There’s a pop culture phenomenon going around at the moment that many of my friends absolutely love. It’s all over social media, people are sharing memes, and it feels like a pervasive presence everywhere I go. To be honest, the whole thing leaves me rather indifferent — and on days when it seems like I can’t escape it, actively cold. It’s just not my thing. It doesn’t interest me. I’m glad that the people around me enjoy it and are getting a great deal out of it, I’m just not one of them. It’s easy enough for me to filter out mentions, and I certainly don’t, say, follow accounts dedicated to it or make a point of seeking out commentators who cover it.
I’m of the firm belief that harshing squee just to harsh squee is nasty, and that it can carry some gross undertones, as well. I just plain don’t like this thing, and that’s not reason enough for me to share my thoughts with the entire world. People can probably safely infer my disinterest from my lack of engagement with the subject, and if directly asked for my thoughts I’d say it doesn’t really catch my attention, but I don’t feel the need to belabour the point. Everyone has better things to do.
If I disliked it because I identified some structural problems with it, whether narrative or cultural, I wouldn’t be shy about expressing that criticism, and I’d do so in a cogent, constructive way. That’s a discussion worth having because I’d be caring enough about it to critique it — as for example I do with a lot of young adult literature, where I may not necessarily like a book, but I’ll still discuss its problems and why they forced me to dislike it, in the hopes that readers might find it instructive, whether they want to avoid the book or look at it through new eyes. I in turn benefit from the same kinds of reviews and commentary — sometimes I find that something I really loved actually has some really serious problems because a reviewer was kind enough to post about it.
Trashing something just to trash it is mean-spirited and unkind. Critiquing something that has some problems is not, in fact, harshing squee, but rather a necessary part of engagement with pop culture. People don’t necessarily have to seek out or enjoy that criticism, but it’s being provided for a different reason than just repeating that the consumer doesn’t like a given piece of creative work. One of these things has a place in the pop culture pantheon, and the other does not — if you don’t like something simply because, keep it to yourself, or seek out people who share your view so you can rant in private about why everyone is going gaga over this thing that you think is just awful.
I bring this up not just because it’s irritating to see people deliberately going out of their way to be mean to people who derive enjoyment from given books, television shows, films, musicians, plays, and so forth, but because it can cross an extremely dangerous line, turning from squee-harshing to actual judgmental commentary about people who enjoy these works. Take, for example, someone who doesn’t like a romance novel that’s suddenly sweeping the pop culture landscape — a great example is Twilight. There are a lot of perfectly reasonable critiques of the series, and many of those critiques are in broad circulation, with good reason. But some people just don’t like the series and make no bones about it.
In the process, they often make a point of putting down the people who read it — young women and girls, primarily — and they also put down the romance genre as a whole as well as the family of young adult literature. Thus, the expressed dislike turns not just from a rude thing to say about something other people enjoy, but something more sinister, stereotyping, condemning, marginalising. Young women and girls are treated very poorly by society, and one of the ways society does so is by mocking the media they consume, suggesting it’s not a valid contribution to the arts, that it’s vapid, that real adult mature people don’t consume it. These kinds of putdowns marginalise them, decreasing their ability to have an equal footing in society. Dismissive commentary about entire genres is equally dubious in merit — to say ‘all romance is bad’ is to sweepingly convey disdain for romance readers and authors, editors, reviewers, and many others, sweeping it into the garbage.
Are some romance novels bad? Sure. Some are bad for solid reasons, like glorifying rape and abuse, or just being poorly written, with bad narrative structure, cardboard characters, and other issues. The same can be said of every other literary genre on Earth, though, and ‘literary fiction is for shallow, vapid people’ isn’t an attitude I encounter very often, any more than ‘toddlers who read board books really need to grow up.’ There’s a direct connection between the kinds of genres and creative works that get put down and marginalisation across society — look to the audience of a maligned piece of pop culture, and you’re likely going to see people who are in positions of oppression, not power. Rapey literary fiction wins awards.
I don’t harsh squee because it’s mean spirited and I have better things to do with me time, but also because I want to avoid falling into the trap of treating the people who follow and enjoy a given pop culture phenomenon like garbage. Liking or disliking a thing isn’t an evidence of fine aesthetic taste or superiority. It’s just evidence that you like or dislike a thing, and that’s fine.
Image: Star Trek: Kirk, JD Hancock, Flickr