Why Criticizing the Things We Love Is More Important Than Ever
I don’t have a lot of experience with drugs, but I feel confident that there is no greater high than telling a man that I don’t care about Game of Thrones. The look of shock on their faces followed by the abject horror when I reveal to them the full truth—that I watched half of season one and read a few pages of the first book but cared for neither—s delicious. Then, as the very fabric of their reality collapses, I suck out their life force like in Hocus Pocus and I live for another hundred years.
You folks know how it is. I think it’s easy for The Mary Sue’s readership to point out the mansplain-ation that often happens when a woman dares to have any kind of nuanced opinion on, say, Doctor Who. Certain people, very often white/straight/cisgender male people, often perceive ownership over (and thus feel overprotective of) franchises, genres, or entire fields of study. This is nothing new.
But if this election has taught us anything, it’s that we all need to get cozy with the idea of examining and criticizing ourselves. If you’re able to admit that your favorite show has a serious problem with gratuitous and poorly executed scenes of sexual assault, you’ll be better able to admit that hey, maybe you need to do more than wear a safety pin to help those who are endangered by the incoming Trump administration.
Last year Lindsay Ellis wrote an excellent piece about the growing trend of people wanting to tell themselves they’re good people because they enjoy the “correct” kinds of media:
Feminist criticism, or indeed any media criticism, is increasingly perceived as a form of character assassination; “If you attack my precious Man of Steel, then you are attacking me.” And this attitude isn’t limited to the knee-jerk reactionaries that want to murder critical theory–the social justice side is often more than happy to assign consumers of certain media as somehow lesser-than, that there is good media and bad media, and consumers of the bad kind are bad people. And what the hell good does that do?
If half the battle is to stop weaponizing critical theory to attack someone else for their taste, the other half is to be able to look at the things you hold dear and see the flaws. As Lindsay discusses, this often means keeping your personal enjoyment and your critical eye separate. Sometimes it means recognizing that it’s possible to have no serious critical qualms about something but still not enjoy it. It always means that you need to step outside of your own experience and your own emotions so you can respect the big picture.
I’m going to make a confession: when I went to see Jurassic World, I enjoyed the hell out of it. However, I thoroughly objected to its treatment of women and thought it was easily one of the top three worst movies I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but have fun, I love monster movies. But if a shaky alliance between a T-Rex and a raptor doesn’t make up for terrible dialogue or blatant misogyny in terms of your personal enjoyment sitting in the theater, that’s fair.
“That’s fair” is an important phrase to remember, and not just when it comes to blockbusters that you enjoy ironically when you’ve had a couple drinks before going to the theater. My love for Charles Dickens is somewhat more sincere than my love for trashy CGI dinosaurs. But if you think he’s boring? That’s fair. If you don’t read him because he’s one of the many straight, white, male authors who keep getting shoehorned into syllabi while the works of women and POC are unfairly turned away? That’s fair. If you think he’s over-hyped? That’s fair.
As my sister and I watch Buffy together, her first time through and my second, most of the time we discuss its flaws. Xander is awful. Riley can’t handle dating a woman who is a better, stronger fighter than he is, but the show doesn’t criticize him. We’re just getting into the disaster that was Spuffy, and I don’t even know where to begin with unraveling the giant tangle of problems there. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love the show. Why would we be so invested in it as to watch seven seasons and talk about the characters and the story ad nauseum if we didn’t like it? Why does enjoying something have to mean pretending it’s perfect?
Take Amelia Cook’s essays on anime. Some people might read her work and think, “Gee, she sure spends a lot of time watching something she thinks is horrible.” I don’t dare read the comments, but this feels like a safe assumption. (Editor’s note: It is.) But clearly she’s a huge anime fan. Why would she be so invested in its representations of women if she hated it? Isn’t her website, Anime Feminist, proof of just how much she loves anime? She respects it and cares about it enough to hold it to a higher standard. She knows it can do better in some areas. She knows it’s worth fighting for.
If she can have that attitude towards art, maybe we can support what Bernie Sanders represents while admitting that there was a lot of misogyny floating around his supporters that he didn’t do much to curtail. Maybe we can recognize that while we (and by “we” I mean liberal white people) may not have voted for Trump, we sure didn’t do enough to fight the institutionalized bigotry that did elect him.
When some dude wants to cry because I told him I’d like it if male fantasy writers stopped ripping off Tolkien, that says a lot about him. But if we all throw tantrums instead of looking at strategies to fix this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, that says a lot more about us.
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Chelsea Ennen holds a master’s in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture from King’s College London. Her writing has appeared on The Female Gaze and HelloGiggles. She is an editorial fellow at The Tempest, and the fiction editor at the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter (@ChelseaEnnen) for updates on her creative work and inane pop culture commentary.
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