Hello! I was wondering: how do you tell when criticism of a controversial/mediocre/problematic work is misogynistic or racist? I remember that when The Force Awakens and the Ghostbusters reboot came out, there was a lot of controversy between people panning the films, defenders claiming the criticism was prejudiced, and people criticizing the films for blatantly prejudiced reasons. Are there ways to tell whether criticism of a story is valid or not, especially when the detractor doesn’t use obviously prejudiced terms, or is it impossible to tell sometimes?
Thank you very much for your time and attention. I love your website.
Hey Quick, thanks for writing in!
We actually have two posts that address this very concern!
As you might imagine, this is a complicated question that doesn’t have a single answer. Sometimes it’s obvious. If a critic is throwing out slurs in in their review of Star Trek: Discovery or calling Captain Marvel a bitch, you can safely write off their take. But as you pointed out, it’s often more subtle than that. More complex still, often these big budget Hollywood productions have legitimate problems that are worth critiquing.
The main thing I look for is critique fairness. Like, if a reviewer has a problem with the fight scenes in Captain Marvel, do they acknowledge that nearly every MCU film has the same problem, or is it only a problem when Carol Danvers is doing it? If someone wants to critique the bad technobabble of Discovery, do they know that Star Trek in general has always had a similar issue, or do they think it just started now that there’s a Black woman lead?
From the critic side of things, it’s important to consider the optics of what you’re saying. It’s not always enough to be technically correct; you also have to consider the context. Whenever I critique the latest incarnation of Star Trek or Star Wars, I’m always careful to mention that most of these problems are not new, and we shouldn’t pretend like they are. Of course, no matter how conscientious you are, some fanragers will still reach for social justice language to dismiss legitimate critique of a story they like. This is annoying, but the best strategy is to ignore it. Be responsible, say what needs to be said, and don’t engage with people who insist you must be a bigot if you didn’t like their favorite show’s epic finale.
Hope that answers your question!
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Comments on How Can I Spot Bad Faith Critique?
This is something philosopher Kate Manne has written about in her discussions about misogyny. Not in relation to media critique, more about female politicians like Hillary Clinton, but the same point holds.
She says people want there to be some easy way to distinguish misogynistic critique from fair critique, like a simple test you can apply to see what’s what, but unfortunately, there isn’t one. Like Chris said, sometimes critique is obviously racist, misogynistic, etc, but if someone DOES have a substantial point to make, that doesn’t automatically prove that their critique is NOT simultaneously motivated by misogyny, racism, or some other prejudice.
If they judge women much harsher than men, for instance, that’s a sign that something other than actual policies plays a rule. But unfortunately, although we can spot larger patterns of female politicians being more harshly judged than male politicians making equivalent decisions (and we can make that judgment even if we agree that the female politicians in question are bad and should be criticized), it’s just not possible to judge in every single case whether a piece of criticism is fair or not. That’s just the way it is.
To spot bad faith critique:
1. Hypocrisy. EG: complaints about how unrealistic it is for a female character to fight when all the male characters are doing equally unrealistic things. Sometimes ‘realism’ is code for saying that there should have been more bigotry, and they don’t actually apply the same stringent standards of realism to works featuring and centering white cis dudes. If they applied a high level of realism throughout their review, then it’s safe to say they’re not being bigoted, just persnickety. (Being persnickety can be really fun though!)
2. Emphasis on demographics, or saying/implying that the demographics ruined the show. EG: wokeness is ruining storytelling. The characters sucked! The proper critique would be: the characters are underdeloped and hollow. While I appreciate the diversity, it was badly done and came across as tokenism.
3. Saying that anyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and they’re not doing it in a sarcastic way. This applies to all sides of the political spectrum. Even if their critique is objectively true, it reveals that they are judgemental and not a nice person to be around.
These are my two cents (well, three points) on the matter. Hope it helped!
I’d say that this is worth more than two cents ;)
There’s no easy checklist, but the three things you’ve noted are a good clue as to whether or not critique is in bad faith.
Demanding more ‘realism’ from female than from male characters is a big problem especially in genres like action, where male characters aren’t really shown in a realistic way (especially when it comes to surviving crashes, fights, etc that should incapacitate or kill them), but a woman beating up the enemy is ‘too unrealistic.’
Usually, a story isn’t destroyed by its ‘wokeness’ – that’s just short for ‘I’ve never had to project myself into someone not like me and I don’t want to do that, everyone else should have to do it instead.’ A character or several can be weak (Ghostbusters 2016 has huge flaws, but none have to do with the all-female ghostbusters), the plot can be lacking, but it’s not because of ‘wokeness’ or diversity, it’s because of general bad writing and/or plotting.
The ‘if you don’t agree, you’re stupid’ strategy is always more telling on the one using it, no matter which philosophical or political space they’re from. :p
Regarding the “hypocrisy” point, there is another issue I’ve noticed that muddies the waters further – nostalgia. People are just more willing to forgive flaws in the things they grew up with. People may dislike something from Ghostbusters 2016 that was also present in the original not due to bad faith, but because they saw the original when they were young and less discerning and so didn’t notice the flaw, and now they overlook it because of nostalgia.
There are a few other reasons someone may criticise a new instalment for something an older one did as well. Perhaps the original had a better explanation that the new one doesn’t have. Maybe it was simply less pronounced. Maybe the original had enough good stuff surrounding the flaws that people are more willing to forgive the bad. Point is that there are a bunch of justifications for hypocrisy that don’t hinge on bad faith, making things even more difficult to discern.
…unless they outright state “X is bad because woman”, of course.
A lot of bad faith critique was burning down to ‘we don’t want our childhood heroes being replaced by women’ actually. Since Ghostbusters 2016 is not a reshoot, but a reboot, it doesn’t go with the original story – not the same backgrounds or names for the characters, not the same villain, not the same major plot points. The girls don’t even get to move into the fire station until the end (by the time, their Ecto 1 is gone). The movies is about scientists (and a street-smart person, as in the original) hunting ghosts in NYC (as in the original) with the help of wacky technology (as in the original). That’s all it has in common – the other things you might recognize are fan service more than anything else (such as the Ecto 1 car and the short return of slimer the ghost).
One reason why a lot of people forgive the flaws of the original Ghostbusters is definitely its age. In the 80s, many things were still different and many things that are red flags today (like one character bringing a date-rape drug to a date) weren’t red flags then.
I was speaking more generally, just using reaction to GB as an example (I actually haven’t seen either incarnation, so I can’t really speak to them).
While I appreciate the diversity, it was badly done and came across as tokenism.
I’ve come to regard the word tokenism as an example of minority characters being judged more harshly. It’s not just a criticism of a character’s flat development, but laces in the assumption that their presence in the story is not legitimate and needs special justification. Like “ticking boxes,” it’s a term that puts me on the alert.
I’d go with something like, “It’s good to see diversity, but it doesn’t exempt you from putting work into the characters.”
That’s a much better way of phrasing it, thank you ^^
Sometimes, when people say tokenism it’s code for: their diversity wasn’t plot relevant so it doesn’t count, but it does count. Casual diversity is awesome :D
Diverse characters are characters first and foremost, and expecting them to justify their existence by having their diversity be ‘plot relevant’ is bad. Diverse people just exist, they don’t have any reason for doing so. They happened to, y’know, be born. I’m autistic, Jewish, trans, and asexual among other things, but not because there’s a diversity quota to be filled.
I’ll only say tokenism if the representation is really bad and done only for profit/clout. EG: the gay character says he has a boyfriend but they’re never shown kissing or cuddling, and their relationship is treated differently than a heterosexual one. Stuff like that. Also, Disney. Most of Disney’s queer representation consisted of half-hearted tokens. It looks like it’s changing for the better though! (Especially with The Owl House.)
*EG: complaints about how unrealistic it is for a female character to fight when all the male characters are doing equally unrealistic things.*
Oh yeah. Like how Rey is a Mary Sue for beating Kylo, but Luke isn’t for making an impossible shot.
Pretty much so, yes.
Luke successfully flying a fighter for space fight is as much removed from him doing flights in an atmosphere-bound civilian vessel is about as realistic as someone with experience in close-quarter fighting with a staff using a lightsaber well.
YES! ANOTHER WHO AGREES!
It’s probably also what Arix said. Nostalgia. People say Rey isn’t a well-written character, but Luke is a pretty generic hero, too. The Original Trilogy had some problems, but people tend to ignore them.
Also, there’s this new thing about the prequels being better from the sequels, and people whining about the Admiral Holdo scene “destroying space fighting” when the Padme scene showed that Star Wars is apparently lacking on women’s health care.
Add another thing to the bad faith critiques, cult-like devotion to anything made by the original creator.
And example of good vs. bad faith critique can be found in videos given by the Tanner Twins, M and J. I’ve only really watched their She-Ra reboot critique so I can only speak for that.
Their main complaint is that the show forgoes world building and character development in favor of jokes and shipping. When they’re not pointing out how Catra and Glimmer (and Shadow Weaver) kept getting away with being awful. However, on the uncommon occasion they liked something they were just as quick to praise it. The most they had to say about gay couples is that Spinnerlla and Netossa were woefully underutilized. All in all critique focusing on the show itself rather than any political agenda.
For an example of bad faith critique, look at the comments in their reviews.
“When they’re not pointing out how Catra and Glimmer (and Shadow Weaver) kept getting away with being awful.”
Almost as if the show was making points about how people from both “good” and “evil” factions are human beings with positive and negative qualities, and how people can have complicated feelings about their abusers! It’s almost as if it was important to Noelle Stevenson, who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist community, to make those points!
Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. But I respect (your summary of) the Tanner Twins’ critique.
“Almost as if the show was making points about how people from both “good” and “evil” factions are human beings with positive and negative qualities[.]”
That would be a good argument were I speaking of Entrapta and Hordak, whose romance was by far the high point of the show. However, I’m speaking of Catra and Glimmer, whose only positive traits are their good looks and better combat prowess. They were jerks to everyone around them, clawed after and abused power at every opportunity, and only stopped their behavior when it stopped working for them. Their only non-toxic personal ties were each other (and shipping the two would be both interesting and beyond the scope of this reply).
Yes, I realize Noelle was using the show as therapy for her personal issues. I also know that’s not a good thing for writers to do when a work of fiction’s presented as something else. A shame the reboot wasn’t written by Noelle’s wife; she knows how to write strong female protagonists.
“However, I’m speaking of Catra and Glimmer, whose only positive traits are their good looks and better combat prowess.”
And Catra’s grit, resourcefulness, and cleverness; Glimmer’s sense of righteousness, kindness, loyalty, and enthusiasm.
“They were jerks to everyone around them, clawed after and abused power at every opportunity, and only stopped their behavior when it stopped working for them.”
Okay…is that a bad thing, though? Do Glimmer’s and Catra’s bad behaviors detract from the themes or plot of the show? (I argue that the behaviors don’t detract from either themes or plot – they both advance the theme of how Good vs. Evil isn’t so clear-cut, and drive the plot forward by creating problems for the characters to solve.) Do the behaviors have authorial endorsement? (As you point out, their behavior stops working for them after a certain point and they learn their lesson. So I would say no, the bad behavior doesn’t have authorial endorsement.) Yeah, it would be better for them *as people* if they made the choice to pull back from the brink before making their nosedives, but…it’s extremely difficult to create drama if characters always do the sensible thing. We want our fictional characters to be in dramatic situations! Drama is good!
I guess if your criticism was more along the lines of “I can’t stand characters like that,” I wouldn’t be so inclined to argue. If Catra and Glimmer don’t work for you, they don’t work for you, and no argument I could possibly make would change that. But you seem to be suggesting that the way Catra and Glimmer are written is *objectively* bad storytelling, and I just can’t agree with that. I think having parallel arcs for a hero and a villain is pretty sophisticated! Then again, I’m kind of sort of definitely being the person in this video:
So you should take my arguments with a grain of salt.
P.S. I think we can both agree on this: Entrapdak supremacy.
“And Catra’s grit, resourcefulness, and cleverness; Glimmer’s sense of righteousness, kindness, loyalty, and enthusiasm.”
Catra used those traits pretty much to screw people over. Glimmer’s enthusiasm got her, and everyone around, in trouble all the time, and the rest is questionable given her actions.
“Do the behaviors have authorial endorsement?”
Yes! Once they’re out of the bad place they’re both easily forgiven, and don’t seem to care about fixing what they broke.
“We want our fictional characters to be in dramatic situations! Drama is good!”
Yes! But idiot plots are not. Drama shouldn’t require the characters being stupid.
M and J take the high road, but it’s very hard to discuss the reboot without acknowledging the Noelle in the room. At least as much as possible without getting this comment banned. Both characters of contention are pretty much stand-ins for her, at least based on “check her twitter” rumors. (I’d certainly prefer better primary sources.) While I understand she herself came from a bad place, warping the show to be about her issues just isn’t good writing. At least if it isn’t her IP.
Anyway, I suspect we’re at a tiring impasse at this point. Still, it was good to outline our perspectives, and I am curious to see more of where you’re coming from so as to at least have no misunderstanding. I’ll be showing this thread to my lover for their opinion, since they’ll likely see both sides (just as they’ve seen the show). : )
“P.S. I think we can both agree on this: Entrapdak supremacy.”
Indeed. Having a show based on that would be quite interesting. ^_^
Editor’s note: discussing and critiquing She-Ra is fine but let’s please stop trying to psychoanalyze Noelle Stevenson (or any writer) based on what they wrote in a fictional story.
I was in elementary school during the original run of She-Ra and He-Man during the 1980s. When Netflix decided to reboot She-Ra, I found it really disturbing that so many men my age or older were protesting bitterly over She-Ra being “de-babed”, for lack of a better word, essentially because women and anime have a greater influence in the American animation industry.
Now THAT was a bad-faith criticism of She-Ra. None of these “but are feminine women!” complainers admitted to being fans of the 1980s She-Ra, “true” or otherwise. Either they were too young to have watched its original run, they made fun of the original show’s fans, or both!