In a recent tweet you said:
“Modern media critique includes knowing how to navigate right-wing culture war attacks. Any new show probably has problems worth talking about, but you have to say it without sounding like you agree with bigots.”
Do you have any advice on how to do this?
Thank youDave L
Hey, Dave, great to hear from you! As luck would have it, I do indeed have some advice on this sometimes-thorny topic.
The first thing to consider is whether the story in question is in your wheelhouse at all. If it’s not, it’s probably best to just leave the critique unpublished. For example, I don’t at all care for Disney’s practice of remaking their animated movies into live action, but I’ve never really written about that issue on Mythcreants before. As such, I wouldn’t start such a critique with the upcoming Little Mermaid film, because it would look like I was singling that movie out for daring to make Ariel Black.
On the other hand, I have a long history of critiquing big-budget fantasy adaptations, so when I inevitably publish something about Rings of Power, it’s less likely to look like I’m piling on with the people who are mad about Sophia Nomvete playing the best dwarven character we’ve had in ages.
Once you’ve decided whether something is in your sphere of critiques or not, it’s time to consider how to write the critique itself. This can be tricky, since a lot of bad-faith critique isn’t as blatant as “BLACK MERMAID BAD.” Instead, people make huge deals out of technical issues. With Rings of Power, the reactionaries are all apparently upset that it’s deviating from Tolkien’s canon, as laid out in some letters that almost no one has ever read. With She-Hulk, there’s a lot of noise made about the show’s allegedly bad CGI.
It’s hard to say whether these critiques have merit. She-Hulk’s CGI doesn’t seem particularly bad to me, but I don’t exactly have an eye for these things. Nor can I say if Rings of Power is actually contradicting what Tolkien wrote down. Granted, I also don’t care, but that’s another issue.
Assuming those points are correct though, how big a deal are they really? Be honest about it. Even if we accept that She-Hulk’s CGI isn’t the greatest, the show is still primarily a courtroom comedy. How much does bad CGI really hurt it? Was it also an unforgivable mistake when Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy made some pretty hefty changes, or is it only a problem when Rings of Power does it?
After that, you can move on to more substantial critiques, like how Rings of Power’s plot can generously be described as “sedate” or how giving the Harfoots faux-Irish accents turns them into a bunch of nasty stereotypes. But you should always keep fairness in mind. Other shows have had similar problems in the past, so it shouldn’t feel like you’re inconsistently condemning Rings of Power for them. Describe the problem and explain the damage done, but don’t sensationalize it.
Finally, there will always be judgment calls. I didn’t much care for Dead End: Paranormal Park, but there are so few shows with a trans boy (voiced by a trans actor) in the lead role that I’m not looking to write a critique of it. I have critiqued similar cartoons in the past, so it wouldn’t be out of nowhere, but that extra context means I just wouldn’t feel good about it.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your critiquing!
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Comments on How Should I Critique Controversial Stories?
Thank you for taking on this tough issue.
And I hope you can excuse me that I don’t entirely agree with your conclusions.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that at least in the examples given in your response, we’re not talking about works of marginalized people speaking their truth. We’re talking about products of corporations all to eager to try to use their marginalized actors as shields against criticism, and to push the narrative of “only bigots dislike this work, therefore you should praise this work or be silent” that benefits their bottom line.
And if we fall into this narrative of works being “too progressive to criticise”, only the corporations and right wingers win.
I’m still bitter about what happened with Last Jedi. Not because of the movie – I don’t care about Star Wars that much – but because of the discourse at the time, when the only people publishing reviews critical of it were right wing culture warriors. There were, evidently, perfectly reasonable things for fans to be disgruntled about, but at the time they only came laced with right wing talking points. And by playing along with “the left don’t dare criticise this only because it’s woke”, we only make it sound like they have a point.
Therefore I’m a little concerned, because it seems to me that the answers here focus mostly on “how to pick which works or work elements you have no business criticising”, and I think it makes us fall into the trap I described above.
Likewise, I don’t really see the harm in coming to the same conclusions as bigots on other points of these works, even if it may feel icky. Like, maybe the CGI in She-Hulk really is that bad to some people. Or the changes to Tolkien lore made by Rings of Power really harm the story. I don’t know, I haven’t watched either of those. But I think it’s important to be able to make such judgments, while at the same time stressing that the progressive elements are not the real problem with the work. If, for example, we’re afraid to say that CGI is bad because it could be a dogwhistle for “women in superhero roles are bad”, then the only message that will reach the people disappointed with the CGI will be “CGI is bad and that’s why women in superhero roles ruin movies” from the culture warriors.
I hope I’m not misunderstanding your points here.
Unfortunately, I believe you have misunderstood me, at least to some extent.
First, there were and continue to be lots of Last Jedi critiques from non-bigoted sources, you just haven’t heard of them because they were drowned out by the right-wing culture warriors screaming about how Star Wars was ruined forever.
It’s the nature of critique that a nuanced take is less likely to be shared than “EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS THE WORST AND SATAN.” Last Jedi has good points and bad points, but that wasn’t what the reactionary crowd was interested in. They only cared about using it as a platform to justify their pre-existing hatred of Rey, and their entirely new hatred of a character with pink hair.
Second, nothing in my reply says these stories can’t be critiqued. What I advise is an ounce of caution in *why* you’re critiquing them. If you’ve never critiqued a Star Wars movie before, and Last Jedi is the one you decide to start on, you should think about why that is. You might discover that you’ve had a knee jerk reaction that it would be better not to publish.
The other examples are similar. Do you normally talk about technical problems like bad CGI? Are you interested in looking at how those problems do or don’t impact a story? If so, then She-Hulk is probably worth talking about. If not, and She-Hulk is the story that makes you want to talk about that, there’s a good chance you’re having a knee jerk reaction that it would be better not to publish.
I guess what threw me off was that I interpreted the answers as “examine how you look to the public when making the criticism” and not “examine possible bias that may drive you to make the criticism”.
Optics are also something to consider whenever you publish something for public consumption. For example: if we were to tweet out “Wow, Holdo’s plan is really bad” it would be hard to parse what we mean by that.
We could be referring to the fact that Holdo is written to be a poor commander on purpose because the writers wanted conflict with Poe, or we could just be one of those people who are mad at Holdo for having the gall to be a woman in charge of things.
If I were just talking to my friends, they’d know what I meant, but the internet at large does not know me, and it would be easy to interpret this hypothetical tweet in the other direction. When I critique Last Jedi (which I do), I take care to provide context for what I’m saying so that I won’t be misunderstood.
It might not feel “fair” that we have to consider how our critiques come across when writing them, but that’s the reality of the job.
If I may, while being aware that few people will care, explain a bit more why some Tolkien fans don’t like Rings of Power (although yes, there are plenty of racists who are mad about the non-White characters): Rings of Power is adapted from the second half of the Silmarillion, the prequel book of sorts to LotR and the Hobbit. It was edited and published after J.R.R.T.’s death by his son, but the letters are separate and not widely considered canon even by the devoted fans who read them.
The Silmarillion covers the first and second ages of Middle-Earth. (LOTR and Hobbit are the third age). It could be considered two books in one, but as one can imagine, the events of the second age flow directly from the first age and are hard to understand and appreciate without knowing about the first. Rings of Power, as I understand it, has only the rights to the second age, so it can’t reference a lot of the context needed to faithfully adapt the book. Neither has it tried to remain faithful.
Rings of Power has made a lot of drastic changes to the Silmarillion, and a lot of characterization especially is different. Stuff like Galadriel attempting boat theft and Elrond’s oath comes across as extremely grating to people who have read the book, because it directly contradicts their book versions to an almost absurd degree. I suspect I would like RoP a lot better if I had not read the Silmarillion.
That’s not quite accurate. The Rings of Power is specifically NOT based on The Silmarillion. On the contrary, the show CANNOT use Silmarillion material at all, since Amazon did not get the rights to that. They ONLY got the rights to use material from the Lord of the Rings: mainly the appendices, which include short summaries of events in the Second Age.
(While I don’t know for sure, I imagine the restriction was because Christopher Tolkien, still alive at the time the deal was made, refused to license the books he edited, while the LOTR licensing rights had already been granted decades earlier.)
This is, of course, absolutely bonkers. Imagine trying to make an adaptation of The Hobbit while you’re forbidden from using anything found only in the book, having to reconstruct the story solely from references to it in the Lord of the Rings. How could you possibly keep Hobbit fans happy?
It means that many details found in The Silmarillion, as well as in Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-Earth, and as mentioned, various letters by JRR Tolkien—including names, characters, events, etc.—cannot be explicitly used in the show unless they are also included or alluded to in TLOTR. They can show Galadriel’s brother, but they cannot name him, for example.
These are not incredibly obscure details, as “some letters that almost no one has ever read” implies, either. At least The Silmarillion is “core curriculum” for Tolkien fans. So given the constraints, I don’t believe there was any way to make the show that would please purist Tolkien geeks.
Now, the showrunners have gone further than that and only loosely adapted (or if you prefer, contradicted) even the material they DID license, in order to serve what they see as the storytelling needs of the show. So if what you were hoping for was a faithful presentation of Tolkien’s vision, the show is certainly not that. For some of the most hardcore members of the fanbase that is a problem in itself (naturally enough), independent of any racist objections, but of course the show is not made for them.
In my opinion, the real problem with stories like Little Mermaid and Rings of Power is “sanctity”. When a work becomes popular enough, people put it on an altar. And when something is on an altar, changing it will be seen as grave robbery, or worse.
Of course, the sacrosanct work can be an adaptation on its own. That is why people don’t usually get angry at Peter Jackson’s alterations. Before the making of movies, Lord of the Rings was still rather niche (there were some previous movies, yes, but even they didn’t get much popularity). But come Peter Jackson, and popularity exploded.
If anything, Rings of Power is compared unfavorably to not only Tolkien’s original, but Jackson’s as well. They are both at the altar.
It is not diversity, that is the problem. It is altering something seen as sacrosanct. In fact, original works with diversity receive much less criticism than adaptations.
Dead End: Paranormal Park it is a great example of this. As an original work, rather than an adaptation, it is not on an altar (not yet, at least). No fans will view its making as heresy, and it will be judged on its own merits, rather than on how it broke something that didn’t need fixing.
There’s something to that, though in my experience, the main factors at play are how well known something is and how entitled the reactionaries feel to it, rather than if it’s being changed.
For example: The Captain Marvel movie didn’t change anything about the MCU or the character Captain Marvel. She’s been a woman for decades at this point. And yet the reactionary bigots still threw a fit over it before the movie was even out.
Then you have something like Steven Universe, which is super well known but not part of a specific franchise that reactionaries were attached to. It gets it’s fair share of right wing mockery, but not nearly as much as something like Captain Marvel because the reactionary pundit’s audience just doesn’t care as much about Steven Universe.
Paranormal Park simply isn’t on the reactionary’s radar because it’s both outside of franchises they care about and fairly obscure in general.
It might seem like the solution would be to focus diversity on new stories and IPs, but that’s simply not viable in the current media landscape. As obnoxious as it is, the money is in franchises, and it’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The occasional original story that breaks through simply isn’t enough to compete.
Some people were upset that Rue was Black in the Hunger Games movie
EVEN THOUGH SHE WAS BLACK IN THE BOOK!!!
Yeah there’s that too.
And this was before Woke Hollywood.
That doesn’t inspire much confidence
Hollywood is still conservative at heart. Not because they love conservatism, but because they want to stay on the safe side. That’s why they’d rather reboot a franchise that has done well in the past than invest into something new. Yes, there are some tries at new stuff, but most of the time, they are still doing what ‘has always worked.’
They’re ‘pretend-woke,’ if that.
Hey Xyder, I’m not entirely sure that you’re referring to with fans being “disrespected,” but I ask you to please not use “woke” as a pejorative like that.
Cay is right of course that Hollywood is only progressive to the point that it thinks it can make money, same with most large companies, but the use of “woke” is much more pointed than that.
You may not have heard this, but woke is a term from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that basically just means being aware of racism. It’s since been appropriated by the far right as a scare word to mean anything they don’t like, and now they basically use it as a shorthand for “has Black people in it.”
If you’d like a longer explanation: https://theurbannews.com/opinion/2021/how-did-woke-become-a-slur/
I’m explaining this to you because you’ve been receptive to feedback in the past, and I hope you will be again. I don’t think you meant any harm.
I’ll keep that in mind.
It’s pretty eye opening, to tell the truth. I always thought “Woke” meant “turning social justice into a commodity” and that’s all.
I’m not American, so the use of these words come from second hand sources. Nonetheless I have a feeling there’s still going to be unintentional inappropriateness on my part that need correcting in time. On a quest for social justice I’m still an apprentice.
I thank you for your patience in advance.
Oh, and as for the disrespect of fans, I mean personal attacks by the creators at any backlash by fans. “You toxic trolls” “you reactionary manbabies” “these negative reviews are nothing but an organized campaign run by ists and phobes”.
That kind of stuff.
I admit I’m not as socially aware as I ought to, but last time I checked, “fan” is not a synonym for “bigot” or “bully”
Thank you for understanding.
As to the fan thing, I’d just ask that you keep in mind the difference between lashing out at fans in general and lashing out at bigots specifically.
Both things happen, but one is a problem and the other is not. Sometimes a creator (director, author, etc) will get mad and last out at fans for not liking their work, which is a shitty thing to do.
But in a lot of cases, they’re specifically referring to supposed “fans” who do toxic shit like harass cast and crew, leave racist reviews, etc. If you haven’t done those things, they aren’t talking about you.
And sometimes you’ll have blurry areas, where it can behoove us to grant some benefit of the doubt. If, for example, an actor is stressed out from racist attacks and they forget to differentiate between the bigots and the regular fans, we can forgive them for being imperfect in a difficult situation.
I guess so. Although the creators could still be more respectful to the fans.
I’m sick and tired of being the butt of every joke and scapegoat to everything that goes wrong.