I’m not interested in re-litigating the tempest in a teapot that was Stranger Things backlash backlash, because while I did have the temerity to think critically about the show during its first flush of honeymoon, I wasn’t particularly astounded by the response. After decades writing about television—and usually specifically those shows built to create the most intense, diverse fanbases—there is very little that surprises me in those situations. You make the call, every time, whether the fallout will be worth it, and then you tell your truth.
What I’m more interested in, and in a way that has little to do with that show itself, is a strange symptom of the “thinkpiece revolution” that has largely replaced criticism and recapping in the television space: Because all responses are valid, when claimed as personal, and because having a “take” is more and more important than having an opinion, we often apply our personal paradigm, our axes to grind, our personal analytic lens, in such a granular way it quickly becomes too reductive to contribute to the conversation at all.
We focus on symptoms as though they are diseases, because they hurt; because it’s so easy to forget they’re what hurts because they’re meant to indicate disease.
There are just as many conservative movements and mobs that do a lot of picking and choosing among the symptoms that bother them about the disease of growing diversity, respect and common decency they see growing in our entertainment. It’s a natural response, no matter who you are inside.
What’s confusing, or diluting, is that when we write criticism from a particular angle, it evokes the opposite take into existence. We grant the subject at hand a “gotta hear both sides” legitimacy it often doesn’t deserve. To write as though a given book or TV series has “taken a side” on, say, gender or sexuality, implies a conscious choice: “Shall we treat women as people? I think not,” rather than simply reiterating the status quo, brainlessly, luxuriating in the comfort of never having to ask that question.
We are trained, both back in school and now by New Media, to apply a specific take or angle, to have a pet issue: The upshot of this is that it compartmentalizes the concern, puts it on an equal playing field. It’s the same dangerous normalization that lets words like “racist” and “rapist” allow people to project their shadow qualities onto hypothetical, absent monsters: There’s a 20% gap in this 2014 study between college-age men who admitted to sexual assault, depending on whether the r-word was present in questions clearly describing a non-consensual act.
Now, to compare is not to equate and certainly not to trivialize, but: 20% is a lot, and quite telling about the global impulse to hide in the lee of a universally negative term: Beyond the intentional erasure of meaning in the casual use of the words above, this year has given us plenty more: “Liberal,” “fascist,” even “Nazi” have all taken on that hollowness, that repetition-into-palimpsest elasticity. And just as you never have to look at your privilege or abusive behavior, if you’re a “good” member of the system, if you’re loathe to criticize a story, it means never having to look at its underlying assumptions: Simply focus on the one critical aspect to lead the march against, and let the symptom hide the disease.
It’s playing tribute to the old system in play, in which the unbothered class asks, “Why do you always bring race/politics/gender into everything?” It’s reifying a central sickness of our culture, the “rational default” that happens to be identical to the ruling class. It’s how we get to Franzen saying, straight-faced, that he has never addressed race, no: Simply written about, and focused on, specifically white characters and experience throughout his entire career.
It’s like appearing in the dens of video game journalism guardians and expecting them to hear and consider your complaints about bikinis, tropes, objectification in video games: At best, you are just noise in the system that confirms their biases, at worst you end up fielding death threats. (Or, as a male-ally equivalent, getting attacked at Comicon for questioning the misogyny in Killing Joke.) The boys-club perception, and its circle-the-wagons response, are symptoms: The disease is only ever fear.
When discussing that endangered artifact, that rarer-and-rarer object created by straight white man-children, specifically for straight white man-children, any writer has a right to her frustration. But critiquing it in terms of what’s left out—you, as a queer person or woman or minority or all of the above; as anything off the default—means crashing a party you were never invited to. Like Connie Willis’s self-correcting Oxford time machines, if you threaten or otherwise disturb the party, you will find yourself instantly miles and decades from where you meant to go.
Any challenge to a given aspect of the status quo creates the natural response, as people who have either adjusted to it, accepted it, overlooked it, or even done the work to be okay with it, is “I know you are but what am I.” The attack on what we think of reality assumes the form of a rip in reality, which must be healed over as quickly as possible. The world has to right herself, and in her wisdom uses each of us individually to make that happen, to shove reality back into place.
So if they say, “There is a sexist element to X,” what we hear is, “You are personally a bad person for being too stupid or too complicit to already agree with me.” The natural response is that which we’d make to a unprovoked attack—“F you too, then”—and then, often, to scribble over the momentary rip, to silence it so completely it never happened: To over-correct on behalf of reality, double down, get weird. The intent is to make you afraid, and ashamed, enough to repent for opening the rift at all: To say to yourself, like Stranger Things’ Eleven, in sudden revelation: “I’m the monster.”
It’s how you get Milo and his ilk, the rising devotion to authoritarianism and “Real America,” how you get “Lock her up,” it’s why Sanders supporters turned on Black Lives Matter so early and easily, and so on: The older fish says to the younger fish, “Is this water wet enough for you?” and instead of asking “What’s water?” the young fish says, “How dare you, SJW?”
But poor diversity, bad gender, are subsets of bad writing, which comes from people who have not finished growing up yet. When the sign on the door says “No girls allowed,” best practice suggests you stick a “When people tell you who you are, believe them” right next to it. There is no Upside Down to that world; there is no upside at all.
I think we’re lucky to be living at a time where that unquestioned worldview-bias is not only under debate, but for a lot of us is an afterthought. But the fact is that there’s not a number of female or minority characters, scenes, or truth-speaking dramatics a given story can include that would get us away from the fact that some stories are written by humans, ranging from unreconstructed and basic to virulently in service of the status quo.
But complaining about the specific forms it takes, the symptoms, will only cause them, and people defensive on their behalf, to entrench in the disease: The answer is not hoping for more (“maybe the writers will mature in time for the next book/season”), the answer is demanding better. And absolutely without fear of whatever happens next. Because one thing it’s impossible to give up believing is that everything that rises must converge, or as Winston Churchill put it (in a speech quoted, so powerfully, in Willis’s All Clear):
“You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true and also fierce you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was meant to be wooed and won by youth.”
She’s getting bigger all the time; she’s having some growing pains. One day she’ll hold us all.
Geek Love is a column on the art of politics, the affliction of writing, and the care and feeding of your geeks.
Jacob Clifton is a former Television Without Pity writer and Gawker editor. His favorite Connie Willis work is still “All My Darling Daughters,” his favorite Stranger Things character is Jim Hopper, and his favorite Tiptree story is in the one in the headline.