Criticism is Not a Bad Thing

| Monday, July 9, 2012
Today's Tune: Love You Madly

I don't hate you for not replacing the milk. I'm criticizing your inconsiderate behavior.

There's a difference between snark-bashing and criticism. Snark-bashing is the sort of thing that's intended to tear down a work/author with no real discussion beyond "this sucks, this really sucks, this sucks because I said so, and if you like this sucky thing than you are of inferior intelligence because I SAID IT SUCKS." Criticism, on the other hand, is balanced critique of the work that raises legitimate concerns.

Criticism is not a bad thing.

Last week, I led off my criticism of Brave with a little note about how people often view criticism of a piece of media as someone saying that media is BAD and that people SHOULDN'T LIKE IT. That's not the case at all. When I criticize a work, I'm exploring both my subjective opinion ("this just isn't to my taste") and often the socio-political implications of the work. I very much try to avoid implying that something is without-redemption TERRIBLE and that anyone who likes it is a fool, because that's a very black-and-white view that ignores whatever positive qualities a work displays. And trust me, if a lot of people are enjoying a work, it has AT LEAST ONE positive quality. That quality may be snappy dialogue, or clever plotting, or gripping characterization, or the ability to keep an audience engaged page after page. You may have to look for it, but it's there.

Talking about the problematic elements of media does not mean I disapprove of enjoyment of that media. As I've mentioned before, I often enjoy media with problematic elements. I'm very critical of those problematic elements, but I tend to be very attuned to any little throwaway socio-political screwery. Even so, I can still like -- even love -- media that displays these issues.

For example: I really like the show How I Met Your Mother. I think it's hilarious and occasionally heartwarming. However, the show is often GROSSLY sexist. Not just in the sense of Barney's womanizing ways (which are intentionally gross), but in the way the women are portrayed, the way women treat other women and themselves, the stereotypes, and even the way the narrator of the show, who is supposed to be this nice-guy romantic, treats women. (I may write a post about this sometime. Hm.)

It's important for me to be able to balance my critical mind against my enjoyment of the show. I'm not the kind of person who can just ignore problematic themes and elements. Every time the show does something gross, I notice. Every time women are portrayed as catty shopaholics, or having "crazy eyes," or ditzes who can (and should) be easily tricked into sex and then tossed aside, or a male character gets to learn a lesson and grow while a female character is the bad guy or the butt of the joke or forgotten completely... I notice all of these things. I'm critical of them.

So how do I balance the analytical assessment of my media intake without driving myself completely up a wall and hating absolutely everything?

I accept that criticism is not a bad thing. That noting and admitting that your preferred media has problematic elements doesn't negate any positive qualities it also offers. While I may cringe at yet another portrayal of a woman being relegated to the role of "stupid-but-hot pair of breasts whose name the narrator can't even be bothered to remember," I can still appreciate the heart, humor, and friendship portrayed on the screen. It doesn't excuse the problematic elements or make them okay. In my opinion, it's important not to let popular media get away with bullshit representations and perpetuating stereotypes. Unfortunately, if I decided to walk away from anything with even the slightest whiff of problematic content regardless of the work as a whole, my media intake would be very slim indeed.

This standpoint isn't perfect. After all, where do we draw the line between when the negative elements overwhelm the positive and render a piece of media too problematic to be allowed a pass? That's a subjective viewpoint. There's also the question of whether or not anything can ever be truly above criticism, and the reality is no, it can't. No matter how even-handed the portrayal or tightly-written the plot, literature (and other media) remains a subjective art. What speaks to one person won't speak to another, what bothers one person another won't even notice.

Still, I find it necessary to bring any issues to the forefront for discussion. If unpacking the "hidden" context in popular media helps people to better understand and identify problematic content, that's a good thing in my book. The goal of criticism is discussion and betterment. It's not a tool of "ruining" or belittling someone's work. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

I can't help but feel, sometimes, that we make a habit of surrounding ourselves in cotton balls and bubble wrap because it's comfortable. When you're that comfortable for long enough, the slightest disturbance is enough to make you cry and whine and want to burrow deeper. Even though we're hearing things that aren't really all that mean or are based in a pretty solid argument, we're so unused to having to deal with it that they immediately become Enemy Number One. Even if they had some nice things to say, even if they made a good point.

It's not fun to hear that you might have made a mistake. It sucks to feel exposed and like you're being called out on something you didn't even realize you might have done wrong. The immediate instinct is to go nuh uh, you're reading too much into that, that's not what I meant at all! Many people like to ignore the criticism, hope it goes away, or even lash out against it. However, many times, if we swallow our pride and try to step into the critic's shoes, we might learn something about ourselves that maybe isn't all that great, but that we can improve upon.

When we stop viewing criticism of our work, our favorite TV show, our favorite book, as a personal attack on us and our preferences and start viewing it as a tool for growth, we can become stronger. We learn to recognize when our brain is straying down well-worn pathways and taking easy shortcuts.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We can learn to understand that criticism of a work does not mean that work is bad, or that the critic is saying it's bad. We can enjoy media with problematic content as long as we're willing to accept that the problematic content is there. Nothing is ever perfect. If we were all holding out for perfection, we'd be in permanent stasis. Imperfect is okay. Always striving to be better is ideal.

I can't help but admire Kristin Cashore, who was called out on her lack of sensitivity to disability politics after GRACELING came out. Spoiler ahead: in her book, one of the main characters loses his eyesight. However, he has a Grace (super power) that makes up for his lack of sight and then some, so he's essentially unhindered by this development. This is a problematic (and common) trope in fantasy novels because it gives someone a disability and then an immediate "solution" for that disability without their having to learn to live as a disabled person. It implies that disabilities need to be fixed. Cashore certainly did not intend this message when she wrote the book, and she seems to be a kind and sensitive person. However, when called out on it, she took it in stride and used it as a learning experience for her future work. I'm sure that criticism must have hurt, that she must have felt embarrassed and upset, but she pulled through it and learned from it.

What are your feelings on criticism? Do you often feel yourself getting defensive over your work, or do you try to take it in stride? Defensiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing -- when we feel strongly about something, we want to defend it. It's just when that defense turns into disregarding any good points that it becomes an issue.


14 comments:

{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: July 9, 2012 at 8:14 AM said...

Really well said (and yeah, bravo to Kristin Cashore). PLEASE write that post about HIMYM--I'd love to hear your thoughts. I try to be a critical media consumer...but truly, I just watch too much TV, and I have often had the experience of reading some well-thought-out piece of criticism about a show I've watched for years and going, "Dang. I never saw it that way." I don't always agree (see: The Aaron Sorkin's Women controversy, 1998-present; I think he does ok by women most of the time) but I'm always glad to see the other perspective.

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: July 9, 2012 at 8:48 AM said...

This post, forever and ever.

(Also, I definitely want to read your HIMYM post.)

I'll be honest, this was not always a view point I could understand. I mean, objectively I KNEW that everyone was entitled to their own opinions and taste, and that someone criticizing (or even actually NOT LIKING) something that I liked didn't mean that I was wrong or stupid, but somehow I couldn't translate that knowledge into actual feelings. I would get defensive whenever "my preciouses" were "attacked." It has taken years of friends and family calling me out on my defensiveness -- coupled with my own growing experience with giving and taking criticism -- to realize that we can recognize and discuss flaws/shortcomings in people, art, etc. without judging them as bad or wrong.

{ Blair B. Burke } at: July 9, 2012 at 9:05 AM said...

Just the other day I read a criticism of Band of Brothers, complaining that it made the Germans look bad and incompetent and the it was too skewed to the perspective of the Americans. That struck me as far more revealing about the person making the criticism than what was criticized. Not that the argument isn't true, I just don't consider it a valid complaint. At least, not for me. Good or bad, right or wrong are all perspectives. Perhaps the writers of HIMYM want to be misogynistic, in which case they are succeeding admirably. Ultimately criticism is no more or less valid than the original work; the critiquer no more or less important than the author. It's all just opinion. I try to evaluate criticism on its own merits and balance what it means for me and my goals. Ultimately I am the final arbiter of what I like or not, even among my own works.

{ Stephanie Sinkhorn } at: July 9, 2012 at 10:01 AM said...

Oh, I'm certainly not saying that criticism is all equally valid and holds more weight than the work itself. We all have to weigh criticism and decide if it's worth heeding or not -- and some criticism is not. That said, it's still important not to stick our heads in the sand and avoid it at all costs, even if we end up disagreeing with it.

Discussion is good! And discussion doesn't mean you have to agree with everything :) So I think we're ultimately making the same point :D

{ prerna pickett } at: July 9, 2012 at 10:19 AM said...

criticism is very helpful, without all the snark, like you pointed out. I've been lucky thus far with people who've read my work, they're helpful and never make me feel like a horrible writer. I would love for you to do a post on HIMYM!

{ Andrew Leon } at: July 9, 2012 at 10:48 AM said...

My general view of criticism is that it is incorrectly used. Criticism comes from critique, and it means to give a detailed evaluation. The bad, yes, but also the good. I think we often forget that it should be a complete evaluation, not just talking about all the bad parts of something. So, yeah, criticism -shouldn't- be a bad thing. It should also point out the strengths of something.

{ Old Kitty } at: July 9, 2012 at 2:10 PM said...

I do like Andrew Leon's comment! I cannot agree enough! An evaluation and deconstruction of a piece of art is all well and good - a rant against something is just that. Take care
x

{ Emy Shin } at: July 9, 2012 at 2:27 PM said...

Everybody, but particularly writers and readers, should read this post.

For the longest time, I took criticisms of novels and characters I loved personally (and still do, sometimes). But I have come to realize that you can still enjoy a work while being aware of its problematic elements.

{ We Heart YA } at: July 9, 2012 at 5:16 PM said...

Yes! Ditto what Emy said.

{ linda } at: July 9, 2012 at 10:46 PM said...

Not much to add, other than: you rock! :)

{ Magan } at: July 10, 2012 at 8:50 AM said...

This kind of brings up the whole GoodReads thing with authors who are commenting on their bad reviews and bloggers and authors have started going after eachother and no one wins.

Sometimes we have to take criticism with a grain of salt and sometimes that salt does need to be taken with a shot of tequila.

{ Lynne Matson } at: July 13, 2012 at 6:43 AM said...

I think everyone feels a bit defensive now and then, especially writers putting their "babies" out there for everyone to see/read.:) A little defensiveness is okay (like you said, if you can't defend your work, who can?!) but a lot is dangerous: defensiveness regarding crits can seriously hinder your growth. (Crits, not snark.) My view on criticism mirrors Andrew's--LOVE his comment. Emy's too. :) Thanks Stephanie!

{ Krispy } at: July 13, 2012 at 12:17 PM said...

THIS POST SO MUCH. It's natural to get defensive about things we love, but it's also good to take criticisms in stride and evaluate whether or not they're valid. Like you said, nothing is perfect and like Emy mentioned, it is absolutely possible to LOVE something and still recognize its problematic aspects. That's how we can strive to do better.

{ Cara M. } at: July 18, 2012 at 1:13 PM said...

Having once been a Comparative Literature major, when I hear about the kind of criticism that you're talking about, I immediately separate it from criticism of the 'fix it' sort. Your type of criticism is the sort I adore, which extracts the underlying assumptions from a text and puts them on the table for discussion, which is where they need to be. When a living author gets mixed up in this, it can hurt, because the author is not usually intending to put these problematic and debatable themes into their work, they're doing it through the zeitgeist and through unquestioned assumptions taught them by society. Being able to face these criticisms and the alteration to one's viewpoint that they require is incredibly brave and admirable, especially because there is no way to be both safe from criticism and interesting to read. But this doesn't mean that the author is being wrong or bad. They're just not giving a certain aspect of their piece the thought that it requires.

Of course, there are those authors that clearly have never evaluated their own work on an abstract level and are merely parroting back the norm, even when, if they were questioned, they'd disagree. But my favorite sort of author is the one who takes their work as part of the dialogue with one of these themes, not one where it's preaching, but where the sides of the question are truly engaged with.

I know at least that in the Deaf community, there are people who are on both sides of the 'fixing it' issue. And because of certain implants this is a live and vicious debate. It isn't a settled issue. Very few of these things are actually settled issues. Isn't that an interesting thing to write about?

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