Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:04):

It is really easy to shut down a conversation by saying, what you just said is problematic, like end of story, move on. There is no need to explain why something is problematic and actually grapple with it.


I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:19):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:21):

This is In Retrospect where we delve into cultural moments that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (00:24):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (00:27):

Most of the time we’ll be talking about the past, but sometimes we just want to talk about what’s happening in the present.

Susie Banikarim (00:34):

Okay. So Jess, can we talk about the word problematic, which I know is a pet peeve of yours?

Jessica Bennett (00:39):

I do hate the word problematic.

Susie Banikarim (00:42):

Okay. Tell us why.

Jessica Bennett (00:44):

Okay, so here’s the thing. When we started this podcast, we’re looking at all of these things in the past, and it is so easy to just write them all off as, quote unquote problematic, and then kind of scold each other and move on. And so I actually wanted to create a buzzer for this podcast where we couldn’t use the word problematic. We actually had to find a descriptive word to use, though I also recognize that I have used it.

Susie Banikarim (01:11):

Yeah. It’s actually my favorite part because when you said that, when you were like, we’re going to have a buzzer, I was like, oh my God, I’m going to be the one who messes this up all the time. But actually, I just want to say for the record that you’re the one who has said problematic multiple times.

Jessica Bennett (01:22):

You’re actually tallying?

Susie Banikarim (01:24):

Well, just because now every time you say it, I’m like, oh my God. She said problematic and I didn’t, so yay.

Jessica Bennett (01:28):

Okay, well, then we ask our producers to cut it. But anyway, but my point is, it has become very in vogue in the culture of late to dismiss things that are, I don’t know, not politically correct, racist, sexist, sometimes just make you uncomfortable as-

Susie Banikarim (01:48):

Wait, I’m going to pause for a second.

Jessica Bennett (01:49):


Susie Banikarim (01:49):

I think it’s different than what you’re, I’m going to correct you about your own opinion like a man would, I mean, obviously we agree that racist and sexist things are bad. That’s not what you’re objecting to really. What you’re concerned about is that it just sort of blends everything together. So something legitimately racist and something kind of mildly offensive become the same thing. It flattens the discussion.

Jessica Bennett (02:13):

Exactly. And it is really easy to shut down a conversation by saying what you just said is problematic. End of story, move on. There is no need to explain why something is problematic and actually grapple with it, and there’s no learning. There’s no way to say, oh, okay, I’m sorry. What about that was problematic? Let’s correct it. Let’s move on. Or was that really problematic though? Did it really make you uncomfortable? Why so? It just immediately shuts down conversation in a time when I feel like people are unable to talk to each other.

Susie Banikarim (02:46):

Well, to me it’s like if something offends me, I’m going to tell you it’s offensive. I don’t actually use the word that often because it’s not a pet peeve of mine, but because it feels like a nothing word, you know what I mean?

Jessica Bennett (02:57):

Well it is a nothing word.

Susie Banikarim (02:58):

It’s like a nothing word.

Jessica Bennett (03:00):

And that’s what I see as the problem with problematic, is that it is a nothing word. It tells you nothing. It just shuts down whatever you are about to say, and it makes a person who you’re accusing of being problematic, uncomfortable, or the piece of, I don’t know, art or whatever it might be. And this is in the news right now as we’re recording this, because there’s this big exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum about Pablo Picasso. It’s curated-

Susie Banikarim (03:24):


Jessica Bennett (03:25):

Exactly. It’s curated by Hannah Gadsby. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death, and it’s all about the ways that Picasso was problematic, yada yada, his treatment of women, and it’s supposed to elevate these women artists in the process, but it’s basically being panned by critics who are saying it’s almost doing the opposite of what it’s set out to do,

Susie Banikarim (03:43):

well, I think also because it’s facile, the criticism has been that it’s not grappling with the real issues. It’s just poking fun at it in a way that’s actually diminishing the women’s art that is also part of the exhibit. But I feel like we should take a step back for those who don’t know where the word comes from or the context, what does problematic actually mean to you, or do you think means in the zeitgeist?

Jessica Bennett (04:05):

Well, so it’s a word that comes from the French actually, and it means something that has a problem, most basic format. But I think what it has come to mean in recent years is, and this is not Merriam-Webster, this is not Oxford, this is Urban Dictionary that I’m about to quote you because I actually think-

Susie Banikarim (04:21):

We go high low here, we go Urban Dictionary.

Jessica Bennett (04:24):

They do it the best, but it’s become this catchall for something you don’t like, but can’t really describe or don’t really want to be pressed to describe why or here are some of the other definitions, a code word for anything considered to be politically incorrect. I think that’s pretty true. Also, this one, lol, a catchall insult used to negatively describe something you don’t like but can’t describe why.

Susie Banikarim (04:45):

Yeah, it does feel really muddy. Although, by the way, I just want to say that I think politically incorrect is a problematic thing to say.

Jessica Bennett (04:52):

It’s also a vague thing to say.

Susie Banikarim (04:54):

Yeah, I think it’s vague, and also I feel like it’s become the same thing as woke. It’s lost all meaning. It’s just a way that you signal if you are conservative in some way, that something is to be dismissed outright, and so that’s why I don’t like to use that either.

Jessica Bennett (05:08):

Well, and I think using some of these terms has become a way of signaling who you align with, who you may be, who you don’t want to align with, and it almost has become more performance than proactive. We are labeling things problematic and thus shutting down any opportunity to engage with why they might be and what can be done.

Susie Banikarim (05:30):

This kind reminds me actually, of something you said, which is we were talking about how they changed the lyrics in Little Mermaid, which I mean, it honestly felt silly to me because the original lyrics were not-

Jessica Bennett (05:40):


Susie Banikarim (05:41):

Offensive to me or problematic. But you said something interesting, which I really thought about, which is it allows Disney to do this sort of, for lack of a better term, whitewashing of things, but it doesn’t solve any real problems in this area at Disney. What’s happening on Disney’s board? Let’s focus on that, not on whether or not the appropriate amount of consent is built into the word Kiss the Girl, you know what I mean?

Jessica Bennett (06:05):

That’s the thing too. It’s like a lot of this language policing often fails to deal with the actual issue at hand and is more about these little linguistic ways that we can show that we are woke or whatever.

Susie Banikarim (06:17):

This kind reminds me actually, of what’s been going on with Elizabeth Gilbert. Have you been following that?

Jessica Bennett (06:41):

Oh, a little bit, yes.

Susie Banikarim (06:42):

Yeah, so she’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love. That’s what she’s sort of most famous for, although little known fact about her, she was also the person who wrote the article that became Coyote Ugly.

Jessica Bennett (06:51):

Okay. I didn’t know that.

Susie Banikarim (06:52):

Just in case you were wondering. Yeah. It’s a fun little detail about her. I did an interview with her when I was at ABC years and years ago. She was actually genuinely lovely, which I would not say about a lot of celebrities, just FYI, and she recently pulled her latest book because it’s set in Russia, and a bunch of people responded by saying it was insensitive to the war in Ukraine.

Jessica Bennett (07:14):

Did they use that word or did they say it was problematic?

Susie Banikarim (07:17):

I don’t know if they said problematic. I don’t know what language they used, but there was this kind of outpouring of concern, which is kind of weird because the book is set in Russia, but it’s about a bunch of people who remove themselves from Russia. It’s not celebrating Russia today.

Jessica Bennett (07:31):

Of course.

Susie Banikarim (07:31):

But she’s actually a pretty sensitive person, so she just indefinitely withdrew the book. But I feel like that’s happening with a lot of books. There are examples of this thing that happens where before a book is even released, people review bomb it on Goodreads. That’s been an ongoing problem, and there’s a lot of concern about pre-judging art, but I feel like the thing I worry about is, and especially because of what we’re thinking about on this podcast, is changing historical art to sanitize it, because the whole point of looking back on art is that it reflects the time it was in, and those times were often sexist and racist. I don’t think removing those things actually helps people get a real understanding of where we were in society at that time.

Jessica Bennett (08:18):

I mean, it’s complicated is the thing. All of these things are complicated, which is why a word like problematic just dismisses the conversation. But yet, I mean, look, statues are being removed, and in some cases we are having discussions about why and what occurred at these places and who this character was.

Susie Banikarim (08:36):

Well and to me, that actually feels like a real thing. I’m like, I don’t want to go to a school named after a terrible person or live in a town that has this person, a slave owner-

Jessica Bennett (08:47):

A slave owner, yes.

Susie Banikarim (08:47):

But I think the different thing is removing language from a book. This has actually happened a long time ago. In 2011, they removed any of the racial slurs in Twain’s books. And on the one hand, I really understand that because kids read those books, and so it’s complicated. But on the other hand, I remember as a child reading those books, and it was one of the first times I think I encountered the N word and just realizing how prevalent racism must have been in society. For me, that was a real learning moment about American history, and so I really worry about that because I think it’s better to grapple with it than to pretend like that’s not what was going on. And in a weird way, it feels like an inverse of what’s going on in Florida and Texas where they’re removing all these books about racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia, and they don’t want kids to know how bad things were in this country. They’re removing books about civil rights, right?

Jessica Bennett (09:44):


Susie Banikarim (09:44):

And so in a weird way, it’s a circle that’s ending up in the same place.

Jessica Bennett (09:48):

And sometimes the performance or indication, or what was the word you used earlier?

Susie Banikarim (09:55):


Jessica Bennett (09:56):


Susie Banikarim (09:57):

I was like, what word did I use? What fascinating thing did I say earlier?

Jessica Bennett (10:01):

In some cases, the performance or the signaling almost feels so benign. Do you remember what happened recently with the Roald Dahl books?

Susie Banikarim (10:10):


Jessica Bennett (10:11):

There were basically various passages considered to be problematic and sensitive, and so they brought in a consulting firm, I believe, to change a bunch of the language. And what did they do? They changed language such as one of the characters is no longer called fat. Instead, he has described as enormous instead.

Susie Banikarim (10:31):

I mean, is that better though?

Jessica Bennett (10:32):

Well that’s the thing.

Susie Banikarim (10:33):

I feel like if someone called me enormous, I wouldn’t be less insulted.

Jessica Bennett (10:35):

That’s the thing, instead of being called small men, Oompa Loompas are now small people. Okay. I guess they’re not, you don’t know their gender identity, but is this really helpful? Other things? Okay, remember the book, the Witches and of course the movie, and there was a more recent movie that came out, and as you might remember, the witches don’t have hair. They’re bald beneath their wigs, and they wear these wigs to pretend that they’re not witches, but they added this line saying, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It just feels like there are real problems and inequalities in the world and is going back and changing this minutiae in the work of Roald Dahl really helping anyone?

Susie Banikarim (11:19):

I mean, I think also the thing to me that’s interesting about this is that it’s less instructive, I think. If you’re teaching kids and there’s something in the book that needs to be discussed, you should discuss it and actually deal with it.

Jessica Bennett (11:33):

Which to be fair, not every school district is doing.

Susie Banikarim (11:36):

But, they are doing this with some movies. A good example of this is with Gone With the Wind, which obviously there’s a lot of slavery depicted in Gone With the Wind. It’s a very problematic movie.

Jessica Bennett (11:48):

But you said why, which I appreciate.

Susie Banikarim (11:50):

Which I said why? But I think also the way they handled it, instead of actually changing the movie, they’ve just added a slate at the beginning that explains to you why it reflects the time.

Jessica Bennett (12:01):

Interesting, and why they’ve kept it in.

Susie Banikarim (12:03):

And what the issues might be, and our producer, Lauren was saying that she watches Disney movies with her kids, and that is also something they’re doing in front of some of the Disney movies. To me, that feels like giving people a warning or a prompt to have a discussion with their children or with each other about what they’re watching. That feels to me like a better solution than just taking things away and pretending that we don’t live in the society we live in, which still is steeped in racism, sexism, transpho-

Jessica Bennett (12:29):


Susie Banikarim (12:30):

It’s still steeped in all these issues.

Jessica Bennett (12:32):

Wasn’t there in The Little Mermaid something funny that they added about her voice? I mean, the whole premise of The Little Mermaid, of course, is that she is giving up her voice to find Prince Charming. So arguably that in and of itself is quote unquote problematic.

Susie Banikarim (12:45):

The thing is, it’s like the whole point is it’s supposed to be empowering. She’s finding her voice, so it’s like a metaphor. But in the movie, I guess, in Poor Unfortunate Souls, which is to be clear, oh, the song sung by a villain by Ursula, who’s a villain, she says some things about how people prefer for girls to be quiet. And I think they changed the lyrics because they were like, we don’t want to make girls feel they shouldn’t talk. And it’s like, I mean-

Jessica Bennett (13:08):

Okay, well, one, she’s a villain, and two, that is actually so true.

Susie Banikarim (13:12):

That is what we expect of girls. Yes. And I mean, we shouldn’t expect that of girls. And girls should be like, Hey, mom, I feel like the ideal scenario is that you’re watching that with your kid, and your kid says to you, is that true? And you correct it, or you’re watching with your kids and you say to your kid, listen, that is bullshit, but I feel like this idea of these warnings kind of makes me think of how you feel about trigger warnings. So I feel like we should talk about it.

Jessica Bennett (13:36):

Yeah, I mean, problematic is kind of cousin to call out culture and maybe sibling to trigger warnings in a way, and we’ve discussed in putting together this podcast and figuring out how it’s going to play. Do we want to have trigger warnings at the top?


Journalistically, I don’t really believe in trigger warnings. We don’t use them at the New York Times. The world is an extremely triggering place, and you’re not going to get a trigger warning when you’re out in the world, and you’re probably going to be hard pressed to find a safe space too.

Susie Banikarim (14:08):

Well, I think this is an interesting point because journalistically, I totally understand it. I think as journalists, we’re often talking about really difficult things, and I don’t really know where to draw the line. Do we put in a trigger warning here, but not here? Most of what we’re talking about involves some kind of thing that you probably don’t want to encounter.

Jessica Bennett (14:28):

I mean, the news is hard to watch today.

Susie Banikarim (14:31):

I mean, it’s about bad things. It’s about war and famine and whatever it’s about. But I feel a little more conflicted about the trigger warning thing, only because I feel like, especially on this podcast, we’re going to talk about some tough things like sexual assault and things that can feel really overwhelming if you’re not expecting it, and I think you go to The Times expecting a certain kind of journalism.

Jessica Bennett (14:56):

That’s interesting. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (14:58):

But here, when you’re throwing on a podcast.

Jessica Bennett (15:01):

Where do you throw it on? Your Walkman?

Susie Banikarim (15:02):

On my record player, yeah. I think it’s a little different. You want to kind of give people a sense of what they’re about to get themselves into. So we’ve erred on the side of doing that here, but it’s definitely been something we’ve had to discuss because we do want this to feel journalistic, and that is not common in places where they take journalism very seriously. I guess we don’t take ourselves that seriously, so that works out in our favor.

Jessica Bennett (15:27):

I mean, I think we want people to feel comfortable, of course, but it is an interesting point. How do you decide what is triggering and what is not? This language, I mean, I think I am a word person. I am a student of words, and I teach words, and so I am highly conscious and cognizant of the way we use language, and so terms trigger or problematic or even the way we talk about trauma these days, or toxic, it’s like every relationship is toxic now if you go on the internet, that is the impression you’ll get. Everything’s a red flag or a gray flag or whatever.

Susie Banikarim (16:03):

You did a great piece on this in The Times. There’s this really complicated thing with trauma, which is if everything is trauma, then you’re sort of, again, there’s a flattening of a real, it feels like there needs to be a different word.

Jessica Bennett (16:14):

Well there’s a term called-

Susie Banikarim (16:15):

You can’t can call them all the same thing.

Jessica Bennett (16:16):

Linguistic Creep, which is this idea that the meanings of words often change. But I think what can also happen is, like you said, this flattening where it comes to mean everything, small things, big things like problematic, can span the scale of something that made you feel mildly uncomfortable personally, but may have not made someone else feel that way to something really egregious. And so are there more specific words we can use? And I guess that’s really my thing here. It’s like, can we be specific?

Susie Banikarim (16:46):

Well, and I think that is what we’re trying to do here. To bring it back to the podcast, I feel like what we’re really trying to do here is engage with things that might be considered quote unquote problematic.

Jessica Bennett (16:56):


Susie Banikarim (16:57):

And to explore them and to sort of look at them in the context of when they were created, not in a scolding way, but to sort of ask ourselves why it was the way it was then and how we would think about it now?

Jessica Bennett (17:07):

And what can we learn from it?

Susie Banikarim (17:08):

And what can we learn from it?

Jessica Bennett (17:09):

And what has changed? What can we learn from it? But what we’re not doing is telling you not to engage or not to consume a thing. I just don’t feel like that’s our place.

Susie Banikarim (17:16):

No, I feel like we’re telling to consume things.

Jessica Bennett (17:18):

But it’s the whole art versus artist thing. If you believe that Pablo Picasso is a misogynist, are you not allowed to consume his art? And that’s a complicated question.

Susie Banikarim (17:27):

I mean, that’s a whole other conversation.

Jessica Bennett (17:28):

A whole other conversation.

Susie Banikarim (17:29):

I feel like I really struggle with that in some cases,

Jessica Bennett (17:31):

But we’re going to punt and say, Do what you want. We’re not here to criticize. We’re just here to talk through the issues. Does that make sense?

Susie Banikarim (17:38):

Yes. That makes sense to me. Whether or not it makes sense to the audience, I guess we’ll find out.

Jessica Bennett (17:42):

Do you think we’re going to get canceled for this episode?

Susie Banikarim (17:44):

I just live in fear of that, so we’ll see what happens.

Jessica Bennett (17:46):

Great, well, okay. I mean, it’s a rite of passage, so.

Susie Banikarim (17:49):

Right, right, right. This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (18:17):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (18:28):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (18:37):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (18:49):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindy Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (19:07):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.