On the Dangers of Rejecting Criticism
With Game of Thrones at its controversial end, a strange trend has come to its defense
(Game of Thrones Spoiler Free)
So, I want to join the masses and rant a bit about Game of Thrones. Well, something tangential to Game of Thrones. Actually, it has nothing directly to do with the show, per se, but throughout this season there have been reactions to it with a recurring theme. Throughout this recent season, there has been a trend I’ve seen among several people, both those I know and those I don’t, critics and non-critics, film and television professionals, and normies.
I want to talk about criticism and the dismissal of criticism, and why the latter is a disturbing trend that needs to be stopped.
I have actually talked about criticism, particularly in film and television, before with an angle that touches on many of the things that will be briefly mentioned in this piece. For more on the differences between critics and the average audience member that can create disparities in reception, you can read “Critical Failure: Why Audiences Might Not Like What Film Critics Say”.
You may have noticed at some point over the past month or so that many people have been disappointed with Game of Thrones this season for a variety of reasons, ranging from the critically-minded to the absolutely sexist and moronic.
What you might not have seen, depending on your friend groups, is a defense of the show. There were a lot of people defending a specific moment in the show, sure, but I mean defending the season as a whole, each episode as a consumable product.
And I’ve seen a whole lot of things like this:
“It’s just fanboys pissed they didn’t get their ending.”
“Haters gonna hate.”
“People make dumb decisions in real life, deal with it!”
“What, so you’re an expert on writing now?”
And some of these comments have even come from people who are, ostensibly, critics! People who identify, either through self-publishing or a paid job, as someone who consumes media and comments on it to a level of “criticism”.
Me, I wouldn’t call myself a critic. I personally feel, at best, a reviewer, someone who occasionally consumes a form of media (most often film, television, or theatre) and writes thoughts about the product. I don’t think of myself as someone who consumes enough media or has enough knowledge to really be labelled a “critic”.
Which is what I feel a critic needs to have. Whatever product you’re critiquing, to truly be a critic, I feel you need to consume enough of the product to be able to know what works and what doesn’t work, how to notice flim-flammery and flawed foundations, what is skill and what is luck, and you need to have knowledge of what goes into that art form. Is the acting bad, or is the writing dragging performances? Is the directing the weak link? How’s the cinematography? Or with music, is the mixing a problem? The guitar out of tune? The singer straining? The drummer off-beat? And so forth.
Now, when it comes to film and television, the age of the internet has allowed the lines of what makes a critic and who qualifies as one to become very blurry and permeable. No longer are we in the days of Siskel and Ebert and Roeper being the only people you really knew who reviewed films. Anyone can start a blog or a podcast and air their grievances, and if enough people give them a big enough continuous platform, they’re now seen as a critic!
So, certainly, it has become a more muddled mosh pit of voices to wade through in search of quality criticism. And, certainly, there is no objectivity to criticism in art. A book like Moby Dick can go unread and unliked in its lifetime until some old white dudes pick it up and declare it LITERATURE. A painter scoffed at for bucking trends like Van Gogh can become one of the most beloved artists in the Western world. And films that get slammed by critics upon their release, like The Shining (which was massively panned as an adaptation and a film by itself), can be reviewed under a different eye and different time and found to be masterpieces. Even the aforementioned Ebert had to later rescind his original negative critique of the film.
So, criticism is clearly a melange of subjective opinions coming from wildly different backgrounds and knowledge-pools that can be affected by time, experience, and even society’s mass opinions. Then why should we care what critics say?
In the past decade or two in particular, as Hollywood has delved more and more into the sacred texts of nerddom, creating films and series based on pre-existing works, we have seen an increase in a type of reaction. The toxic fanbase reaction. The sense of entitlement, of ownership of a property because it has some importance or meaning to us. While some people simply decide to craft their own versions of the story in fanfiction or even their own movies, others decide that This Is Wrong And Must Change. Petitions are forged, insults are slung, death threats are issued. The interpretation of that work may have legitimately hurt you. The last chapter may have made you angry. But it is what it is, and it can’t be changed. (Unless you are the Sonic movie that caved to these demands.)
We’ve all seen it outside of Game of Thrones. See the reactions to The Last Jedi and The Phantom Menace with actors being chased out of their profession and losing the ability to be members of the public. See the vitriol and review-bombing of Captain Marvel before people had even seen the film, forcing Rotten Tomatoes to change how it does business. Even before the internet’s globalization, petitions were printed out and passed around when Michael Keaton was cast in the titular role for Batman. A similar thing is currently happening to Robert Pattinson. In nerd culture, the toxic possessiveness of another person’s or people’s work is rampant. And, certainly, it can drown out legitimate criticism. For example, I absolutely loved The Last Jedi. But, I am aware of people who aren’t sexist, toxic gasbags who found the film less than desirable. And when you’re on the side of the fence with the aforementioned gasbags, you can get brushed off and painted as “just one of them”.
Which is the flipside of that toxicity. A toxic rejection of criticism. Just think back to the toxic fan groups. What do you think their reactions are when critics slam a movie they love? Like, say, The Justice League or Alita: Battle Angel? “Critics are dumb! Critics are just being paid by [rival film studio]!” And then talk can move into SJWs and politics and death threats again.
So it worries me to see people actively rejecting criticism, rejecting points about form and story and quality, discussions about ways the art form and products can be improved, because I feel it bolsters this flip-side of the toxicity coin. It diminishes meaningful criticism, whether you find it good or bad, criticism brought on by a wealth of experience and knowledge of personal taste, and gives it to the masses. And the masses can be overtaken by vocal, vicious minorities, causing civil discussion and analysis to be thrown out the window. It is no longer a conversation.
You are certainly free to enjoy things that are critically panned, or found to be universally terrible. I know I do. When it comes to books, for example, I tend to prefer easy pop science fiction/fantasy to dense, rich texts that can be a struggle, however nice a struggle, to get through. And look at the weird cult enjoyment of The Room, often considered to be one of the worst films to be widely released/acknowledged. Contrariwise, you can feel free to hate something critically praised or nearly universally beloved. I can rant about how I think Pulp Fiction is overrated, how the twist in Fight Club shatters my ability to suspend my disbelief, how The Lord of the Rings trilogy got worse with each film and those flaws became only more apparent in The Hobbit trilogy. Or my well-known distaste for Mulholland Drive. I know these are unpopular and largely disagreed with opinions. And I’m fine with that.
But let’s not be so quick to dismiss criticism in its entirety. When even people who are not toxic and not to the level of knowledge and consumption that is perhaps required for “criticism” get whiplash from speedy pacing, confused by scenes lacking character insight, baffled by a lack of comprehension of scene progression and set geography that allows characters to seemingly teleport magically, that might be a sign that there is legitimate criticism to be had. It’s easier, for example, for a trained magician to notice the tricks of another magician. If several people who have only been to a few magic shows notice how the card got pocketed, that magician probably needs to practice a lot more. Those less-frequent/less-education/normal viewers and reviewers may not have the experience or jargon necessary to clearly explain that view, though. They may not be able to really clarify WHY the thing feels off… they just know it does.
So I encourage people to find critics who write things you can enjoy. Who write things that challenge your own likes and dislikes. Who inform you in a way to learn to become more critical yourself. And maybe even those who you disagree with at almost every turn. Criticism of art will get us better art. It will give the audience creators who strive beyond mediocrity and spectacle. It will force creative teams to pay more attention to the flaws, and hopefully, the stories will constantly improve. And the application of critical thinking goes beyond art. It can even improve politics and the ruts we get into there, destroying the isolationism and bubbles of sameness we trap ourselves in.
(For my personal suggestions for film and television criticism, here’s someone intelligent I actually frequently butt heads with on opinions — Corey Craft — and for those who like really in-depth analyses with flavor commentary, here’s a recently Hugo-nominated video essayist I find myself frequently enjoying and learning from — Lindsay Ellis.)
[EDIT: With respect to the process of accepting legitimate criticism and working to be better, it’s been pointed out to me that people with legitimate criticism felt the need to sign the recent Game of Thrones petition, so I wanted to clarify my stance on those specifically. Petitions, as a tool of criticism, are too broad to address specific concerns regarding art work. Their too-broad stances allow for legitimate concerns to be drowned out by toxic elements. My suggestion is to, instead, boost the curated critics I’ve suggested you collect, the ones whose stances you agree with. Share the articles and columns that address the concerns. Make sure those critical voices get out. My suggestion is not necessarily the best one, or even the right one, but it’s the one that I feel is the most capable of identifying and addressing specific concerns without elevating harmful aspects.]
Sometimes, you can just enjoy things, whether they’re perfect or not, or even good or not. But no one, whether you loved it, hated it, didn’t watch it, whatever, should be discouraging criticism and brushing away thoughtful critique. It is an ill-tended garden, and I think it would be better if we all pitched in with it. That’s how improvement is made. Maybe we’d get fewer petitions and threats being passed around that way.