Criticizing Criticizing Fiction …

So, after setting the table yesterday, let’s talk today about the specific arguments. Dadabhoy spreads this out among three posts, but even though that would stretch out the posts here and thus help my goal to make a post a day until I get sick of it or can’t anymore, I’m not going to do that. There are two reasons for this. The first is that all of the posts are relatively short so splitting it up would just be making a short commentary, and the second and more important one is that the points seem to be interrelated and often seem to call for the same sort of analysis and response, and so there’d be a lot of repetition. I’ll still try to deal with each point separately and yet still try to interweave them when reasonable, which might end up being confusing. We’ll see how it goes.

1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.

Firstly, and most importantly, this is a clearly disingenuous argument. If the person making the argument actually thought that the fiction in question weren’t to be taken seriously, then they wouldn’t be bothering to defend it. Instead, they would have quietly ignored arguments regarding the problematic elements of the fiction and resumed their mindless enjoyment of it. That they speak up at all says that they take at least their fandom of it somewhat seriously.

I think that this runs into an issue of conflation over seriousness here, which gets us right to the issue between evaluating its implications and evaluating it as a work. Clearly, someone can think quite highly of a work and yet still give this response, if they feel that someone is denigrating the work as a work by reading things into it. I think that this is what caused a lot of the outcry over Arthur Gies’ review of “Bayonetta 2”, that after spending most off the review gushing over the mechanics, he docks it for its over-sexualization:

When Platinum Games is on, it’s really, really on, and Bayonetta 2 is in almost any respect that counts a better game than the first, whose mechanics were already exemplary. But every time I’d feel on a roll, enjoying my time with Bayonetta 2 immensely, I’d be broken out of it by another cheap shot of T&A. I would be wrecking a flock of angelic or demonic enemies, sliding in and out of witch time almost at will, and then the special weapon I had picked up became a literal stripper pole for Bayonetta to dance on, because … well, because, I guess.

I won’t guess why the blatant over-sexualization is still there, often more intensely than before. But it causes an otherwise great game to require a much bigger mental compromise to enjoy.

So, a great game, but because it has an element that the reviewer doesn’t like, the score gets docked. So anyone that doesn’t mind the sexualization — because over-sexualization is actually a judgement — and loves the game is going to feel upset that the score for the game is being docked for something that, arguably, isn’t really about the game at all. At least here, the elements are so tightly interweaved into the game that, yes, it does actually impact it, but in a lot of cases the criticisms are indeed reading in. One common example of this are plot holes in some games. Are they there? Sure. But if the story is just there to move you along to the next action sequence, criticizing it for not having an epic story isn’t treating the game fairly, and is taking the game and its purpose too seriously.

Furthemore, fans who defend their favorite works with this argument are demeaning the object of their love far more than those who bother with criticisms of it. Are they saying that their treasured fiction has no effect or impact on the world whatsoever?

No. The answer is that in the work that’s being examined, it was never meant to change the world. It was meant to entertain, which they argue that it does. So criticizing it for not changing the world, or arguing that it’s bad because you argue it changes the world in bad ways, to them really is missing the point of the work, and taking it too seriously. While, for example, many episodes of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” addressed strong social issues, a lot of them and a lot of their jokes were, in fact, just goofy fun, and trying to see how they might address social issues and then criticizing them for not doing that effectively when they weren’t trying is indeed problematic … and taking them far too seriously for what they were intended to do.

If the idea that fiction could influence reality seems to absurd, then consider the flip side, where fiction reflects reality. Are fans really saying that the fiction they adore is so poor at world-building and character-development that it cannot serve as a mirror of or statement about real life? A well-built fictional universe with fully-realized characters can very much serve up insights about the societal context of both the creators and the consumers of that universe. Even poorly-conceived worlds and characters often betray the biases and preferences of their creators. The reactions and interpretation of fans, in turn, betrays their biases and preferences.

Certainly, but that in general says nothing about the work itself. You’d be doing either 2) or 3) here, not 1), but a lot of the time it looks like 1), at which point you will be challenged that your academic analysis is a reflection of you taking it too seriously and judging the work based on that. Sometimes, those criticisms will be invalid, as you will be doing 3) and they’ll take it as doing 1). Sometimes, though, it will be a valid criticism and not just disingenuous or flimsy. It will all come down to context.

As an American, I find tracing the vampires vs. zombies line against the Democrats vs. Republicans one to be a highly pleasurable pursuit. That I do so hardly demands that everyone feel that way, yet I find myself chastised by people for doing what I like. I find that more than a little hypocritical given that those people’s transparent excuse for being opposed to me doing what I enjoy is that they enjoy the thing about which I choose to think critically.

Examining those topics in light of that sort of analogy isn’t really a problem, and if you enjoy doing that then please do indulge. After all, I certainly do that with Philosophy and Popular Culture. But the problem comes in when you try to address a particular work. First, you risk trying to read that into the work. For example, if I write a zombie or vampire fiction, it’s unlikely that that is what I have in mind — not being American and all — and yet if the claim is made that that’s what my work does show, even objectively, people and I would have right to complain that you are taking that work too seriously, in the sense that you are reading massive philosophical, social and political points out of it that aren’t there. This is magnified if the claim is made that the work is somehow inferior because it doesn’t manage to tease out those particular issues well when it had no intention of doing so. So sometimes the argument works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t have any examples of when she specifically gets this argument, and so can’t say whether the argument works against her or not. But the argument is not just obviously wrong, as she at least implies here.

2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.

The best recent example with which I have some familiarity comes from the new Constantine TV show. … I will turn my focus to episode three, which addresses so-called “voodoo.” In the case of “voodoo”, as with “gypsies”, so far, I’ve found that Constantine punches down in a way that cannot be explained away via loyalty to the source material.

What most people know as “voodoo” is a religion that arose out of oppression. People of African descent who were brought to the Americas against their wills used their religious practices and beliefs as a way of resisting oppression. Unless you are a Christian hell-bent on characterizing all non-Christian faiths as demonic and Satanic, you have no reason other than the racism you have been fed to consider the religious practices that came from enslaved African peoples to be more inherently evil than those of any other religion.

And how so many of us have been fed. From theme parks to Disney films to music videos, negative and Othering fictional depictions are all most people know about so-called “voodoo”. Constantine feeds into this narrative by putting forth the claim that “voodoo priests” epitomize the worst traits of humanity.

The “it’s canon!” defenses of the racism are either than Constantine is an asshole that hates everyone or that the creators of the show are bound to the negative depictions found in the comics. In either case, the excuse is that the show is merely adhering to the comics and therefore cannot be criticized for its depictions.

This criticism, I’d say, definitely slides into Activism Criticism. There’s no real criticism of the work as a work in and of itself, nor how doing that impedes the work. There’s no criticism that the adaptation is a worse adaptation because it does this, and in fact she seems to conclude that it is indeed a “better” – meaning closer — adaptation doing this. So her real objection is that the adaptation could and should have avoided this because of the social consequences, and she’s presuming that it can be done.

I’m not a Constantine fan, so I don’t really know the full context of this. But it may not be that easy to adjust the adaptation in the way she describes. Let’s assume that practitioners of voodoo are one of if not the main villains of the piece. They drive all the evil stuff that the hero fights against in the comics. If that’s true, them they do need to be presented as villains in the adaptation, and it’s reasonable to argue that the initial characterization of voodoo in the work was done to drive that villainy and make it obvious. Now, let’s put aside the not unreasonable argument that it was the other way around, and that voodoo was chosen because the common depiction made it easy for people to see them as villains, and look at what an adaptation would need to do here. In order to set up them as main villains, they have to be set up as really, really evil, especially if Constantine is not pure (and from what I know he ain’t). So him claiming that they do epitomize the worst traits of humanity establishes this: we see them as evil right from the start. If you don’t want them to reflect voodoo there, then either you have to replace them with a new villain group — which is a massive and difficult departure from the original work — or try to present them as nuanced and grey from the start … when your entire purpose here is to start them, at least, as being totally on the “immoral” side. So since those options are either difficult or risk ruining the adaptation, you start them out completely on the evil side. None of this means that you can’t add nuance later, and considering how television is going it’s certainly arguable that adding nuance to them later — with good practitioners or with more grey villains — would greatly improve the work.

Now, Dadabhoy can legitimately ask if that means that she shouldn’t raise the criticisms. After all, even if I’m right — and I concede that I might not be — I myself just pointed that the work would likely be better if they eventually added nuance to voodoo, in line with her perceptions of what real voodoo is about. Do I think that this will just be done if we don’t highlight the issue and ask or demand that they do it? Or will they simply stick with the overwhelming cultural impression if we stay silent?

I do think that these are things that can be talked about. The question is whether you talk about them as examples of 1) or as examples of 3). If as 1), you don’t actually criticize them for it, at least when talking about the adaptation. If they decided to stick to the book as written — even as they don’t for other things, like the main character’s bisexuality — then that isn’t something you can criticize the adaptation for as an adaptation, unless it really doesn’t work in this time and on the medium. Which it seems to, which seems to be what the 3) complaint is about. What you can do is point out that because they are doing an adaptation they have a wonderful opportunity here, to take villains that weren’t nuanced and add nuance to them, and you can even claim that doing this would challenge these assumptions which would be good as well. But the key is not to claim that the adaptation is necessarily bad or flawed for sticking to these tropes, as an individual work, but that the medium and the time allows it to not stick to those tropes and possibly create something even better.

Or, you can do it as 3), where you hold it up as an example of this prevailing attitude and note whether the attitude is still prevalent today — ie whether or not modern audiences really need it to be that way or would see it necessarily that way — and what the impacts of that are. But this wouldn’t be a comment on the individual work itself at all, but just use it as an example of that overarching theme. Sliding this into 4), which is where she really does seem to want to go, a criticism can be made that, say, more adaptations need to be braver with things like this, or that we need more shows of this type to represent voodoo fairly, as opposed to what’s being done here. But, in general, these arguments don’t want to imply that it’s a bad adaptation or even a bad show — in terms of its entertainment value — because of this representation. That would start mixing two very different arguments, and if I criticize anything about Activism Criticism, it is that it too easily falls into mixing those sorts of arguments.

3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

This argument strikes me as being pretty much the same argument as 1), which is really summarized as “You’re reading too much into this!”, except that this one is aimed precisely at political/social statements.

Regardless, the argument is invalid for one simple reason: A lack of overt political messaging does not mean that a work of fiction has no messages and is therefore “neutral.”In the case of the messaging transmitted by fiction, a lack of intention is less than unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Well, to get this counter off the ground, you have to establish two things: a) That the messaging is really there and not just something that you find in it and b) That the work is not being evaluated as something that it isn’t, as in a political statement when it’s just supposed to be an entertaining work about robots that turn into cars. And for those, the intent of the work of fiction is far more than unimportant, and is in fact crucial. Criticizing or lauding a work for its messaging that isn’t actually there is going to get a reaction … particularly if you’re criticizing it. If the work is not attempting to give a political message, then it is indeed a neutral work. There may be implied messages, but again that’s a 2) or 3) argument. A work will reflect its social conditions, but that again isn’t something you can level against the work. Here, again, is where Activism Criticism mixes up areas, because it will often look at a specific work and judge it specifically for reflecting what are considered to be problematic political or social views instead of simply pointing out how this reflects these common views that we are trying to change and need to change. And this gets people up in arms, as in the Bayonetta 2 review; how can you say that this work is particularly bad when it just does what everyone else does? The work itself is high quality and entertaining, so that it reflects the views that people actually hold — rightly or wrongly — makes it bad?

3) type analyses will note that it reflects it, and talk about the attitudes themselves as being problematic or not. 4) type analyses will criticize the work for reflecting those attitudes. This is indeed the problem with Activism Criticism, that they attack the work for what it does.

It is the assumption that a certain type of person is the “default” that leads to the argument that fiction featuring that type is not making a “political” statement. White cis hetero male concerns are “concerns” so assumed to be so universal that they don’t even need to be framed as such, while racial/feminist/queer/economic concerns are framed as “political.”

I’ve always found that this sort of analysis shaky, and the Activism Criticism framework allows for an easy way to see why. First, let’s talk about two of those “concerns”: cis and hetero. Since most people are indeed cis and hetero, those concerns really are more universal than the concerns of those who are not, in the strict sense that they represent more people than the converse. So a show striving to be representative would still focus far more on them than on others, and so those groups will indeed be seen as the default. This isn’t a problem. A problem would be if those concerns are never represented at all, not if they aren’t seen as the “default”. But the issue is that those additional concerns are often seen as political because they are often portrayed and represented in ways that are, indeed, political. Critics often start from the political realm talking about the discrimination that the groups face, and then move from that framework to the representations in the media and in specific works. So they start from the political realm, use that as a buttress to talk about the work, and then complain when people say that they are making the work political. They are. If you look at every analysis that Dadabhoy did in the series that references political and social issues, the analysis is critically dependent on the political and social issues in the world and outside of the works themselves. It is rare that for the “default” groups that that sort of analysis is done … precisely because they are seen as the default and so no one ever considers the political and social issues surrounding that. But that still means that in general simply using the default does not have the political ramifications that adding in the non-default does. The political ramifications of such a choice exist in the politics of the world, not the politics of the work, while in general Activism Criticism purports that for non-default characters the politics is in the work itself, for good or for ill, and that a work that, say, includes a bisexual character is to be commended for making an explicit statement, whether or not the work intended to do that or just decided that it would be cool to try something different for a change.

With this real world politics wrapped around minority issues, it’s no wonder that any attempt to include minority concerns is seen as a political statement. It does not help the matter at all to insist that things that aren’t wrapped in this real world politics are somehow equally political. They aren’t. What works is to acknowledge that you don’t have to be making or be seen to be making a political statement if you unwrap the minority concerns from the real world politics and just present them as characters in your work, and treat them precisely as that. Failure to do so is to indeed claim that a work that is not political is indeed political, and open yourself up to a valid criticism of this type.

It should come as no surprise that I think that Activism Criticism is the main reason why Dadabhoy gets these criticisms, and that in that framework they might be valid. This is not to claim that she shouldn’t be an activist over these things, just that if she is going to do so she has to be very clear about what precisely she’s criticizing. And she may be. But when people aren’t, they will indeed get these responses … and they won’t be flimsy. They’ll be valid.

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