I really don’t want to be the person who writes this piece. I try to be an optimist, to see the best in people. I try to catch myself when I find myself thinking less of someone because they like something I may not, or because they like something for different reasons than I do (so long as the thing they like isn’t harmful towards other people). I tell myself that people know why they like what they like, and that those reasons, no matter how inane I might find them, are completely valid. And for the most part, by the end of this, I believe I’ll still be largely that same person. I’m going to try and keep this to the ways that various fans, geeks, nerds, and adjacent dislike certain things.
I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate this since last week when the internet was still exploding over Captain America being a Hydra Agent. At least three times since that Wednesday, I started and deleted many different versions of an essay where I defend people’s right to be upset by the story while explaining that making people upset was the goal of the story. And not in a clickbait-y way; simply as a matter of good dramatic storytelling. I would go through the book, page by page, and explain how the story builds itself to the shocking reveal at the end, and how that twist sets up the conflict the rest of the story will resolve. That the point of the ending of Captain America #1 was to establish the inciting incident – to start the story. And I was halfway into that when I thought it would be a useless article – that anyone who read the book understood all of this and the upset turned into an uproar for different reasons. And the people riled up enough to send death threats were too stubborn to understand this, or don’t really have any interest beyond the high of being outraged. Nothing I could write would change that.
As I read more about the reasons people were calling for Nick Spenser’s head on a platter, I honed in on the anti-semitic complaints of the issue. So I rewrote that article with a greater focus on the difference between depiction and endorsement – that a depiction of violence or other negative things in media in not necessarily an endorsement of that behavior. I’d explain how Captain America being Nazi-adjacent is not an endorsement of Nazi ideology because that aspect of the character is framed in-universe as wrong. And I would go on to say that while it’s reasonable to be upset by certain gratuitous depictions of violence towards a certain group of people (See: fridging); the acknowledgement and depiction of evil people doing evil things is necessary to establish a villainous character and create conflict in a story. But this didn’t just feel obvious, I felt wrong criticizing people for being upset over imagery they believed to be anti-semetic. I didn’t want to be another guy mansplaining comics.
So I decided maybe this wasn’t something worth posting about, like most things, it’ll wear itself out quickly enough.
But over the last few days a number of things happened that had me reconsider. The first was Devin Faraci’s essay Fandom is Broken. I’m a big fan of Devin’s writing, so I thought that him weighing in on things was even more of a reason for me to not post anything. Devin had said everything I would’ve wanted to say, and probably more articulately than I could’ve. And while I thought the article was fair, accurate, and well argued; now it’s become just more fuel on the fire of fans reacting badly to things. Feeling like I had nothing to add to things, I didn’t respond to the article (until now), and just watched things play out.
Then, there was some more controversy surrounding the advertisements for X-Men: Apocalypse depicting the villain, Apocalypse, holding and choking one of the heroes, Mystique. I started up the essay about depiction vs. endorsement; adding to it how, while the ad wasn’t the image I would’ve gone for because there’s enough brutalization of women depicted in media as is, it works to establish the villain by having him harm one of the trilogy’s main heroic characters, whom also happens to be played by the film’s most bankable actress. The ad creates drama by playing off of empathy viewers of the previous films might have for Mystique. But again, I shelved it because I didn’t want to mansplain or tell people they couldn’t be upset for reasons.
The final thing that finally pushed me to write this didn’t come from a big internet controversy, it came from my Facebook feed. I got into an argument with a friend-of-a-friend over X-Men. In response to a meme my friend shared, I commented about ways I felt X-Men was lacking as a metaphor for civil rights. The friend-of-a-friend responded that X-Men doesn’t have civil rights themes, and I was “just wrong.” Frankly, I couldn’t believe someone could deny that X-Men didn’t have thematic elements regarding racial-politics, and tried to explain my perspective. We argued whether or not X-Men had thematic elements of racial politics for 14 hours (FOURTEEN HOURS!) before I found out that the other person, who I was arguing about themes with (FOR FOURTEEN HOURS!) didn’t actually know what a theme is. He was denying the presence of themes in X-Men because he couldn’t differentiate theme from plot. I spent FOURTEEN GODDAMN HOURS arguing about something with someone who had no idea what the argument was about. He was just being stubbornly dismissive that someone else tried to bring politics and “themes” into his story about “violence”. And just to keep me honest, here is a link to the full argument, edited only to protect the innocent.
Having to have this argument about something that should be obvious in the first place frustrated me; but finding out that the entire reason the other guy started it in the first place was because he actually had no idea how storytelling worked made me livid.
And that’s when I found my reason to finally write this rant. Because while there are plenty of completely reasonable articulate people who get upset by various things in media, and can explain their perspectives; I now believe that a majority, and the most extreme dissenters of any given story are angry simply for the reason that someone dared to try to tell a story they didn’t like.
These sorts of fans are people who, I want to assume for lack of either interest or education rather than ability, never saw below the surface of the stories they’re invested in. They are people who enjoy the fights just for the punching and could care less about who’s punching whom and why. These are people who like characters only when they can imagine a version of them they can most relate to regardless of how the characters are actually written. These are the people who defend “dumb action movies” that have violence purely for violence’s sake; or want conflict-less, drama-less stories because those don’t offer alternatives to the story they’ve already imagined for themselves. And, normally, that’s perfectly fine. I would hate myself if I said that any of those people are enjoying the wrong thing, or enjoying the right thing in the wrong way.
My objections come from those people having the nerve to prevent other people from telling or enjoying the stories they want to create or enjoy. This applies to Gamergaters who go into a frenzy whenever a woman has the gall to develop a video game about someone who isn’t a man with a gun, and to tumblrs who make a petition to fire a TV showrunner for daring to have a female character with a flaw. It’s people like these who don’t understand stories enough to separate what they enjoy or approve of from what has artistic merit. And that separation is exactly why every Film 101 class in America still teaches Birth of a Nation. It’s not because schools are trying to indoctrinate students into the KKK; it’s so they learn that even a movie as morally backwards as that one still has technical merit that makes it a well-constructed story in its medium. While people like that are free to like whatever they like, and probably know why they like what they like; they aren’t necessarily the people whose critical opinions matter.
I don’t want to say that just to be mean, or to justify getting a 4-year degree in Media Studies. Because getting a proper education isn’t necessary for learning how to be a good critic. All that’s really necessary to learn how to give meaningful criticism of art is to have an interest and passion for it that motivates you to explore that medium beyond what you’ve already been exposed to, including things you might not enjoy or agree with. And it’s by accepting the things you may not think you like, or agree with, as valid that you expand your horizon and learn how that art works. Do that enough and you won’t just learn how to like a bunch of new art, you’ll begin to understand how the art works to make you like it. With narrative art, that usually involves stuff regarding theme, tone, character motivation, and drama – not just plot.
The people I’ve been describing haven’t exposed themselves to the things they suspect they won’t like, so they have no way of really understanding why they like what they like. They are unable to go deeper than the shallowest aspects of any story, and stubbornly grab onto those things because that’s all they’ve got. And when someone disturbs that surface by trying to change the things underneath; or even implying there is stuff underneath, they react defensively to project those fragile surface elements. Again, that’s no excuse to tell someone they’re liking something “wrong,” but likewise, they have no claim to criticize the people creating that art for working on levels they refuse to comprehend. They have the right to their opinions, but they don’t get to be a critic. And when people try to get them to see another nature of that art they enjoy, they try to hide behind “the death of the author” without acknowledging that before the author “died,” they carefully arranged elements of that story including things like tone, theme, and metaphor to convey their ideas and tell the story they wanted to tell – that the author’s story still exists; even if it doesn’t invalidate someone else’s interpretation of it.
Now, just to clear up a few things. I do not want to equivocate Gamergate, which is an actual hate group who coordinate to repeatedly harass and threaten people who disagree with them; and people who complain on twitter and maybe organize around a ridiculous hashtag. One of those is clearly worse than the other.
I also want to clear up that there is a difference between saying that someone shouldn’t make art how they want to, and suggesting that people make more varied, different art. Arguing that any medium or artistic would could attempt to be more diverse and inclusive, or just different in any which way, is almost always a good thing. Doing that promotes a greater number and variety of stories; and even inspires people to create their own art. That’s wonderful. What I’m against is people who organize around censoring or destroying work they disagree with. It’s the difference between a boycott and a book burning. It’s the difference between asserting your own agency and taking away someone else’s.
In other words, make all the Hatreds or Coffee-Shop AU fanfics you want; just don’t say that someone else shouldn’t make their own. Especially if you haven’t experienced something like it already.