Protecting What You Love: On the Difference Between Criticism, Rage, and Vilification

Criticism is part of how fandom functions. But there is a substantial difference between thoughtful discussion and hyper-fueled teeth-gnashing destructor mode. And when that sort of festering anger gets leveled at people over making a lukewarm piece of continuity? It’s ugly.

And it’s not what fandom is about.

Full disclosure: We’re all capable of getting a little cranky. When things are dear to you, you want to protect them, and when something bugs you, you want to speak up. So I’m certainly not coming at this from a place of innocence, pretending that I have some special high-ground on the subject. But it is important to talk about what we criticize and how we do it, and remember that while we can’t be perfect people, we can certainly try to keep the water clear.

David Gerrold (who is known for penning the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” among other accomplishments) went to Facebook recently to discuss his issues with fans who take creatives to task as “the enemy” when those people don’t handle properties the way they’d like. The point he was trying to make is that creation is a complicated process, and no one sets out to make something horrible. Getting up in arms about this writer or that director as though they’ve personally slighted you and everything that matters to you is not only ridiculous, but simply isn’t constructive or productive for either the fan community or the creatives being taken to task. It’s fine not to like things. But it’s wrong to spew vitriol simply because something you normally like is currently not your cuppa tea.

The dividing line between criticism and keyboard-smashing rage is hard for some to parse out. And this is especially true because criticisms can get heated, particularly when the critique is centered on a group of people or subject that is often mistreated by fiction. And the fact is, angry criticism is not automatically bad criticism. Angry criticism might lack clarity on occasion, but that doesn’t make it incorrect by any means. However, the point of criticism is to direct our attention to places where the material might need work or deeper consideration—ways in which it’s perpetuating regrettable patterns and stereotypes or contributing to unfortunate trends, or simply falling down on its message and mission as a work of art, whether we’re talking about a Batman comic or a Virginia Woolf novel.

And criticism is not out of place in pop culture, no matter what anyone says. If I see one more internet comment telling someone to “relax, it’s just a tv show/movie/book/comic… why can’t you just have fun and stop dissecting everything?” then I’m going to keyboard-rage-smash until the internet turns into all-caps letter soup. See? When other people refuse to engage in a constructive manner and choose to deride helpful discourse, it just creates more anger, and then I’m suddenly becoming Strong Bad.

Just because something is meant to be fun and is intended to be enjoyed by a large percentage of people does not mean that it is above (or below) criticism. In fact, criticism becomes even more relevant when a piece of media enjoys widespread popularity because it then occupies such a substantial space in our culture. Not everyone will get to Berlin and see the Ishtar Gate—hell, they might not even see pictures of it in their history books… but chances are they’ve seen one Star Wars film. Whether or not someone thinks these popular stories deserve deeper treatment is a pointless argument; they exist in our very bones and won’t be removed.

And that’s appropriate because even the most base pop culture is capable of informing us about the world at large. Watching Star Wars opens viewers up to mythological structure and art and symphonic music. Batman comics harken back to film noir and Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Lord of the Rings can teach us about Viking folklore and World War I and linguistics. Pop culture helps to determine how we access our history, our humanity. Refusing to take it apart the same way we do “high art” is effectively declaring what we enjoy in common society is bankrupt of larger context, and that artistic value only existed in some glorious past. Remember, Shakespeare was writing his day’s equivalent of the blockbuster—he had no qualm with being a pop culture poet.

So, yes: criticism is a good thing in the world of pop culture, and has an important place in fandom at large. Then what exactly is Gerrold upset over?—it’s the keyboard-smashing rage. Rage that typically consists of YOU RUINED XYZ FOREVER AND I HATE YOU AND EVERYONE ELSE SHOULD HATE YOU TOO, YOU ARE BAD YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD. It’s not exactly hard to recognize this as unhelpful. It contributes nothing worthwhile to any kind of discussion, and focuses on one—or several—specific human beings who are the targets of one’s ire. There is no constructive point to this; it’s an emotional reaction to having something that you love taken apart and rearranged in ways that seem inauthentic to you. And it’s a perfectly fair emotional reaction to have, of course, because that’s how emotions work. But this argument can get particularly nasty in fandom because fans claim a certain level of ownership over their obsessions. Not literal ownership, mind you, but perhaps a spiritual sort.

We’ve all had that feel, bro. This is not my Superman! That is not my Tolkien! They are not my Avengers!

J.J. Abrams is nothing but lens flare!

Brannon Braga knows nothing!

You are betraying the very soul of that thing I love!

But frankly, the worst case scenario here is simply deciding not to engage with said property until it morphs into something that excites you again. Outside of that, it seems as though the majority of the rage is directed toward the idea that other fans will come to the fold through this new version of your fandom and “not understand” what it’s about. But there are several problems that way of thinking in the first place:

  1. There are plenty of already-existing fans who do not share your opinions on the fandoms and things that you love. Just because you may think that the intentions you’re perceiving behind a work are correct doesn’t mean that the guy sitting next to you gives a hill of beans for your thoughts about the human metaphors implicit in Vulcan society. He was only in it for the space guns and cool prosthetics. And the lady sitting across from you was only in it because it was one of the few shows on television that featured people who looked like her. You all have different reasons for being here. You are not the only fan of anything (unless it’s a comic that you created and have never shown to anyone…)
  2. Many fans will go back to the thing that you love once they are introduced by way of the Shiny New Version. LOTR book sales rocketed when The Lord of the Rings became a film trilogy. Lots of New Who fans went back to watch classic Doctor Who. The fans who don’t go back into the original material? They’re not the kind of fan you’re likely to see eye-to-eye with anyway. If they do, you get new friends to talk about The Silmarillion with. Everyone wins.
  3. Conversely, the love you have for anything is not negated or lessened by it no longer being the most-current and/or popular version.

But maybe none of this is the point. Maybe you’re just upset with the people in charge for creating something that didn’t grab you. To which the answer is simple: Disliking something is fine. Hating a person, a human being you’ve never met, for no reason other than the creative choices they made? Even if they’re weren’t great creative choices? That’s pretty extreme. And openly attacking that human being? That’s unnecessary and damaging to all fandom communities. Choices themselves can be critiqued. But that person was doing their job, trying to make something that they were hoping you’d like. Regardless of how strong your feelings are, they do not deserve that level of fury and contempt directed right at them.

I should mention that this goes in both directions. Creators are fans, too, and sometimes, they don’t take rationally to any manner of criticism. Sometimes they turn around and attack the fan community for not being of one mind with their decisions. In this case, they need to remember that a) they will never get everyone to love the things they make; b) there might be some good points in outside criticism that could be valuable to them going forward; and c) once they step into the role of creator, they are now acting as a professional and should behave professionally toward fans and critics alike. Unless you are being outright harassed or abused, there is no call for deriding people who have opinions on your work. It is the nature of the beast.

We can’t help caring, and it’s all done out of love, some might say. But what we forget is that love isn’t only ever a good thing. Sometimes acting out of love can be destructive.

Fandom can make heroes out of all of us—lead people to start charities, form friendships, fight for change. And if your forays into fandom have led you in that direction, then that love is doing well for you. But if you find yourself maligning others in the effort to express how much you care, in order to prove that the ways in which you care are more or better than anyone else’s… then maybe that love isn’t helping you out so much. Maybe it’s time to consider what you’re actually bringing to the table. Claiming ownership over something also means being a caretaker. But your caretaking duties are not to the story itself—they’re to the people in your community.

Because you can’t safeguard stories, really: they’re made up of ideas and ideas are fluid. But you can safeguard people.

Irritation is understandable, of course; the entertainment industry at large is a trend-driven monster and often doses us with much-of-the-same. It feels good to complain sometimes, but it’s not worth anyone’s fury. At best, it is worth our well-considered critique. Our disappointment. Possibly even our dismissal. And none of that amounts to actively trying to hurt another person, regardless of their perceived mistakes. Trolls will do what they do, but no one is going to be fooled into finding their antics relevant or impactful, or smart, or cool. If anything, those “us against them” tactics are far sadder than a failed first season of television, or an over-simplified reboot. It makes it hard for fans with different tastes to unabashedly like what they like, and harder for others to criticize the work in a meaningful way.

So do fandom a favor: save your ire for plotholes and stereotypes and bad movie science. Debate with care and never forget that you are talking to and about other people. Contribute, rather than detract and threaten. And remember that even if you feel a certain amount of ownership over the stories that move you, that doesn’t give you leave to vilify anyone. Fandom should be the best kind of playground, not a never-ending game of King of the Mountain.

Emmet Asher-Perrin actually doesn’t get why lens flare became the worst of cinema offenses. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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