Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seven Comments Not to Post When Someone Criticizes Your Show

You're wrong, the scene where Don Draper smashes 1,000 butternut squash was not too graphic. It wasn't graphic enough.


I binged Stranger Things 2 last weekend. It was really fun and I was overall really entertained and engaged, but there were a few things that I found discordant or frustrating, almost all of which were covered by Son of Baldwin in a recent Facebook post. (That post contains spoilers, but this one doesn't.) Many of the comments on that post (two by me!) had substantive things to add, including additional problems or different takes, but of course it's an internet comment section, some some were just butthurt and unhelpful. Inspired by that thread, here is my guide to what NOT to post on a criticism of a show you like (or a movie, book, etc.)

#1. Why are you being so negative? It's a good show! The Original Criticizer (OC) usually prefaces their critical post with general praise (including the Son of Baldwin Stranger Things post I reference above). Even if they don't, you can assume they liked the show if they're bothering to get deep with it. When the criticism is really specific, that means a few things:

A. The show is worth watching closely, thinking about, writing about, considering from various angles.

B. It's easier to list and quantify the bad parts than the good parts.

C. The show elicits that specific kind of frustration that comes from something being so, so close to great that it's almost there.

All of these are indicators that the OC has a really good opinion of the show overall and doesn't need you to defend it.

Criticizers are people who find value and even enjoyment in looking at the works they like with an analytical lens. They're basically saying, "How could this be done even better?" Or, "What can this teach us about culture/storytelling/our assumptions?" Or, "Even when I'm trying to be entertained, I'm stung in all these tiny ways; help me nurse this wound, Internet." They are not saying, "This thing has parts I didn't like, therefore it's bad, full stop."

#2. I feel attacked! Even if the OC doesn't like the show, what do you care? It's not a criticism of you, personally. In reality, the OC is probably a pretty big fan (for all the reasons I listed in #1), so they certainly are not saying that all fans are bad & wrong.

#3. Stop ruining it! Sometimes, reading a critique does ruin a show for me, if the flaw that's examined is so giant and offensive that it taints everything with a really ugly brush. But that's not a fault of the critic who points it out; it's the fault of the show and the attitudes of the people who made it. If a criticism legitimately ruins a show or movie for you, don't blame the messenger.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale criticism, even when you agree with it, doesn't need to completely ruin something for you. You can love a thing without being blind to its faults. It's not helpful to your fandom to have a black-and-white worldview where every show is either Good or Bad and Good Shows Don't Have Faults and Bad Shows Don't Have Redeeming Qualities. I think it's an important skill to make friends with cognitive dissonance.

#4. Here's what the writer actually meant. This isn't the worst, especially if the comment is informative. Sometimes it's interesting and helpful to provide outside sources (e.g. interviews, commentaries) which contextualize a particular choice. But ultimately, I think authorial intent is bunk.

#4A. You don't understand: (surface-level explanation) This is a subtype of "here's what the writer actually meant," but the explanation is just a simplistic summary of what happened in the actual show. To avoid spoiling anything recent, I'll use an example from the Old Testament.

CRITICIZER: It just doesn't make sense. If God is all-knowing and all-loving, why on Earth would He ever be cruel enough to ask Abraham to sacrifice his own child?
COMMENTER: God was testing Abraham.

Like yes, we get it, that is the text. That is the very thing that the OC is criticizing.

Some commenters who make this type of post may be doing so out of a genuine misunderstanding of the rhetorical question and desire to be helpful, but I think that most are basically trying to say, "You dumb-dumb, you must not have understood because if you did you would not be criticizing."

#5. Your reaction was incorrect. When an OC's critique is of the form, "I didn't like it when [thing happened] because [reasons]," it is perfectly valid to say, "I actually did like it because [other reasons]." Or, "I didn't either, but for a different reason." What is unhelpful is any response that boils down to, "You are objectively wrong, that (scene/line/plot point) that bothered you wasn't actually bad, it was good. You were wrong to feel that way."

There is no objective truth about what is good or bad in fiction. This is not a vote or a debate to settle the Real Question of Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong and Whether This Thing Is Good.

The critique is just a person sharing how they reacted - how the fiction made them feel. Maybe you didn't notice the thing that rubbed them the wrong way. Maybe you even liked it! That doesn't mean they were wrong to have the reaction that they did. It was their genuine reaction. Different life experiences and worldviews mean that people have different reactions to stories.

It is fine to share your own genuine reaction, even if it is opposite: "I actually like that God is kind of insecure, it makes him more relatable." It is unhelpful to simply try to invalidate the OC's reaction: "No, you're wrong."

#5A. You are too sensitive, it wasn't (racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/etc). This is a subtype of #5, but it happens with stereotypes and representation often enough that I wanted to highlight it.

If you weren't offended by something, that doesn't mean it is, objectively, inoffensive. You should be especially careful not to be dismissive if you are a member of a majority group, and the criticizer is talking about problems with stereotypes and representation of a minority/oppressed group that they belong to. "Well, I wasn't offended" is an unhelpful response at the best of times (again, this isn't a vote on whether something is Objectively Inoffensive), but if you are not a member of the affected group, then it actually becomes a silencing tactic, and you're part of the problem.

If you are a member of the same group - say, the criticizer is a woman talking about misogyny and you're also a woman - then you still don't have a free pass to dismiss the OC's concerns. You certainly have more standing to offer your own perspective: "I get what you're saying about objectifying, but I find Lara Croft to be a really strong and inspiring character, and as a kid, she was one of the only fictional examples I had of a capable, adventuring woman." Note the difference between that and, "You're wrong, it's not sexist. Source: I'm a woman."

#6. Casual offensiveness is okay because it's realistic to the time period / setting. This is basically a way of excusing on-screen racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. because the show takes place in a historical time period (or dystopian future, or high school, or other setting where oppression would be normal). I'm not saying that historical shows should always be unrealistically progressive, simply that it is fair to critique a show for poor representation/stereotyping/laziness even when it's set in the past or in an intentionally retrograde setting.

There are intelligent ways for historical and speculative fiction to engage with these issues. The Handmaid's Tale, for example, depicts brutal and inhumane treatment of women. But it (a) is intentionally upsetting, not glorifying; (b) has Something to Say about the issues it raises; and (c) is aware of and intentional about the setting and the parallels to the real world as it is now. I don't think Handmaid's Tale is perfect. (The show, anyway. I haven't read the book. I have some REALLY SPECIFIC critiques of the show that I would love to share with you sometime, but they're kind of beside the point right now.) But you don't get the sense that Handmaid's Tale is hiding behind its dystopian setting as an excuse for violence-porn or to gloss over misogyny (tho, the show does gloss over race WHOOPS I SLIPPED IN ONE OF MY CRITIQUES.)

The point is that it's fair to expect a show to have something to say about an issue if it's going to bother to raise it, to offer some kind of payoff in exchange for the discomfort caused by, say, showing racialized violence or uttering a homophobic slur. For some, that discomfort is pretty damn painful and intense, so it's not too much to ask that show-creators wield their emotion-eliciting power with some kind of intentionality. It's fair to criticize a show that handles these issues clumsily, and "but it was the past" is not a sufficient defense.

#7. It's just a show. Don't overthink it! See also: That's a reach/stretch! It's not that deep! Related: You have waaaaay too much time on your hands!

This is an attempt to dismiss the entire conversation with, essentially, the claim that it's not worth it to think too hard about media. Maybe for you, it isn't - maybe you just want to enjoy some passive entertainment without getting all literary-criticism about it. That's fine, I guess (I kind of think you're missing half of the value of fiction but whatever). But that means this discussion isn't for you. You're free to ignore it! You don't need to shit on everyone else's productive, thoughtful discussion just because you don't care.

I mean, you do care, probably - probably, your actual feeling is more like one of the ones above (my show is being attacked and I'm being attacked! You saying something I liked was racist means you're saying I'm racist means you're saying I'm bad and I can't handle it!) In which case this is a derailing tactic to try to get criticizers to just shut up by shaming them about being oversensitive, paranoid, or too in the weeds.

Joke's on you: I am never ashamed to be in the weeds. I'll overthink ANYTHING. Even your lazy comment.

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