An English major getting pedantic about word use? How remarkable.
But it is in fact the case. The word I would like to complain about is "problematic," a word that tends to get used a lot in academic and socially conscious contexts:
Exhibit A: "How comic frames and panels operate for the reader is problematic because the reader is able to see so much at once, but sequencing -- even with the retraceability and the limited omniscience available from the design of the comic book page -- remains very important." (Compromised Divisions: Thresholds in Comic Books and Video Games)
Exhibit B: "Chris Franklin provides an excellent example in the dangers of playing with history by analyzing Civilization. He argues that the representation of barbarians as less-than-human beasts is problematic and supports the idea that “some peoples or social constructs [are] below consideration as equals.” (Critical Distance).
Exhibit C: "Say what you will about Joss being a bit problematic with his treatment of women -- I give him credit for trying and for being an ally." (Comment section, "Joss Whedon Tweets About Anita Sarkessian -- The Mary Sue)
Between the three of examples, "problematic" is a placeholder for "arguable sexist in some circumstances" (C) to "demonstrating a racist, colonial perspective" (B) to (A) "potentially a problem for an artist trying to convey a guided narrative." That's a lot of versatility for a single word--and I think that's a problem.
In its literal interpretation, "problematic" is simply "something that contains a problem." So it's a perfectly accurate term to use in all these cases, for any general case where a problem or even a potential problem may exist--that covers a lot of ground. On the other hand, as examples B and C suggest, it's also a term that's taken on a more specific meaning within writing concerned with issues of justice and equality. There, it functions as a sort of shorthand for some sort of perceived prejudice that the writer sees in whatever they're discussing. And in that sense, it's a handy (can that be considered a pun on shorthand?) way of summarizing that issue without having to explain it at length. And sometimes, that's a necessary step, to keep the focus on whatever the actual main topic of discussion may be.
And there are other arguments justifying the term's use as well. There's a common saying I've seen online that it's not women's job to inform you about feminism; it's not a minority's job to explain racism to you; more generally, the onus should not on the oppressed to justify their oppression. And that's one hundred percent right. If someone tweets that Whedon's treatment of, say, racial issues is problematic, your first response should not necessarily be to ask them to clarify, because, among other reasons, unless you are very, very careful in crafting your request, it will sound more like a demand to defend themselves. Instead--you have access to google. You know how to use the internet. Do your own homework. (I'd acknowledge that it's a slightly different case if the use popped up in an online article published on a pop culture news site--in that case, the author's presenting themselves more as an expert, and questioning is more appropriate. But still, remember context, and remember that it's generally best to see what you can find yourself to answer a question, if the resources are available to you.)
And finally, I think one of the reasons that problematic enjoys such frequent use is that it plays a useful role in keeping discourse civil. If you replaced B or C with their equivalent substitutes, then you're implicitly if not explicitly accusing the original creators of racism and sexism, which starts a pretty emotionally charged discussion. Given how belligerently many have responded to the term "misogyny" in the recent Gamersgate grossness (and with responses that often demonstrate how "misogyny" was exactly the right word) there's an argument to be made that to keep a discussion even, a less charged word like problematic may be the way to go.
But here's the turn in the argument. I'd counter the idea that problematic keeps a discussion civil with the argument that what we need is less even, "both sides present good points" style of argument, and more direct accusations. If we reserve racism or misogynist terms only for the worst cases, then it's easy for many to pretend, as the Gamersgate case again demonstrates, that systematic sexism or more subtle forms of sexism exist. Let's not allow racist, sexist, or any other oppressive behavior to hide itself behind the more genteel term "problematic."
My other problem with problematic is that it's quickly joining the ranks of those words I try to steer my undergraduates away from, like "good" or "important"--because it can be used so generally it becomes overused, so it becomes not so much a tool for the writer to keep the focus where they want and more a sign to the reader that they can turn off their active reading and just coast until something... important... is said. Problematic is often used as the opening for the argument, a way of easing the reader into the topic until the writer has time to fully explain what they mean by the term. Slowly introducing an emotionally charged subject is not by any means a bad idea, but since "problematic" gets trotted out for that so frequently, it's becoming the online article equivalent of the phrase "since the beginning of time" in first year college papers.
Finally, my last beef against the term problematic is that its widespread use cheapens the topic at hand. To return to my original examples, underlying sexism in popular science fiction/fantasy television is not the same as colonialist racism reflected in videogames that center on strategic conquering. And they are certainly not the same as the problems of authorial intent. Using the same word to apply to all three situations suggests an equivalency between them, one that undermines the actual social context in favor of some universal wrong. While problematic can then be used as a rallying term to unify people from disparate tracks of life, it could just as easily be used as another oppressive tool, whitewashing difference and lived experience.
I'm not saying don't use the word "problematic." It's got a lot of arguments in favor of it, as I've noted. I'm probably going to keep using it too. But I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm using it, and to what end.