So there’s a lot of tropes and trends that exist either in media or in the fandom that surrounds it, that are problematic (term used here without irony).
And some of those things really are straight up problematic. Whitewashing and straightwashing characters and settings for example, is pretty much always unnecessary and gross. Characters who are based around ableist stereotypes (*cough* Sheldon Cooper *cough*) are pretty much gross wherever you find them.
And then there’s a lot of things that are “problematic”, not because they’re intrinsically bad, but just because they’re so overwhelmingly common that they’re drowning out all other narratives.
The ubiquitous white heterosexual romance which is part of seemingly every single story ever isn’t intrinsically bad. There’s nothing wrong with the story in and of itself, although, obviously, how healthy the relationships being portrayed would be in real life can be pretty variable. But when every story has to have a straight, cisgendered, white, conventionally attractive romance in it, and it’s a massive undertaking to find stories where there are different forms of romance being celebrated, or where romance is absent and friendship and other relationships are centralized it turns into erasure, and becomes one of the ways that heteronormativity is reinforced and promoted.
Or, consider the much hated trope of Fridging. The most basic form of Fridging, is where one character is killed off entirely for the sake of another’s character arc usually at the expense of their own. And while some people might consider that cheap drama, it not problematic, in a social justice sense. But the reality of it is that the character being killed is almost always a woman, while the character whose story it benefits is almost always a man. A story can involve a woman dying without being sexist. It can be about a man reacting to that death of a woman without being sexist. What’s sexist and erasing, and what has earned this trope its well deserved terrible reputation, is in part that it happens over and over, creating a never-ending wave of angry men avenging their various wives/girlfriends/mothers, who never get the same character development as their male counter parts, but also that there is not only nothing close to an answering wave of angry women but that it occurs on a media background which has a massive shortage of any female characters whatsoever, let alone female leads. And because that is the reality of the media landscape, it becomes one more way of removing women from stories, or making them objects, rather than subjects.
To put it a little more concretely the reason why the same people who were furious about the fridging of Janet Van Dyne in Ant-Man were delighted that Peggy was driven by the fridging of Steve Rogers in Agent Carter, isn’t that we delight in the deaths of men, or something equally silly, its that the latter brings some balance and novelty to a tired trope and promotes a woman’s story instead of erasing it, while the former is an overused trope in its most unoriginal form, that kept not one, but two interesting female characters from leading a film in a franchise already seriously lacking in female representation.
And to move from media into fandom proper, fans of the MCU’s Sam Wilson have noted that there is a notable gap in how much fanfiction is produced featuring Sam. As of February 5, 2016, AO3’s “Sam Wilson” tag contained only 7,928 stories (which contains all stories involving Sam, not only those in which he is the main character) while the “Steve Rogers” tag contained 58,607, the “Bucky Barnes” tag contained 28,639 and “Tony Stark” contained 51,099.
Similarly, the “Sam Wilson/Steve Rogers” tag contained 1137 stories, the “Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes” tag contained 16,953 stories, even though Sam is a generally well received character (so the lack shouldn’t really be explainable by simple fan disinterest), who, like Bucky is set up to share romantic character beats with Steve throughout Winter Soldier. “Steve Rogers/Tony Stark” contained 14,263 stories, for reference. Sam does not simply receive fewer stories, but an order of magnitude fewer stories. And that fits into a wider trend of black characters being ignored by fan communities above and beyond their pre-existing rarity in most fan source materials.
But what makes this tricky to talk about, is that characters aren’t fungible. We should all be pretty concerned about the overall dearth of stories about Sam, or Rhodey or Fury. But there are vanishingly few stories where you can say with any real legitimacy ‘you should have written that specific story about Sam, but you didn’t’. If we say that a story should have been changed to avoid a death, or to alter a romantic pairing, we are saying just that: the story should have been changed, and a different one told instead.
Fandom primarily speaks at the level of individual writers, fans and stories. Its easy to say, “this story was sexist, or heteronormative, or repetitive, or overdone, or boring, or offensive”. Its much harder to say, “each of these stories, by themselves are fine, but together they create a dominant trend which is very much not fine.” And its harder still to know what to do about it, when there’s no single source of blame to point to.
We don’t have a word for this, but we should get one (I nominate ‘meta-problematic’). Not talking about it won’t fix it. But attempting to fix it by pointing at individual stories and yelling ‘bad’ won’t get anywhere. It just puts people on the defensive and sends the conversations of the rails.