Slate Plus pitch slam winner on her essay "The Problem with 'That's Problematic' "

How I Won Slate’s Pitch Slam

How I Won Slate’s Pitch Slam

Slate Plus
Your all-access pass
March 29 2016 5:48 PM

Slamming Problematic

Haley Swenson’s Slate pitch-slam winner was a long time coming.

problematic boat.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by nightman1965/Thinkstock

A month ago, we invited Slate Plus members to submit ideas for our second pitch slam. Our editors gave several of your pitches the thumbs-up, and one appeared in the magazine last week: Haley Swenson’s “The Problem with ‘That’s Problematic.’ ”*

We’ll be running more pieces from Slate Plus members in the coming weeks and hosting another pitch slam before the end of the year. In the meantime, Swenson answered a few questions about her first Slate piece.

When did you start to notice the word problematic being, uh, problematic? Do you remember a particular instance?

I think I noticed the word problematic being used the way I discuss in my piece early in graduate school, because it sounded really foreign to me at first. The first time it struck me was when a colleague called an episode of The Office “problematic,” and I thought it had been a really smart satire. I remember trying to figure out what “the problem” was, because I saw all the race and gender mishaps in The Office as quite intentional. It felt like my colleague and I were talking past each other, because we had different understandings of what level of offensiveness was allowed for satire.

But the phrase came up again and again. Twitter and Tumblr took it to a new level. At some point, “that’s problematic” became an inside joke between me and my boyfriend, and we’d say it either when we were intentionally trying to be buzzkills about something someone enjoyed or when things were so over-the-top offensive that problematic didn’t even begin to capture it. In other words, this post for Lexicon Valley was a long time coming. 

When did it occur to you that this would be a good topic for Slate? What do you think made it a valid #slatepitch?

I think the idea came up at a happy hour with friends, where we were all mostly jokingly sharing our ideas after the first pitch contest had taken place. My boyfriend saw that the pitch contest was happening again this year and suggested I actually submit something, so I did. Honestly, in my academic work and my activism I don’t usually embrace my cantankerous side, and I thought Slate was a good place to do that for a change. Obviously, Slate does cantankerous in a smart way, so I think it was a great fit for what I wanted to do, which was not just to kvetch about a new use of a word but to really dig in and explain in the most generous way possible what was wrong with it. 

Your bio calls you “an activist living in Columbus, Ohio, where she is finishing a Ph.D. in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies.” Tell us about your activist work.

I organize with a group of committed socialists in Columbus that emphasizes a change-from-below strategy—we try to get single-issue campaigns to relate to and strengthen each other. We have been a part of a campaign to pressure the Ohio attorney general to take action in the Steubenville rape case, a campaign to revise Ohio State’s sexual-misconduct policy, a coalition that fought anti-abortion provisions introduced by Gov. John Kasich in 2013, and campaigns to protect public housing and affordable housing in Columbus.

Haley Swensen.
Haley Swenson.

Haley Swenson

I wanted to emphasize this piece of who I am in my bio, because I really didn’t want to be confused for one of the right-wing “anti-PC” crowd making fun of social-justice activists. I wanted to make sure readers understood I was offering a critique from inside the left, so to speak. 

And what about your research?

My dissertation is about the division of housework and childcare between men and women in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, particularly among the unemployed. There’s a real interest in my field in the “stalled gender revolution,” where progress on a lot of important gender issues, including pay equality, workplace advancement, and the gendered division of labor at home, seemed to level off about 20 years ago. Some folks thought that something as big as the Great Recession could have been a chance to upset some of these dynamics and rearrange how people think about whose job it is to do what.

How long have you been reading Slate? Any favorite writers/features/pieces?

I kind of “grew up,” both intellectually and politically, on Slate. It became a part of my daily Internet digest early on in college. Trying to work out why I love the pieces I love and hate the pieces I hate has been part of figuring out what I think about the world, about writing, about culture, etc.

I’m a Slate podcast junkie. I really like the Spoiler Specials, especially the season one Serial specials. The Slate Academy podcasts on slavery were incredible. I am also a huge fan of the Slate Culture Gabfest, and I really enjoy the whole cast of regulars there, especially when they disagree. Their fight about the merits of Taylor Swift prompted hours and hours of conversation between me and my friends on gender, pop culture, and talent. While I’m usually Team Julia, I love it when Stephen Metcalf goes to bat for something. 

How long have you been a Plus member? Why did you sign up? 

I became a Plus member last summer. Dana Stevens had missed a string of Culture Gabfest shows and the Slate Plus segment was a lightning round with her giving her thoughts on all the topics she’d missed. I just had to know what Dana thought about everything!

*Correction, March 30, 2016: This article originally misspelled Haley Swenson’s last name.