How We Watch

Karen Healey wrote a great post about two months ago talking about the Glee fandom, and she said something really excellent which I am quoting here, because it was the inspiration for this post:

The thing I have noticed about Glee responses in the circles I frequent is that they seem to be divided into the people who see the hinky stuff and can’t stand the show because of it, but acknowledge that it also has fun and music and dancing, and the people who love the fun and music and dancing but acknowledge that there are hinky issues.

-Attention Rebellious Jezebels: Maturity? In FANDOM?

I really like the word “hinky,” incidentally.

So, I think she’s getting at a really great issue, and it’s one which I confront over and over again in my Feminism and Joss Whedon series. Which is to say: We watch television (and movies, and engage with other works of art) in very different ways. And one of the notable distinctions that I have noticed is that some people seem to be able to experience works and enjoy them despite problematic content, while others must ignore the problematic content in order to enjoy the work (or they don’t see it at all).

And when people identify and critique problematic content, they often experience pushback. I’ve noticed this in the Whedon fandom more than others, probably because it’s the one I engage with the most, and I think it’s the same in a lot of other fandoms as well. I have been attacked, personally attacked, for daring to say that the works of Joss Whedon are not perfect. For suggesting that sometimes the content is extremely problematic.

Even though I identify as a fan. I like Joss’ work. I do. But, you know, it is problematic. And I wouldn’t be talking about the problems if I didn’t like his work. If I didn’t like his work, I just wouldn’t watch it. The fact that I take the time to engage with it on this level means that I like his work a lot, actually.

Yet, I often hear people say “if you have such a problem with it, don’t watch it,” or “why do you keep watching it if you hate it so much”? Since when did criticism and discussion turn into “hate”? Criticism of creative work, creators, and the motivations of people who engage in such work is actually a rather ancient practice. I think it’s human nature; when we encounter something we like, we want to explore it more. We want to engage with it. We want to get inside it and wriggle around. Because it’s so good. Because the work itself is finite, but the potential readings and explorations are infinite.

And this is what is exciting to me about Joss Whedon. I watch a lot of television. A lot. And I don’t write about very much of it, because for the most part, it’s ok. It entertains me on cold nights. But it doesn’t grip me. It doesn’t explore issues in a way which excites me. It doesn’t have characters which excite me. It’s just entertaining. Whereas, Joss Whedon’s work, it does grip me, and it does excite me. Even though it has problems. Indeed, the problems are part of what grips me, in an odd way, because I wonder how a creator can be right on in some senses, and extremely unaware in others.

If we cannot criticize the works we love to engage with, what are we supposed to do? I’ve actually heard people suggest that critics like me are “undeserving” of the fine work creative types produce. That they are clearly not appreciating the work since “all they can do is nitpick.” Or simply that they “missed the point” or “don’t get it.” On the contrary. I think that failure to recognize flaws in creative work shows that someone is not truly appreciating it, because no creator (or person) is perfect. Mistakes happen. And it’s interesting to explore where people fall short and why.

It’s especially interesting to look at within the context of the larger society. Take a show like Glee, which thinks that it is being hip and edgy and funny. Thinks, in fact, that it is satirizing the social attitudes which it actually reinforces. That actually suggests some level of awareness on the part of the creators; this is not a show which says “the creators have no idea what they are doing,” it’s a show which says “the creators are trying to do something, and failing.” Shouldn’t we talk about what they are trying to do, and the intent, and about why the show is falling short of its goals?

Glee is actually an example of a show I do not like which I watch so that I can criticize it, which brings me to another aspect of the criticism leveled against critics. People who get angry about criticism often say “did you even watch?!” I don’t have a problem with that, so much, because, yeah, I do think that it helps to watch (listen, read, etc) to fully engage with the work. But I do have a problem with the next stage of this critique, after the critic has responded with “yes, I did, actually,” in which the fans say “but if you’d read that interview in Details/been at Comic-Con/seen the video on the Fox website/etc, you would know what they are trying to do.”

So, here’s the thing. I think that creative works should stand alone. I think that criticism can be deeper when you do know backstory, but I do think that you can criticize on the basis of the work alone. Work should not have to support itself and prop itself up with interviews in which the creator attempts to justify the problematic content. It is totally unreasonable to expect people to track down every piece of auxiliary content in the world which pertains to a piece before criticizing it. And that argument actually weakens the position of the person complaining about criticism, in my opinion, because it’s an admission from people who refuse to acknowledge problematic content that this content actually exists and must be justified in some way.

So, yeah, I am going to go right on criticizing work I love, because I like doing it, and I like reading criticism of work I love. Because criticism enhances my depth of understanding and level of engagement with a work, whether I am writing and reading it. And I feel sorry for people who protect themselves and their favourite shows from criticism, because they are missing out, and they might actually have some great ideas to share with the collective if they didn’t fear criticism so much.

9 Replies to “How We Watch”

  1. I agree with this form of watching/critiquing entertainment.

    The better a text is, the more fun it is to engage with it critically, imo. And when Dollhouse, for example, was first coming out, and everyone was flailing about going “it’s going to be the most awesome awesomeness EVAH” or “it’s going to be a horrible sexist bad-bad-baddy thing”, I was like, really? We can’t just wait to see if maybe it has a lot of both qualities and say that Joss is a human being who is very intelligent and creative and tries to do good things but sometimes fails because he’s not perfect? The Joss fandom, especially, tends to boggle me with the fanaticism of “He is a Feminist GOD and if you don’t agree you’re not smart enough to see it”.

    And yea, you know, Glee is sparking such heated discussion both for and against, too, and my feelings about it are similar. I think it’s even trying to make some good points and just totally failing at doing so most of the time. And there is a lot to critique and look at and think about. And it’s also just … a lot of fun to watch. For me. But I’d never yell at someone for not agreeing that it’s fun to watch, or that they just aren’t picking up on the good stuff, or whatever. And I just … don’t quite get people who do that.

    It’s like the “love it or leave it” people about America. I can criticize the country I live in, and sometimes love it and sometimes hate it, and still not want to move out of it. I don’t have to choose to either love it blindly and unconditionally or leave. And the same with Glee and Joss shows – I can criticize them and still want to watch them. Those things are just not mutually exclusive.

    Anyway. Hope it’s okay I just ranted over here.

  2. There’s a great quote by Louis de Bernieres which I don’t have the time to dig up right now, but basically he’s talking about the difference between nationalism and patriotism, and he makes a really good point. He says that nationalists are “my country, right or wrong,” while patriots love their countries with an intense fervor, but recognize the flaws in their nations and try to improve them. I think this can be applied to many areas of life, really; do you want to frame things as right/wrong, or do you want to actually have a discussion? And, in this setting, who is doing more good? The ardent fan who sees no wrong, or the ardent fan who is not afraid to point out the wrong, and to talk about how it could be improved?

    I’ve written (as you may have noted) a LOT about Whedon’s work here, and it’s because, well, I like it. I like it enough to want to engage with it on a deep level. You don’t see me criticizing Trauma or Three Rivers or whatever because, well, those shows are bad. There’s no room for improvement because it’s clear that there’s no interest in that possibility. With Glee, it’s clear that some thinking went on, it just wasn’t followed through, and no one thought to, say, consult people to balance the work a little more. It’s a show worth critiquing because they are trying to do something and failing, unlike shows that are just straight up bad, which are not trying to do anything at all.

    Incidentally you’re welcome to rant here anytime.

  3. Okay, so this is not at all constructive, but I do want to thank you for doing exactly what you describe here. I’ve been working harder to think critically about the TV and movies I watch lately, partially because I just watch so much, and partially because the [redacted for ableist language] fandom for Twilight has caused me to really examine what I fangirl over. I love TV, I love movies, I love books. Popular culture can be compelling, and fascinating. But if you watch it without questioning what you’re seeing, I don’t understand how you can benefit from what you watch. You can be entertained, sure. But if you’re going to argue that Buffy taught you about feminism, you should be able to understand ways in which it fails at feminism, otherwise how much have you really learned?

    I’ve been keeping up with your Glee and Dollhouse coverage, and while I don’t always agree with your opinions wholeheartedly, I do often find myself repeating them to friends who watch the same shows. Because the thoughts are interesting, and definitely worth considering. And if I can’t watch Dollhouse with a critical enough eye to spot problems in something like, oh, say “Instinct,” well, I can’t consider myself much of a feminist at all.

    All of which is to say, I really appreciate that you’re critical, and please keep it up!

  4. I find this quite interesting! I wonder if there is some distinction re: criticism on anti-oppression grounds or criticism on other grounds, because I suspect a lot of people who wouldn’t really have a problem with people complaining about the character development (in fact, after an unsatisfying episode you sometimes get the whole fandom complaining about character development) but will lash out if someone dares to say “hey, I think this bit here is sexist/racist/ableist/homophobic/etc.” E.g. I’ve seen a lot of people doing in-depth analysis of Merlin, and often complaining about the characterisation of one of the characters in the second series, and that hasn’t really had any backlash. OTOH, I recently read a critique on racism in one of the episodes and that had all the people coming out of the comments that you’d expect. There seems to be this underlying idea of – you can dislike aspects of the characterisation, or the worldbuilding, or whatever, and still like the show. But if you think the show is reinforcing -isms, then you *cannot* like the show, and you must think it is horrible and that no one ever is allowed to like it, and so people react as if you’re trying to take their shiny away from them.

    *shrugs*

    People who get angry about criticism often say “did you even watch?!” I don’t have a problem with that, so much, because, yeah, I do think that it helps to watch (listen, read, etc) to fully engage with the work.

    I get quite annoyed about this kind of thing, because actually, I *didn’t* watch. Because watching is not an option for me. I fall into the “read” category – when I can dig up transcripts, which is rarely, so otherwise I fall into the “looked things up in Wikipedia, read fanfic and followed fandom discussions” category. And there are so many times people use “did you even watch the show!” as dismissal, as the ultimate put-down, to ridicule people, etc., and I can’t even count the number of discussions I have seen where people talk about how it is OMGSOWRONG for people who haven’t watched the show to engage in discussion/write fanfic/participate in fandom at all about it, that I get very sensitive.

  5. Kaz, I wonder if some of this fear of criticizing -isms comes from the general white middle class fear of being accused of committing an -ism. In other words, when someone unabashedly enjoys a show without seeing problematic content and someone says “gee, there’s some problematic content,” it feeds into the “someone’s talking about -isms around me, so they must think I’m -ist” trap that many people seem to fall into. The pushback on, for example, my Glee reviews has suggested to me that people are taking my reviews personally, thinking that since I am discussing problematic content I am implying that fans of the show are clearly endorsing that content.

    I, too, dislike the “well you need to have watched it to critique it” attitude because, well, as you say, some people cannot watch. (Oh, and even if you did watch it, you would be informed that you need to watch/read all the meta like interviews with the cast before you’re allowed to critique, so, basically, you can’t win.) That’s why I say it helps to watch/listen/read, not necessarily to watch because people should engage with a work at the level that they can. If a show like Glee doesn’t want to make transcripts and descriptions available for people who cannot watch, then people can’t be blamed for reviewing on the basis of critique/discussions surrounding the show.

  6. This is basically how I watch or read everything. When it’s especially bad — like if it’s CSI: Miami and they’re doing anything at all — I watch/read/listen critically out loud. The wife finds this habit intensely frustrating and pokes me when I’m doing it while something she’s actually trying to pay attention to is on. I’m allowed to slag on CSI: Miami, for example, but less so on NCIS: Los Angeles.

    (Though NCIS:LA actually has redeeming qualities, namely Linda Hunt and LL Cool J. Oh yes the ladies certainly do love Cool James. I rewrite it as I watch so that in the show in my head the jokes about the marriage between the two male leads are there because they’re actually married and it’s not just the homophobic toss-off bullshit I’m afraid it really is. But I’ll forgive much to get to watch Linda Hunt. It is awesome with a zesty win sauce that everyone in that office is terrified of her.)

    I can’t turn it off. Even for things I like. I can’t ‘just watch.’ I’d blame TVTropes, but it’s probably because I write stories that I’m so hard on other writers.

    [F]ans of the show are clearly endorsing that content.

    It’s certainly possible to watch or read or listen to something without endorsing its message or opinions held by the artist that may not be explicitly stated in xer work. But after a while the defensiveness — “It can’t be racist because I’m not racist and I like it and I don’t like racist things” — can turn into open endorsement or at least can expose deeply-held beliefs.

  7. But after a while the defensiveness — “It can’t be racist because I’m not racist and I like it and I don’t like racist things” — can turn into open endorsement or at least can expose deeply-held beliefs.

    Yeah, this. The key, for me, is whether people recognize that content and talk about it, or whether they are defensive about it. Talking to a friend about Glee yesterday he mentioned that he “really loves musicals” but that the show also really pisses him off. He was saying, in other words, that he liked the show, but had serious criticisms of many aspects of the show. (Whereas I both do not like the show and have criticisms.) When I critique something like, say, Dollhouse I’m not critiquing as bad, I’m critiquing it as problematic. You can think that something is good and problematic or bad and problematic, but I take exception to the people who look at something like Glee and say “it’s great, there’s no problem.” Because, in that case, yeah, they are endorsing the content because they’re saying that there’s nothing wrong with it.

  8. I’ve given up trying to explain my Glee objections to friends and family, especially since they tend to fall into the “There’s something problematic with the show? I don’t get it!” camp. And they’re so accustomed to me calling things out as sexist/ableist/racist/etc. that they don’t seem to even notice anymore, let alone address the content of my criticism. (And if I didn’t otherwise adore my sister-in-law, this would potentially be a family-rift-creating attitude). What I hear is “But, the singing and dancing! Yay!” How do you engage with people who don’t move beyond that level of excitement? Sigh.

    In good-TV news, after reading this post by Shani-O at PostBourgie, my husband and I got turned on to Community as a rather amusing ensemble-cast alternative. There are still some -ism issues, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Given my adoration for your television critiquing, I’d be very curious to read anything you had to say about it.

  9. Interesting post Mel! Find this particularly interesting in regards to the current Dollhouse post over at Tor that is going on. Not sure if you have read it – but there is quite a comments war going on there. I haven’t bothered commenting – as apparently, if you are able to perceive any social commentary in the Dollhouse – you have made it up!

    Myself, I am a consumer (I think of reading/watching/listening as ultimately, consuming – which doesn’t reduce the active nature – but recognises that in all of these activities, we are consuming popular culture – eating, digesting and so on) who can enjoy things in spite of – generally. For me as a consumer, I use this as a litmus test: is the ‘product’ good enough to engage me to a level where I can still fully digest the content, without wanting to spew it back up! (Thinking Family Guy here – spew!!)

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