I don’t recall exactly when “is this feminist?” became the question equivalent to a paper cut to me. I would get questions like, “Can you give examples of feminist characters?” or “Is this a feminist film?” and they always made my eyes cross because I didn’t even begin to know how to answer them — which version of feminist theory are you even referring to, O hypothetical question-asker? You do realize that they are many, and they are varied, right? That we don’t get a monthly pamphlet with convenient bullet points outlining the current talking points? Moreover, how could one cut up and string out every aspect of a piece of media and confidently assert that, “Yes, all aspects of this thing align with every single facet of the brand of feminism that I ascribe to.” “Is this feminist?” was a shortcut question, and there was no way for me to answer it honestly.
But around about the time Pacific Rim came out, it finally hit me — “Is this feminist?” wasn’t about applying the lens of feminist theory to media studies in an accessible way, people just wanted to feel good about liking non-problematic things. And that is in itself problematic because it sidesteps the whole point of media criticism; it shouldn’t be about making you feel good about liking the “correct” media. It’s about tracing patterns in filmmaking and film language and applying them to their sociological and artistic context. A pat on the back for your fave not being problematic was never part of the deal.
I imagine that most people don’t think too much about where feminist media criticism originated, regardless of how much someone engages with it (or against it) on a day to day basis. outside of fanzines, most feminist media theory existed inside academia and publishing, and most discourse surrounding film theory and criticism occurred in a professional context. Then came the Internet.
Feminist media criticism on the Internet is influenced by an academic framework, but it is far from beholden to it. And as much as I want to pump my fist and hail the power of the people for reclaiming feminism as a grassroots cause, I’m not sure the Internet’s influence on feminist media criticism is a good thing.
Most people, for better or worse, learn about feminist theory through osmosis. Given that we have a theoretical framework that is often misused and misunderstood by the people who appropriate it (I’m looking at you, “Male Gaze”), the discussion on how feminism applies to the media we consume has not only become more diluted, but also far more contentious, and far more controversial. Moya Luckett, media historian and professor at NYU’s Gallatin School, tells me: “Part of the problem with feminist theory and the level of rigor and sophistication it often involves often meant a problematic relationship to a real world context. What I do think is a problem is a lot of this work isn’t understood properly, including by scholars.”
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?
And all the while people seem to have forgotten that feminist theory has always been fluid, and it’s always been changing. It didn’t spring forth from the womb of the Earth, fully formed; it is a work in progress, always has been, and always will be. Lisa Wade, professor of sociology and principal author of Sociological Images, tells me: “We’re not going to control the message about what feminism is, and we don’t want to do that. Feminism has always been a conversation, and it has always been contentious, and we need to keep in mind that we need plural feminism, and we need a conversation, so the idea that we should silence some people is the wrong way to go.”
As the conversation over feminist media criticism grows more contentious, I’ve seen high-profile academics dismiss dissenting opinions wholesale on the basis of a perceived relative lack of education. The emotionality of discourse over media criticism has lead to an increase in ad hominem tactics, as well — rather than, “I disagree with this assessment”; now you’re just as likely to hear, “You’re not a feminist” or “You’re a bad person.” It’s an easy way to dismiss someone, presenting an uncompromising false dichotomy, but, hey, you can’t say it isn’t an effective means of silencing discourse.
“We’re far more interested in being right than in learning anything,” says Wade. “Looking at anything from many points of view at the same time is really threatening to us, because it suggests that there’s no right answer.”
Media, especially fiction, is meant to engage you on an emotional level, and personal investment in the media they love is often people’s entryway into the world of feminist theory. If people are emotionally invested in a thing, they want to know that it has some wider meaning than simply being a corporate-generated distraction. People want to believe that their favorite movie or video game or book or whatever has a place in the greater narrative that is social progress. Not just “I like this thing,” but “I like this thing and here is how it is improving the media landscape.”
The problem here is the inevitable desire to shape that narrative, and I see an increasing trend for people trying to shape feminist theory to justify the media they like, and not the other way around.
Personal enjoyment and critical readings can and should exist mutually exclusive of each other. I understand the desire to be a good person, and the desire to think that you like the right things for the right reasons, but that’s not the point. It was never the point.
It’s hard to divorce personal feelings from the media you love. I get that, especially when personal feelings are what interest most people in media criticism in the first place. And perhaps that is a vital and necessary component to the future of media criticism. “Sometimes you need to invite someone into feminist theory in a way that’s non-threatening,” says Wade. “Maybe it’s not as radical as some people prefer, but it’s a start.”
Maybe you are emotional about readings of your media, because you want to see progress in a certain direction, and that’s fine. But when critical theory becomes weaponized as a means of categorizing and silencing people who enjoy a piece of media, parsed into “bad people like this thing” and “good people like this thing,” how does this further the discussion of the piece of media in question? You got someone to shut up by calling them a bad person. Awesome. What does that have to do with the debate? Ah, right. Fuck all.
Don’t ask “is this feminist?” as a means of giving yourself permission to like something. Media is designed to elicit an emotional response. You are not a bad person for having an emotional response to problematic media; you are not being attacked if someone examines the racial politics of your favorite movie. Media criticism is not about you.
Nothing is exempt from critique. You don’t get a gold star for liking the “right” things, and for the love of Christ stop trying to qualify your enjoyment of a thing by whether or not it’s feminist enough. Go, go, and love what thou wilt.
Lindsay vlogs on various topics nerdy and nostalgic on YouTube, co-hosts irreverent book show “Booze Your Own Adventure,” and is co-founder of ChezApocalypse.com. If you don’t mind your timeline flooded with tweets about old cartoons, dog pictures and Michael Bay, you can follow her on Twitter.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? email@example.com