I feel like being a critic or a reviewer of anything pop culture related has always been a hard job. Especially when it comes to large news outlets, pup-culture criticism and reviews have always taken a back seat to politics and larger news stories. In the past couple years, a lot of newspapers and websites have dramatically scaled down their review sections in favor of covering more political news stories, which is understandable in this volatile climate, but I think people forget just how important pop culture criticism can be for the wider population of fans or future fans.
Being a pop culture reviewer can at times seem like a daunting job when you start seeing the kinds of backlash reviewers get for daring to voice any sort of opinion about a specific franchise. Marvel is one of the recent examples, with each movie garnering a wide array of opinions, some of them toxic and others not. We had boycotts of Captain Marvel and fights over Wonder Woman and Avengers: Endgame. In addition to this, we have the anime and comics fandom that have shipping wars, arguments over the opinions on Goblin Slayer and Rising of the Shield Hero, and comic book fans trying to gatekeep women and minorities out of the fandom. It’s an interesting time to be a reviewer right now, and I think a lot of writers wonder with every post whether they’ll get barraged with hate.
While I think the climate of pop culture reviews and criticism has definitely changed over the years–especially with the rise of social media–where there has been art there have always been critics of some form or another. But what I think has changed is the fans and how much of fandom has become tied to the creation of individual identity and pride.
Cornel Sandvoss, author of “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture,” defines fandom as “the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text.”(32) The key word being “emotionally involved” here. I think there’s a prevalence of fans tying their identities and giving way more emotional weight to fandom than ever before, which when it comes to interactions with criticisms of their particular fandom can create a volatile situation. In a lot of ways this depends on the person, how they construct their identity, and their level of emotional maturity, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for how our culture has reformed groups and fandom around social media and the kind of limitless connectability it gives us.
Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, editors of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, 2e, point out that “Being a fan may be as important to one’s community memberships as one’s sense of self.”(11) And as I said above, I think this is very true, especially in our interconnected world of social media and fandom groups. When someone has access to so many people of like minds and interests, it can create this echo-chamber environment that can eventually turn into segregated groups, even breaking down further into groups within a particular fandom. In-group-out-group mentality has been a prevalent psychological phenomena since basically the dawn of humanity. We instinctively look to group ourselves together with like-minded people and form categories in our minds of the communities or tribes we encounter in our everyday lives. Race, class, cultural heritage, age, religion are just some of the major groupings we have formed based on more concrete aspects of identity. But over time this grouping has extended towards interests, hobbies, and popular culture at large. And while most of the time this is okay, some of the time the formation of these group mentalities comes at the expense of excluding others. A group’s identity may in fact be formed in part by who it excludes as much as by who it includes. As Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington point out, “Many dismissive representations of given fan cultures are interfandom discourses driven by fans seeking to enforce lines of demarcation and distinction between themselves and other fans…” (5) These imaginary boundaries are where we see the most trouble as fans try and maintain the clear demarcations of their group in an ever-changing cultural landscape.
I think that’s where some of the hate of criticism comes into play. Journalists and critics are often seen as outsiders to certain fan groups, intruding on a realm of fandom that they might not be fully steeped in. But how much of this is an attack against journalism and how much of it is people feeling insecure about their own opinions and place in the sphere of fandom? Esther Rosenfield wrote a pretty interesting article for Medium called “On Letting People Enjoy Things” where she makes the claim that “fans of the world’s most popular media are intensely insecure in their fandom.” I think, in a way, this has some merit to consider. Just how many fans are at that teens to twenty-something age where they are still trying to navigate through a formative stage in their lives to cement who they want to be in the future? Combine a not-yet-solidified identity with the uncertain future of the current political and social politics of this time with the various identity politics social media creates, and I think we can begin to see how Rosenfield may be onto something in this instance. Rosenfield also makes the point that “the notion that a negative review could make someone feel bad for liking a movie says less about the review than it does about the person reading it. It indicates to me that they want to like a movie and not think too deeply about why they like it, out of fear that introspection would lead to them not liking it anymore.”
And I think that’s what reviewers and critics provide: an introspective look at how a piece of media both fits into the pop culture sphere and how it reflects the dominating opinions and social discourse of the time. Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote an interesting article for Vox titled “Why Cultural Criticism Matters” in which she says “the role of a critic is to pull apart the work, to delve into the marrow of it, to figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves. You can love a work and think its politics are deeply problematic; you can believe something is terrible yet offers some accidentally acute insights about the way the world works.” This is what a lot of great reviewers strive to do with their writing, and what I have been trying to accomplish with my blog up to this point. However, I think there has been a lot of disheartening conversations happening around criticism in general.
A great example of this comes from a meme that’s been making the rounds for a while, Adam Ellis’ comic “let people enjoy things,” which has become a way for fans to silence criticism of their favorite things. The comic was originally about how the people of nerdom hate on those who like watching football like it’s a stupid passtime. But what it has turned into after fans have cut away the top panel is a way to say to critics and reviewers “you are not allowed to not like things.” The very act of not liking something or even being indifferent to it has become a fandom faux-pas. Constance Grady supports this in her article for Vox titled “How ‘let people enjoy things’ became a fight against criticism.” In it she explores the reactionary history of fandom, using the Rock vs Pop music feud that has been around since 2004, wherein fans of Rock music would say it is far superior to Pop music in every way. It created this opinion that everything that is popular with the masses is bad, something that fans picked up on and used to harass other fans of popular culture like the harassment many Twilight fans faced for simply liking the franchise. But now that has flipped in the fan consciousness. Instead of hating on mass popular culture, the fans who were tired of all the hate going around have flipped and said that thoughtful critiques about popular culture aren’t needed or wanted anymore, and any kind of analysis is off limits now.
I think some of this has to do with the rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. The people who have felt the most victimized by fans of popular culture are now trying to carve out a space for themselves in the mainstream. Many of them are still in the mindset that their fandom is still on the fringes and may feel threatened by the surge of new fans into their group. The process of gatekeeping, creating demarcations in their fandom, and harassing those who have differing opinions or don’t fit their mode of a fan is a sign of how the world of fandom and culture is changing. Those who want to hold onto the past are often at odds with those who want to move forward, and a lot of the time we see journalists and critics caught in the middle. Rosenfield seems to agree when she says, “They parry the childhood fear of being bullied for liking nerd stuff into the suggestion that those bullies are still out there, waiting to pounce, and they take the form of everyone who dares to not like the IP in question.”
Silencing any form of criticism will eventually begin to negatively impact the growth of popular culture as a whole. Grady makes the point that “We need to be able to call attention to the negative in order to recognize the positive. By noticing and then analyzing the negative, our entire understanding of a work of art becomes clearer and stronger.” Not only do we come to understand a work of art better, but creators of popular culture also begin to see what is wanted or needed in the current market and so turn their focus to those aspects just like the criticism against the prevalence of straight white men in comics has led to creation of a greater amount of diverse stories and movies. Critiques can lead to change and a greater introspection into our own lives and culture, and maybe that’s what some people fear.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
- Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated Word, 2e Ed. by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (includes article below)
- “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture” by Cornel Sandvoss
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