Some Notes on Criticism

Almost anyone who spends any length of time criticising pop culture, especially from a social justice perspective, is going to encounter one or both of the following statements:

  1. Why this and not that? How come you’re going after Example A and not talking about Example B at all?
  2. I don’t understand why you’re so mean to female creators? Shouldn’t you be focusing on criticising men instead of attacking women who are already having a tough time in the industry? I think you’re being sexist.

They’re so common that both bear a moment of exploration, because they’re both really wrong, and they betray a simplistic understanding of pop culture criticism. Often, they also display a lack of knowledge of the critic’s work, to boot, which makes them even more irritating. While it can be difficult to know everything in someone’s entire body of work produced over the course of a career that may have spanned many years and untold numbers of columns, essays, and other contributions to pop culture, it can behoove people to do a little bit of research before jumping to conclusions.

So, why this and not that?

Well, first of all, you’re assuming that the critic hasn’t actually talked about ‘that,’ which may not actually be the case. But let’s assume for the time being that the critic has not actually addressed ‘that,’ and explore some of the reasons why that might be. One simple reason is that critics are individual human beings who tend to focus on the works and creators that interest them most. They may not have something to say about everything, and they don’t actually have time to critically consume every single piece of media ever produced. Which means that yes, sometimes they don’t talk about ‘that,’ not necessarily because they don’t think it’s important or worthy of discussion, but because they don’t have time, energy, or interest.

And maybe, possibly, they’re interested in the disproportionate social, political, and cultural impact of ‘this,’ which is why they’re choosing to focus on it, because they want their critique to go further and engage with as many people as possible. An obscure work of pop culture may well be fascinating and could potentially contain content worthy of critical evaluation, but it’s less likely to engage an audience in conversation than, say, a television show running in a primetime slot, or a New York Times bestseller.

Critics are sometimes forced to make tough choices when it comes to what they talk about. And sometimes, that means focusing on this and not that, but it doesn’t mean the critic is giving that a pass.

As for cries of ‘sexism’ leveled at people who scrutinise the work of female creators closely, well, there are a lot of things going on there. One thing is that many of the people who do that are also challenging the work of male creators and are definitely holding them to high standards; I, for example, often criticise Shonda Rhimes for her poor handling of disability and I want her to do better, but I’m also routinely tearing Joss Whedon apart for handling a lot of things very, very badly in his work. I pick apart the work of Steven Moffat, Ryan Murphy, and Alan Ball just as much as I bite into Amy Sherman-Palladino.

In other words, many critics treat female creators just like everyone else. Others may hold them to a higher standard; Lena Dunham’s Girls, for example, was raked over the coals because of the way it was pitched to the public, just like Glee was roundly abused for presenting itself as a model of socially conscious television when it in fact was not. The creator’s gender had less to do with this than the way the show was presented.

Though, yes, the creator’s identity played a role, because some critics felt the creator should have gotten it, should have been able to present work through a more aware lens. Some of those criticisms stemmed from a sense of disappointment, which some might say puts too much on the shoulders of female creators—but given the fact that a lot of those creators are putting themselves forward as models of progressivism, it’s fair to criticise them from that perspective.

I’d argue it would be far more sexist to treat female creators with kid gloves just because they’re women. They don’t need special handling, they need fair critical assessment just like creators of other genders, because they’re producing works of pop culture for the public eye, and that gives us a right to discuss those works and talk about their impact on society. I’m not giving Stephanie Meyer a pass just because she’s a woman any more than I’d give Malinda Lo a pass because she’s gay. Their identities clearly influence their work and are important to discuss contextually, but they don’t mean their work is immune from criticism.

And I’d argue this is a key part of my job, as a critic, is to honestly and faithfully assess the works I encounter and think are important and interesting enough to talk about. If I don’t give my honest opinion, it makes all my criticism ring false. Thus, when I say that some of Meyer’s work contains tropes and attitudes that I believe are dangerous for women and girls, that’s coming from an honest critical place; the same place that celebrates books like Ash and argues that they have an important place in the cultural canon, not just for queer youth but for everyone.

Criticism is not about giving people, or their work, a pass. But it does involve selectively deciding what to talk about. Inevitably, some creators and work attract more attention because of their larger part of the pop culture landscape, but lots of critics also discuss smaller, obscure works because they love them, want to bring them to light, and want to engage with fans of those works. Criticism, contrary to what people seem to believe, isn’t about sitting around being a sourpuss all the time; it’s about delving into creative works and taking delight in that exploration.