Haasch: What’s the significance of a ‘problematic’ celebrity?

Policing celebrities and relationships is often unproductive and unnecessary.

Palmer Haasch

Last Friday, Korean pop septet BTS released their new album Map of the Soul: Persona as well as a music video for its title track, “Boy With Luv feat. Halsey.” The collaboration was well received — BTS broke the YouTube record for most views in 24 hours with the music video — but was the site of minor fandom drama earlier in the week when it was initially announced. While this isn’t BTS’ first collaboration with an American artist (the group has worked with artists like Steve Aoki and Desiigner in the past), this one sparked a familiar question frequently aimed at today’s celebrities: is Halsey problematic?

BTS released the first teaser for “Boy With Luv” on April 7, revealing that the title track of their album was a collaboration with American pop singer Halsey. Shortly thereafter, my Twitter feed was flooded the word “problematic”: a vague, catch-all term that signifies a transgression into prejudice or bigotry. There’s little nuance to the term, and it’s frequently invoked with little substantiation. Following the announcement of the collaboration, “problematic” populated my Twitter feed in various forms ranging from the simple, “Is Halsey problematic?” to more detailed threads that began with phrases like, “HALSEY BEING PROBLEMATIC AF.” Citing tweets, photos and “celebrity feuds” dating back to 2009 (when Halsey was 14; she is currently 24 years old), a subset of fans condemned the collaboration on the basis that Halsey was problematic.

I’m not here to debate that particular question, although I’m pretty staunchly in the camp that old tweets and vague claims do not a celebrity cancellation make, especially in light of Halsey’s personal advocacy work. From a fandom perspective, however, this kind of response isn’t atypical; it’s a key facet of cancellation culture. University of Michigan professor Lisa Nakamura told the New York Times last June that cancellation is “a cultural boycott. It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to.” Determining whether or not a celebrity is problematic determines whether they earn you public — and financial — support. 

This case, however, goes past basic conduct policing. BTS’ fandom, ARMY, is incredibly passionate, if not sometimes a bit overzealous. However, demanding whether or not Halsey was problematic immediately after the collab was announced was a defensive response predicated upon the self-assumed responsibility that ARMY needs to protect BTS by policing the people with whom they associate. The desire to protect BTS often comes from a good place and has manifested in the fandom in a number of positive ways. That being said, attempting to police both professional and interpersonal relationships with other artists is mostly just exhausting and unproductive. BTS and Halsey seem to be genuine friends; past that, a collaboration with a major American pop artist is sure to help with the radio play the group needs in order to continue advancing their success in the United States.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t hold artists accountable for their actions — as fans, it’s important to be our favs’ most vocal critics. Ultimately, however, it’s important to consider what exactly we mean by problematic and the implications of invoking the term. Putting aside affective response and attachment to our favorite artists, policing their relationships (professional and otherwise) is ultimately unproductive and unnecessary.