it as nothing more than an opportunity for laughs. So I'm glad that I had some advance warning that actually, this is unlikely to be the case. I won't go into detail, but I gather the best that I can hope for is that moments that deal with sexuality are given less prominence in the plot than in Persona 4. Now that I know that, I can enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer without that nagging expectation.

But of course this doesn't stop the gears of The Discourse grinding up to speed. Not just about this issue, but about others too, and it risks becoming exhausting before even getting a chance to see the game for myself. Either you completely hate something for its problems or you're making excuses for it. Worse still, either you completely love something or you're oversensitive for bringing your views into it.

What I'm trying to come to is not some toothless 'both-sides' argument about how the truth is always somewhere in the middle. No, it's that axis on which this dichotomy is set up doesn't make sense in the first place. My very favourite things in the world can have problems, big problems even, and still be my favourite things, without denying or diminishing any of those problems. 

I don't have to choose. We don't have to choose. And thank goodness, because otherwise the embittered cynic in me would have wrestled me to the ground long ago. 

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk