|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.