This is a three-part series. There are already several good posts on this outside of Be Young & Shut Up. Most of them have to do with people contending with enjoying problematic media. That conversation comes up whenever a beloved piece of media comes under fire. However, I’ve yet to see a post that addresses how to approach media critically from the get-go, so here’s my version.
For Part 2 of this series: How to Create Responsibly
For part 3 of this series: How to Critique Responsibly
Know that almost all media has problems
It’s hard to find something that doesn’t. The problems will arise in a lot of ways: misrepresentation and stereotyping, offhand offensive remarks, erasure. In a future post, I will talk about how to create media responsibly, but for now, let’s talk about how it’s really hard to be 100% unproblematic. This may make you feel some empathy for creators who shoulder the responsibility to not fuck up, and that’s okay as long as you’re willing to feel greater empathy for those who are also misrepresented, stereotyped, and erased.
Almost all media has problems because absolutely everyone has problems. Our creative endeavors, our humor, our ideas—all of these are indicative of the people who put them forth into the world, and those people are indicative of the society we live in. So sometimes, one or two messed up things they’ve internalized will trickle into their work and upset people. Your favorite movie is not exempt. If someone is upset with your favorite movie, don’t act as though it is. Listen and figure out why. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to like it. But don’t turn a blind eye to its problems, especially major ones. Respectfully acknowledge the harm it has done, and the degree to which it has done it.
Look for themes and trends
This step is less intuitive for people who aren’t familiar with analyzing media, but for the record, I don’t mean this. What I mean is, if you accept what I previously stated, that media is indicative of our society, relate themes in media back to the world we live in. Acknowledge common tropes and turn them into questions. Why is it that in horror movies, the most sexual woman almost always dies, but the virgin comes away unscathed? What’s up with the black best friend? Why is the strong female character not quite there yet? If the film is about war, what is it trying to say about it? And if it’s about love, what does it want you to take away from that? You don’t have to have answers to any of these questions, but being able to ask them is recognizing the influences behind every piece of media, which is an important step to consuming it consciously.
Know the difference between critique vs. censorship
This is so 101, I kept wondering whether to put it in here. But so many people have trouble differentiating the two, that cries of censorship occur all the time. It so often happens when people assert that their right to free speech should impede others’ right to free speech. For anyone who is confused, critique does not seek to stamp out free speech. It only exists to point to something and say, “Hey, that’s fucked up.” Critique exists to hate on the status quo, and push for a better status quo. Critique will never be satisfied (that’s the importance in its role), but it doesn’t mean you can’t be. Know that free speech doesn’t automatically make something right. Know that an appeal to free speech doesn’t protect hate speech. Know that free speech doesn’t protect you from criticism. And understand that by having a problem with a piece of media, you are not, in any way, censoring it.
Minority groups are minorities because they don’t have a say
Media is marketed to and created for the majority group with the assumption that minorities will consume it also (mostly because there isn’t much else). Keep in mind that minority groups will consume media differently than majority groups. In media, they are the ones most often snubbed, misrepresented, stereotyped, dehumanized, made the butt of jokes, and turned into props. They are often the ones without names, back stories, and dimensional emotions. In real life, there is a long standing tradition of subjugation, hatred, and violence toward minority groups. Historically, minorities have often had to band together to demand respect and equal representation, and historically those demands fell on deaf ears for a very long time before any kind of lasting change happened. The trend continues to this day.
Understand intent vs. impact
One of these is really important in media crit. The other one is not. Can you guess which? Lots of times when media is under fire for being socially regressive, creators will come out with a half apology, which fans are often blindly willing to accept. They’ll say that they never intended for their comic/TV show/music/film/book/article/tweet to be read this way. I get it. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. And when anyone calls something racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, or anything else, it feels like slapping a BAD GUY sticker on whatever it is. And creators of socially regressive media often don’t see themselves this way so the accusation is confusing and startling. They see themselves as good, hardworking people, just trying to create something that other people find cool. Maybe they actually have a pretty good understanding of social inequalities, or diverse friendships. Their fans rally behind them: “They’re good guys, really. I met them at a convention once and they were sweet as can be. They would never tweet that thing about rape and actually mean it!”
That’s not the point. No one is saying you’re a GOOD GUY or a BAD GUY. In fact, I don’t care about who you are. I’m sure you’re a wonderful person who says hi to the neighbors and loves your grandma, but I don’t have enough energy to investigate this. What I do know, is that if you create media that impacts people in a bad way, you need to be held accountable. I can’t let you off the hook just because I like you. At the end of the day, impact is far more important because entertainment is a powerful tool, and creating negative social impact contributes to the already huge load of shit that disadvantaged people have to deal with all the time.