As anyone who reads this site regularly knows, I think constructive critique of creative works is important and useful, but I am also frustrated by how quickly it can descend into a whingefest or even general insanity, no matter the approach.
What’s particularly striking for me is how many of “critiques” I hear or read have no real bearing on how an individual work comes to being, even from those who confess to having a vested interest how the industry works (such as people wanting to be screenwriters or authors). What’s more, frequently it may be assumed by those commentators (with NO connection to the process of writing/making the work) that the writer or maker had only the WORST of intentions in creating said work.
Yet also at the SAME TIME, if meaning means different things to different people, then the creator of a work has absolutely NO BUSINESS saying “this is what it means, take it or leave it, but you must see it MY way” too!
And this is where it all gets complicated. If I’m going to examine this phenomenon, then seems to me I need to set some perimeters for what I’m talking about, else we’ll end up straying into Tangents R Us and stomping all over one anothers’ toes:
1) I’m talking FICTION. Not so-called “real life” (how someone should be held accountable for their opinions, beliefs & values *there* is a whole different conversation).
2) I’m not talking individuals. Of course you can see any creative work, any way you want within the privacy of your own brain. I know I do.
3) I’m talking critique on the internet: especially the (too often knee-jerk) “I’m so depressed by the state of the industry because of X & Y” kind. We may see this all over the web, but especially on microblogging sites when certain audiences watch certan works in real time together; or certain other review sites in which “gangs” of consumers are accused of “bullying” creators about their works.
4) When I say “Keyboard Warrior”, I’m not talking orchestrated sites, campaigns, schemes, festivals, companies or even individuals that set themselves up with the specific remit and aim of bringing various imbalances to audiences’ attention … ie. ACTIVELY doing something about it. That would be ridiculous: these places and people do great work and what’s more it would be hypocritical, as B2W campaigns hard on these sort of issues and tries to build them into the ethos of places like London Screenwriters Festival, on Bang2writers and in my books, etc.
5) Too often when we say “critique”, if we’re really honest with ourselves we mean COMPLAINTS. Whilst complaining is a good tool to start a conversation, it has a tendency to become the conversation if we’re not careful, as I’ve said before and we don’t do not want this to undermine our credibility online.
So, what now? More after the jump. But first, a warning: this post is epic. Have you been to the loo? Good. Are you sitting comfortably? No fighting on the back seat or you’re all grounded. OK, let’s go!
Very often, when I read critique on the internet, it would appear it is too often assumed all creative works fit neatly together with reference to that notion of the “bigger picture”. I say this because many commentators will make all kinds of assumptions, generalisations and proclamations on this basis to do with story, characterisation, genre, representation, you name it … Which will in turn lead to all sorts of other assumptions, generalisations and proclamations. Some of these commentators’ thoughts may be right; some of them may be very, very misguided. Just as many will be completely pointless. Why?
Because those commentators are assuming not only the work, but that “bigger picture” – the face of the industry, its makers and even its audience, if you will – all fits together like THIS:
When in reality?
That “bigger picture” fits together more like THIS:
Because consumers AND makers alike do NOT look like this:
So, we are ALL DIFFERENT, with different lived experiences, worldviews, ideals, values and beliefs, which in turn means we end up creating very different stuff … Not to mention we may have very different responses to the SAME stuff.
Yes, yes this is obvious … but is it? Having been part of the blogosphere for the first part of a decade now and having crashed and burned on various critique methods of my own (as well as catching attention from movers and shakers with others), I would venture there are 6 ways to avoid being the dreaded “keyboard warrior” and becoming a “campaigner with something valid to say” instead.
So check out the sub headings, in order to avoid making these critique clangers & becoming a complainer instead:
1) Avoid looking for trouble, because you will find it
Much is made in media theory of the idea the “receiver is never wrong” and/or Roland Barthes’ idea “the author is dead”. In other words, whatever response an individual consumer has of a creative work is considered “right”, because no one can say FOR that person what their inner most beliefs, thoughts, values and lived experiences actually are in deconstructing said work.
I’m certainly sympathetic to this viewpoint; no one can tell me *how* I “see” and respond to, a creative work. No chance. BUT … and there is always BUT a with me! … we must also have enough SELF knowledge to realise our responses are also flawed and thus not quite the “authority” we wish them to be, which is why I always suggest getting feedback from MANY sources.
It’s important to remember, the more obsessed one is with finding fault in a work, the more likely that person will find it, regardless of what the creator of that work’s intentions were making it in the first place. Whilst it’s all very well saying a creator’s intentions are “meaningless” and that response is everything, if that is not to be completely hypocritical, then we must ALSO empty our minds of any negative expectations whatsoever if we are to view that work with an OPEN MIND.
However, in some circles, it is apparent some commentators have NOT approached these creative works with an open mind; they have traipsed along to the cinema or library or whatever ABSOLUTELY SURE said filmmakers, stars, authors, etc are **misogynists/racists/homophobes/insert negative issue here**. As a result, everything has EVEN MORE MEANING than it necessarily was ever intended, or even needed to.
It comes down to this: NO single piece of fiction was ever supposed to stand alone *for* any marginalised group and even if that is its creator’s intention? It simply cannot challenge decades of real world prejudice on its own. Put simply, it’s just one story.
2) Remember: a work does not equal its creator (or vice versa)
Carrying on from point 1) and the notion all our interpretations are different, this then informs the notion different people may see the SAME things differently. Well, duh times 2. But let’s see it in practice. Contrast these two B2W Storifies which both took place in the last two weeks amongst Bang2writers:
As you’ll see, the participants of both threads had wildly different perspectives of the SAME material. So who’s right? Answer: no one. Instead I like to think of what approach is USEFUL. With that mind, it’s completely obvious accusations are not useful.
Sometimes the accusers go one further than the above however. They will look at a creative work – or perhaps a body of creative work by the same writer or makers and imagine (yes, imagine) this then means they “know” who that writer or maker is as a person, as if that work (or body of work) is an expression of their WHOLE SELF, rather than a part of themselves.
No. Hell, no. The problem with believing you can “see” what a creator is “really like” just from a work of theirs – or even a large body of their work – is that you’re not taking into account a MASSIVE ISSUE, which is that you are seeing fiction that person has created, NOT reality. What’s more, what is “best” for the story does not necessarily magically conform to that writer or maker’s worldview 100%. How could it? That’s just nonsensical. Think about it: taken to its logical conclusion, only Nazi sympathisers could write about Nazism; or murderer writers write about murder.
So, it may well be tempting to say,
“Oh writer X does really bad female representation and Writer Y does great female representation; this means Y is a great guy and X is a massive bell end”
… but this is a HUGE MISTAKE. Why? Because then you’d be as guilty of reductive thinking as the guy you’re making accusations of! What’s more, it’s very rarely this simple. Because, guess what: people are MORE than what they write about! Fancy that!!! Whether we like it or not, just because someone *is* a complete bellend and we’d like to punch him/her in the face, does NOT mean s/he is incapable of creating BEAUTIFUL work … And unfortunately, by that same token, people we love and only wish good things for may create extremely problematic or even well-dodgy work. That’s just the way it is.
3) Remember: drama is conflict, not ideology
The irony of attempting to do something “different” to the norm is that filmmakers, writers and authors essentially leave themselves wide open to those accusations I just mentioned. It smarts to be told you are a terrible person, just because you have tried to be inclusive, challenge stigma, prejudice or bring something into the story **not** seen every day.
Make no mistake: this is why so many writers and makers play it safe and stick with the norm.
Fact is, if someone writes a female, PoC, Asian or disabled character making a bad choice in the narrative, that does not mean the creator had some sort of dark, ulterior motive. Chances are, s/he was trying to do something different to the norm, just like audiences said they wanted them to.
And no, I’m not saying anyone who does something different should get a free pass; that would be facile. If mistakes are made, then by all means address them BUT … another but! … why not do it constructively, instead of looking for trouble?
4) Remember: yours is not the only POV
2013 was the year of female characterisation, so it was inevitable that progressive discussion would centre on Disney heroines, especially princesses, which is an issue that seems to divide the left massively. Are princesses responsible for destroying little girls’ self esteem and ambitions? Or are they the last bastion of female protagonists which otherwise would leave little girls out in the cold as Pixar and its ilk concentrate almost exclusively on male protags, whether cars, fish or toys?
Well, that depends on your POV. And guess what: no one’s right. But everyone forgets this as all kinds of proclamations get tossed around, a real favourite in articles, on Twitter & comments threads being a version of:
“I’m sick of being supposed to be grateful for these crumbs of feminism for my kids.”
In other words, the commentator recognises some *semblance* of feminism in a creative work, but reckons it doesn’t go far “enough”. But what does this mean? How “far” is “enough”, especially if a female protagonist is not considered on an equal platform to a male protagonist?
Now of course, Disney Princesses are NOT perfect. For one thing, I’m a little tired of the caucasion, wasp-waisted, pinch faced ideal she is painted as. Though there has been a black princess (Tia) and an Asian princess (Jasmine), not to mention an Asian female protagonist (Mulan) and a Native American (Pocahontas), there has not been enough diversity in this canon, not by a long shot. But that said, especially once the spectre of commerce is taken out the equation, I certainly think there are worse cartoons for my WGs to watch.
But so committed are some Disney detractors to their cause, they always have plenty of juicy “evidence” to conjure up to suggest Disney apparently hates little girls, whether it’s that female heroines apparently do not appear on posters; or female characters share “too much” screen time with male secondaries; or comedy side kicks appear first in previews; or some exec said women are “hard to animate, ‘cos: emotions”.
I’m always struck by how loud the “crumbs of feminism” shout is. I’m assuming those commentators would prefer to live in a world where there ARE family films with female protagonists, because let’s face it: other than Disney there are not many studios at the moment actively trying to place females at the helm of family stories as standard, even if those protagonists are fish, cars, toys, rats, racoons or whatever **COUGHPixarDreamworksCOUGH***.
Yet negatives in Disney Princess stories are focused on with fervour, such as princesses apparently “never” saving the prince (???), or those titles being changed, as the Rapunzel story in 2010 became TANGLED and 2014’s Snow Queen story became FROZEN, which apparently “diminishes” the heroines of the tales.
Now, Disney **may** want their movies to seem less “girly” in order to attract little boys to see the movies as well (doubling potential audience is always good business sense, whether we “like” it or not). But taking gender OUT of the equation, it’s still not hard to see that there are LOTS of movies called RAPUNZEL and THE SNOW QUEEN, just check out IMDB:
As anyone knows who’s ever made a film or written a book, titles are a BIG DEAL. It’s the first port of call for your audience. Pick a dud title (which includes multiple duplicates) and you could actually put people off buying a ticket or a copy, or them “missing” your release, because it is not differentiated enough from others that have come before.
What’s more, it can be argued very effectively that titles like TANGLED and FROZEN refer thematically to their stories and the characters within them. Rapunzel is tangled in her faux mother’s deceit and must literally UNtangle herself, if she is to be free, metaphorically and literally; in Frozen, Anna is LITERALLY frozen out of her sister Elsa’s life and must “thaw” her sister’s response to the world around her. Or maybe, you had a different view, like Bang2writer Claire Yeowart did for FROZEN:
Notice that regardless of what EXACTLY Frozen is a metaphor for (and perhaps neither of us are “right”, though in reality, that hardly matters), the title FROZEN still refers to the movie’s THEME – which we know, via Anna’s repetition to her sister, “Don’t shut me out” throughout the entire narrative. Referring to a storie’s theme in a title is part of creative history (just check out imdb). To assume sexism is automatically or even the ONLY reason behind such a retitling move shows a lack of understanding how the industry works in selling a creative work “off the page” to an audience. And without an audience, there is no $$$ … No $$$? No stories. Fact of life.
5) Know that real life gets in the way
Here’s the thing: creators of creative work are NOT supernatural beings. Even if they try and think of every way their work COULD be interpreted? They still won’t think of them all. Why? ‘Cos they are limited by their own lived experiences, beliefs and values. And even if it were possible? They’d still not be able to fit them all in. Stories have a finite “space” – crush too much IN and they just become junk. A creator must make various choices to ensure their message or theme or character gets across, which inevitably means leaving stuff OUT.
For instance, writing my own novel THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY, there were things I would swap now. I wrote it two years ago; many things have happened to me since then that have helped shaped my opinions and thoughts on the issues I address in the story. But that said, I am proud of my efforts and should people want to discuss the situation of teenage pregnancy with me in a respectful manner and yes, even disagree with me, I am ALWAYS happy to hear their thoughts and/or experiences. That goes without saying.
But I will not countenance being told HOW I should have written the story, simply because I am apparently “too privileged”, “too liberal” or even “too dense” to include them or not (and yes, all these accusations have been bandied my way!). For me, who I am might inform the story, but it is still JUST a story. I did the best I could at that time and it’s simply impossible to include every single element that may go into a situation as complicated as teenage pregnancy! I only had 60K words, after all 😉
In addition, filmmakers are often accused of having a white bias when it comes to casting. Yet it is not simply a case of “just” casting more of our black and Asian colleagues, not only because of the supposed “colour blind” issue of characterisation; the thorny issues of quotas; the notion of “best actor for the job” in the actual audition; and even just the fact casting is in itself a complex job.
All that’s just for starters. I worked on a project once that had approximately half PoCs auditioning for various roles. We ended up with an all-white cast. Is that because it was an all-white crew? You might think so, except it wasn’t … Because the crew was not all white!
Basically, no matter what the creator “wants”, real life can get in the way. I really would have liked a black character in that movie, but it wasn’t to be. Sometimes that is the way it goes … and unless a commentator is privy to “behind the scenes” details in full, speculation and assumption on the basis of details like that can be an own goal.
6) Finally: Remember creators WANT people to like their work … but if audiences don’t, we’ll take that too!
It really is as simple as this. No creator of a work actively wants people to hate on their hard work. Creators would far rather have you think their writing and creative efforts are AWESOME. That is what we dream of.
That said, we all realise “haters gotta hate” and not only that, if you DO hate our movie or our books or whatever? That’s great. Why: ‘cos it means you’ll take to the internet writing about how terrible we are, or how wrong others are to like us, or that we don’t deserve our awards or that we’re trying to take over the world with our DARK ULTERIOR MOTIVES Brilliant! Push out those column inches, people!!!
After all, there’s nothing worse than tumbleweed. PSYCHE! 😛
All writers and creators have a responsibility to providing their audiences with great characters, in great stories. This may well mean challenging various stigmas and ingrained viewpoints, or it may mean twisting “the same … but different”. What we should never be are hacks, rolling out the same-old, same-old with no thought for our audiences.
But one thing audiences must remember: creators are not social workers. We are all about the story and whilst we absolutely should do our small part in representing characters as well as we can to the best of our abilities, we do not OWE anyone anything, least of all supposed “empowerment”. That is beyond one writer or maker’s abilities … and if commentators want things to really change? They need to do their part, too: stop pressurising and attacking creators and start a constructive dialogue instead.
PS. Yes, yes I know how ironic it is to actually critique critique … KLAXON! Move on people!
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