Resistance is a series I’m starting to examine common responses to pop culture critiques rooted in a social justice perspective. These responses pop up all the time, and I thought it might be useful for people to have posts to refer to when countering these responses since it gets rather tiresome to have to counter the same argument over and over again, although many other people have written versions of this post as well[1. I don’t have the time or the energy to do it, but it would be awesome if someone, somewhere, wanted to compile a list of links refuting common arguments, both to show that these arguments are being refuted over and over, and to furnish plenty of counterpoints for argument. And if someone is already doing this, will someone drop me a link? Because it’s a resource I would very much like to link to!] .
Before I begin, it’s worth exploring why we critique pop culture at all. I’ve written about this in various places, but the short version is that what we absorb through pop culture has an impact on the way we think. The way we approach situations. The way we view other people. We learn lessons, both good and bad, through pop culture depictions of other human beings. Exploring these depictions, identifying good ones and poor ones, is a way of examining the role pop culture plays in our lives. And, ultimately, I would like to think that pop culture critique also seeps back to the creators of pop culture and makes them reevaluate the way they depict certain groups of people.
These critiques are not rooted in ‘this is bad.’ They are rooted in ‘here is this thing that is happening and here are some problems with it.’ For the most part, and I know I’ve said this over and over too, but I’m going to say it again, people who critique pop culture focus on the works they love. The things they enjoy. The things they like despite problems and the things they would like to see improving. The goal of the critique is not to dismiss the work, but to enrich it and to engage with it on a deeper level. There’s a reason I don’t write, for example, about every single television show currently airing. It’s because not every single television show is interesting to me, and I prefer to write about things which interest me.
Up today is ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about.’
This argument commonly gets thrown out when people start to deconstruct stereotypes in pop culture and to ask why it is that certain groups of people tend to be depicted, over and over again, in troped ways. The logic behind it seems to be that pop culture doesn’t really matter, that people should just enjoy it as entertainment, and that people who identify problems in works of pop culture are obviously specifically seeking those problems out; they are trying to read something that isn’t there, perhaps. Or they are too easily offended just in general.
Here’s the thing.
I don’t need to look for things to get offended about. And stereotypes in pop culture don’t necessarily offend me or fill me with righteous indignation. I view them as pieces of a puzzle. Part of a larger whole which explains a lot about how we think about, say, young Black men or women in Iran or wheelchair users or queer teens. There are a few instances of things I can point to where I say ‘this offended me,’ but for the most part, it’s more that these things sadden and tire me. I can’t even muster up the energy to be offended anymore because they happen so much.
And, like I say, I don’t need to actively seek things which sadden, tire, or offend me. That’s because they are all around me. I am in a culture which is saturated with these things. I literally do not need to leave the living room to find them. I find them in newspaper articles. I find them in television and films. I find them in music. I find them in books. I find them everywhere because they are everywhere. If I don’t find them, usually someone helpfully emails or comments to point them out, just in case I missed them.
Actually putting energy into seeking out things to upset me, in other words, isn’t really necessary. If I wanted to look for things to offend me, I could make a full time job out of it. But I don’t really want to do that, because if my baseline level of horror, hatred of the world, indignation, and despair is already this high without looking for more, I don’t see any reasons to increase it. And this holds true for other people who talk about pop culture from within a social justice framework. It’s not that they are trying to find these things, it is that these things are low hanging fruit which is readily available.
This dismissal of critiques also seems to carry a faint note of condescension about being ‘offended.’ Offense, it appears, is a bad thing. A negative thing. It implies excess sensitivity. Yet, it’s not really an unreasonable response to living in a marginalised body and trying to navigate the world. When you are a person with disabilities and you see troped characterisations of people with disabilities, that directly affects you. It contributes to internalised ableism and self hatred. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you wonder why you can’t be a better cripple, why you can’t just be nicer, why you can’t…can’t…can’t. And it makes you understand how the world around you sees you, how people think about you. And it contributes directly to the discrimination you experience from employers. From doctors. From ‘friends.’ From complete strangers on the street. It’s not that you are offended, it’s that this thing which the pompous dismisser is viewing in the abstract is something that affects you personally.
Men tell women not to get offended by sexism. Cis people tell trans* people that they are too sensitive. Nondisabled people tell people with disabilities that ‘no one really thinks that way’ while in fact demonstrating that lots of people think that way. Pompous white folks inform nonwhite people that they are just being too uppity. Heterosexual people tell LGBQTA folks that they shouldn’t get so upset. Yes, sometimes this dismissal comes from people in the same class; I’ve had people with disabilities telling me that I’m just looking to get offended by Glee, for example. But, for the most part, it’s external.
And it’s yet another reminder of how the world views us. Our experiences are invalidated every time someone says ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about.’ We are reminded that we are worthless, that our opinions do not matter, every time someone says this. Go to the back of the bus, sit down, and shut up.
And, more to the point, it demonstrates a fundamental failure to engage with the critique. If the best you can come up with is ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about,’ you might want to reexamine your response to the critique. It might be that, well, frankly, you are offended by the critique and you’re looking for a way to erase it so that you don’t have to deal with it.