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.