How do you balance criticism of something (or acknowledging its weaknesses) with your appreciation for it?
I liked the Transformers movie, on the whole… but I still left yelling “Why did the black robot have to die?” Thinking about the racist, sexist stuff in the movie didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it… but it did make me sad afterward.
I liked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and, indeed, the entire series)… but I still spent a fair amount of time wincing and making faces. Lily reads as the “Valentine” of the series… an object onto which all of the males projected virtues (intelligence, potions ability, goodness, empathy), but not a character in the same way all of her contemporaries (James, Sirius, Lupin) were. She has very few lines, and very little depth… in complete contrast to the layered, complex approach taken with other characters. (Even Winky has some depth to her. And lines.)
I like World of Warcraft, but I’m still (vastly) annoyed that the darkest human you can make is kind of a light coffee color, and none of the dark skin tones look right. (They don’t even shadow correctly.) It makes me roll my eyes that the same set of armor (ostensibly plate armor) magically shrinks from a full-sized and bulky looking armor set to a dainty metal bra and panties.
I like the way it looks. It was actually one of my favorite armor sets for one of my characters.
I just wish I had a choice for it to look different.
(And it’d be really nice if people would stop insisting that this was normal and good.)
I love comic books. I like superheroes. I even like superheroines in tight costumes. (Starfire was my favorite Titan when I first started reading, and I totally have a soft spot for her even now.) But it bothers me all to hell when I see yet another strong, smart woman reduced to a pair of tits and an ineffective superpower. I could hardly read the last Green Lantern graphic novels I read (Green Lantern Corps trades #1 and 2), because every time I looked, Soranik Natu was contorted into an uncomfortable, revealing position (in stark contrast to the male characters of the series, who were portrayed relatively neutrally). Her outift is the only one that rips (constantly), and all of the violence she experiences has a definite sexualized bondage feeling to it.*
I could keep going. I like feminism, I identify as feminist, and I truly enjoy the feminist blogosphere… but good gracious we have our problems. Same with the rest of the communities connected with my identity markers. Same with my communities of affinity.
So how do you walk that line?
I personally try for specificity. I write long and involved posts, I make long and involved speeches, and I spend a lot of time gesturing vaguely into the air or drawing diagrams that only make sense to me.
Somehow, though, it always seems to come out sounding negative. This is a problem for me personally, I think, because I tend to find myself genuinely frustrated that something I love isn’t better at being what I know it could be. (See also: the US, feminism, my job, and just about everything I come in contact with. Does that make me an optimist?) And because of that, I focus really tightly on the things that are not fitting, and how they could be made to fit better, rather than focusing on the things that were really good. Which sounds negative.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Any criticism sounds harsh, no matter how nicely worded. Particularly when the subject in question is often subjected to less-specific/constructive criticism (“Comic books are dumb!” “Feminists just hate men!” “You’re all just jealous!”) and/or the criticizer comes from a marginalized place.
Then, of course, you get the socialization issues… a woman criticizing is “nagging” or “complaining” or “whining”… because that’s what women do. We’re supposed to be nice, and to make sure to say complimentary things even when we’re bothered. And yes, many people just have a hard time understanding why someone would want to dwell on the two or three things that felt wrong to them instead of the dozens of things that they love(d).
To complicate the picture even more, there’s usually an inside/outside issue as well. Boundary maintenance has to be done. Criticizing something internally is one thing, but criticism where outsiders can hear is a completely different thing. And how much should you shut up so that the movement (or club, or guild, or field, or family…) doesn’t look bad? At what point do constructive criticism and honest disagreements turn into pointless blogspats or empty yelling matches?
All of these issues flow down from macro level group issues (electoral politics, international issues, grand philosophy, your agency’s board meeting) to the most mundane micro conversations. I started this post weeks ago, when Breviloquence commented that it sounded like I didn’t like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at all. The things I chose to comment on were the representation of Lily, the pacing, the details I’d wished to see… instead of how cool it was and how I didn’t think it was going to take that shape and gee, wasn’t that a neat scene?
I paused, for a while.
On the one hand, I thought my delight was obvious. I sat still for six hours and read it all the way through. I kept poking him about this bit or that bit. I qualified my statements left right and center with “even though it’s a minor point…” and “it was nice the way it was but..” and “while I understand that it was narratively necessary…” and I laughed and nodded and agreed with the bits he pointed out. And I perked up for days afterward with a “what did you think of this?” and “wasn’t it so cool when…?” So why did I sound negative?
On the other hand, I know that I am more comfortable offering criticism than squealing like a fangirl most of the time. I’m so used to having to justify why I like (or don’t like) things that it’s easier to stick to the facts, or at least the things I can argue with. If my analysis is strong, it doesn’t matter whether you think I’m a sellout for liking that character.
And I feel like I’ve been having this conversation my whole life. My parents say the same thing about my commentary. My ex boyfriend said it all the time. Why are you so negative? I thought you liked that sort of thing.
So I’d go in circles… but I did like it! But this was what bugged me. But I liked it! But it was wrong. But I really did enjoy watching it! Except for that one part…
And as I thought about it, it became clear that there were a lot of dimensions to the conversation that were playing out. It’s not just the way I said things, it’s the way I said things as a person with my identity markers in this particular context. And… as long as I’m aware of that, it’s okay. Not great, but understandable.
So how do you walk that line?
*Do note: I have nothing against bondage. I rather like being tied up. I have a problem with bondage when it goes from ‘valiant green lanterns exploring a black hole’ to ‘helpless female green lantern in hypersexualized bondage’ without a blink, in something that isn’t supposed to be porny. Nothing else about it is erotic, the banter is actually pretty damn good, and the art is lovely. But she looks absolutely positively out of place, and I hate it. I wish I’d bought it so I could scan those particular pages to show you.