“I’ve never been to San Francisco, but I have an image in my mind from media,” says culture critic Caroline Siede (of The A.V. Club, among others), explaining the impact of popular culture, and by extension the importance of treating it critically. “If media is my only inroad to San Francisco and media is portraying San Francisco in a crazy way, that’s probably worth talking about. So for people whose only access to people of color or lots of women is through media, that is gonna kind of shape the way they see the world.”
As we covered last month in Part 1, a major reason art matters is that it can offer glimpses of possible selves, or help us develop empathy for others. And the vast majority of TV and film characters in whom we’re expected to see ourselves and each other are straight white men.
I love lots of stories about straight white men—but then, if I didn’t, I would like very little of mainstream media. And most of us don’t go to movies hoping to be bitterly disappointed. This isn’t just “also” true for professional critics; it’s especially true for them. They have to consume much more media than the rest of us. They don’t want any of it to suck.
So before moving on to Part Two, let’s spell this out: Criticizing the state of representation in popular culture isn’t about being anti-male or anti-white or anti-cisgender heterosexuality. It’s just about recognizing that those aspects of identity are not the “default” or baseline of the human condition, and that people who check off different boxes are no less interesting for it.
WE WILL NOT HAVE FEWER STORIES
“We ask for diversity all the time,” Siede points out. You can love high fantasy and gritty realism. You can love harrowing dramas and breezy comedies. Sometimes you’re happy with one of a hundred shows set in New York City, but sometimes a jaunt to Miami is nice too.
Everyone even pretty much agrees that diversity of characters is good. It’s only when diversity is explicitly interpreted to include not just personality and vocation, but also race and gender, that suddenly some people whine about the “PC police” or whatever. This inconsistency isn’t just ethically problematic; it’s creatively short-sighted. Embracing diversity of identities gives storytellers more material and more tools. Of The Wire, Siede adds:
If that show was about white suburban families in Baltimore, [you’d be] missing out. That’s a fine story to tell too, but the reason The Wire is good is that it was a story that hadn’t been told before, and it was a story that had to involve a lot of black characters. … [Story and representation are] not separate, in a way. It only helps.
Behind the camera, Community creator Dan Harmon has spoken about how a mandate to make his writers’ room half women, despite his initial indignation, proved to be “the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women. … I don’t have enough control groups to compare it to, but there’s just something nice about feeling like your writers’ room represents your ensemble a little more accurately, represents the way the world turns.”
In other words, “There is no down side to asking for more diversity,” Siede says. “We will not have fewer stories. We’ll in fact just have more interesting stories.”
STEERING THE TRAIN
Put another way, contrary to popular (mis)characterization, critics like Siede are most interested not in picking apart what others have already done, but in what might be done going forward:
I don’t actually think the role of a critic is for me to go to Joss Whedon and be like, remake Age of Ultron. Like I understand that the film is made and that it exists. I guess my hope would be to educate an audience on, if I happen to find anything troubling about that, here it is, and then the bigger hope would be that future filmmakers would become aware of this and not repeat those tropes. … Which is not to say that we should never watch Age of Ultron again.
Necessarily (to at least some degree), filmmakers and TV producers develop tunnel vision when they work. If you stop to hear every critique or glance at what everyone else is doing before you’re done writing your script or shooting your pilot, you’ll never finish. More problematically, wealthy white men in a pretty idiosyncratic industry can insulate themselves from the wider world without even meaning to. But that wider world shapes how we, the audience, perceive and process art.
For example, to many of us, yet another awful rape scene is exactly that, yet another. Maybe the episode recap about it in our Facebook newsfeed is right below yet another story about campus sexual assault. But maybe to showrunners neck-deep in production—who maybe aren’t in tune with a news cycle covering, say, Carry That Weight—it just seemed like the natural progression of their story. (All of this is a possible explanation, not an excuse.)
“A lot of times the problem is not even in the film itself,” Siede notes:
It’s in the larger context of “this is a trope that’s troubling,” and so, it is hard if you go to an individual filmmaker. They can be like, “Well, I don’t have this issue.” And it’s like “Yeah, but look at what you did in comparison to the past ten films that were made,” and that’s where the issue comes in. And I do think a lot of people push back, “Well, you know, I should just be responsible for myself, and this one piece of art I made.” Which is true.
Criticism, then, isn’t about treating any individual story or storyteller as a punching bag. It’s about continuing the conversation a story starts, or as Siede puts it, steering the train:
As a director [of college theatre] I would take a script, and I would analyze it and come up with my point of view … I’m engaging with the play and making specific choices about the play. I can’t just be like, “Everyone read words and like, do what you want to do.” As a director it’s my job to steer the train, in a way. And I think that that’s the same thing with criticism. I’m not making a film, but I’m sort of steering a potential train of how people can think about the film.
Critics have the luxury—and the responsibility—of looking at the big picture. In ways that storytellers aren’t necessarily expected to, critics like Siede can explain exactly why it’s important to measure representation. Or how you’re not a bad person for liking problematic movies. Or how a TV show that leaves much to be desired in its execution can still be lovable and laudable for its thematic content and ethical ambitions.
Criticism isn’t about poking holes in a story; it’s about taking seriously the idea that stories can profoundly affect our lives. (Plato respected art so much he overreacted and said in The Republic that it should only portray good people doing good deeds.) Criticism is a labor of love.
“I GUESS I JUST LIKE LIKING THINGS”
One of Community’s Christmas episodes is a riff on/takedown of Glee, with all of the characters somehow getting roped into musical numbers. And yet amid the, um, gleeful mockery, there was this grace note:
Abed’s defining trait is extreme self-awareness, not only of his own personality but of being in a TV show. Often this means he points out plot holes or recycled tropes. But Abed’s second most important trait is enthusiasm. He’s developed a critical awareness because he respects pop culture enough to have paid more attention to more of it than anyone else. Sound familiar?
“I guess what I want to point out about criticism is it’s not taking away any of these [stories],” Siede says. “I think people think, ooh, it’s taking it away from me … My intent is not to like, get movies shut down. It’s just to sort of draw these things out more.” She’s rooting for pop culture to be better, and by extension, for the world it shapes to be better. Crucially, she doesn’t let herself off the hook here:
I am in no way trying to say that I am above biases of our society. I was raised in this society. Of course I have sexist and racist thoughts. Like I try to push back against them, but it would be impossible to remove them … and my desire to fix them is personal as much as it is sort of societal.
Context goes both ways. Individual works and deeds shape the big picture, and the big picture shapes us right back. The conversation never ends; this train never stops. So personally I’m glad Siede’s here to help steer it.
Postscript: I swear she didn’t ask me to mention this, but if you like what you’ve read so far, you should know that Siede is writing episodic reviews of Supergirl for The A.V. Club.