Commentary

Seven Signs of Bad Media Analysis

The Royal Duel from Black Panther.

Black Panther is terrible because it endorses absolute monarchy, unlike the rest of the MCU, which is happy to let a billionaire like Tony Stark run the planet.

Analyzing media is what we do here at Mythcreants, and we encourage others to do so as well, whether for an audience or just for themselves. Nothing is ever “just a story.” Stories have meaning, whether the creator intended for them to or not, and our world is better when people think about how their media works.

However, that doesn’t mean all analysis is good analysis. Reviews often give popular stories way more credit than they deserve, and critiques can sometimes go off the rails so badly you wonder if you and the critic are talking about the same story. While it’s often impossible to know if someone’s analysis is accurate without examining the media in question for yourself, there are a few common warning signs that’ll let you know it’s time to get out a grain of salt. Or maybe the whole salt shaker.

1. Unrelated Points

Data holding his pet spot from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Did you know Spot was actually played by at least six different cats? It really makes me lose all respect for Data’s character.

You press play on a video that promises to explain the problems with the main character of a popular anime. That sounds like a good way to kill fifteen minutes, but then the critic goes off on a long tangent about the character’s voice actor and how they’re a bad person. They steal candy from children and don’t use their turn signal when changing lanes. What a monster!

What does the voice actor’s moral fiber have to do with the character, you ask? Nothing at all. It doesn’t matter if the critic is right or wrong here, because they’ve stopped talking about the topic at hand and gone off on a separate rant. The same dynamic is at play when critics obsess over how much the director was paid or go on at length about some other film a studio is making.

At best, this indicates the critic has trouble organizing their thoughts, and if you keep going, they’ll eventually get back to the point. But more likely, they aren’t interested in analyzing the media at all and are just looking for something to vent their spleen over. This is a common tactic when there isn’t enough material within the story to support the critic’s thesis, so they go looking for it elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes background info can be really interesting. I enjoy long-form videos on how the Hobbit films were made just as much as I enjoy scathing critiques of them as films. But when the wires between behind-the-scenes information and the quality of the story itself are crossed, you end up doing justice to neither.

2. Vague Praise

Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus from the second Matrix film poster. The Matrix sequels completely reimagine the entire scifi action genre. As what, we’re not entirely sure.

A popular writer just released their latest novel, so you search out a review to see if the book is worth your money. The reviewer is pretty excited about the book, praising its visceral description and witty dialogue. Then they get to the plot and are suddenly a lot less specific. It’s kind of a cross between a coming-of-age story and a story about dealing with the consequences of old age, the reviewer says. Really it defies description; just trust them, it’s good.

This kind of vagueness is a red flag because few storytelling elements actually defy description. When they do, it’s usually because those elements are nonsensical and confusing. You see this most often when it comes to plots because a lot of people believe that being unclear is the same as being deep, but it happens with other elements too. Characters are sometimes praised as complex and lifelike when they’re really just inconsistent, and badly choreographed fight scenes get mislabeled as “realistic” on a regular basis.

If you’re lucky, the media in question is actually good, and the reviewer just isn’t yet skilled enough in their craft to describe the more complex elements. It’s also possible that this is one of those rare stories that actually does defy description.*

However, it’s more likely that the reviewer has stumbled onto a flaw in the story and doesn’t want to admit it. Maybe they’re too attached to the story to acknowledge its flaw, or maybe they don’t want to deal with the fan rage that comes from critiquing popular media. Either way, their shift from specific to vague is a sign that their analysis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

3. Misplaced Anger

Thanos with his gauntlet from Avengers: Infinity War First of all, Thanos, how dare you.

You pop in your headphones and get ready to enjoy a podcast about the latest film to hit theaters. The host is excited and energetic; so far, so good. But then they start to get really mad that a certain character arc didn’t resolve properly. HOW COULD THEY LEAVE THE HERO’S FATHER ISSUES HANGING, the host yells into their microphone. HOW COULD THEY DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEEE?

Whoa, calm down, imaginary example critic.

Anger is sometimes justified when analyzing media. If a story is sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted, critics have a right to get mad, especially if they are a member of the affected group. Bigoted stories do real harm, both by reinforcing hateful beliefs and by traumatizing marginalized audiences. That certainly makes me angry.

But when a critic gets furious over a story’s technical failures, that’s a red flag. Bad stories can be frustrating, especially when they’re highly anticipated, but they’re still just entertainment, not something to get angry over. When a critic gets mad anyway, it makes them hard to take seriously because they’re blowing the problem so far out of proportion. That doesn’t say good things about their objectivity, even if the issue they’re getting angry over is real.

Worse, this kind of unjustified anger feeds into the toxic sense of entitlement that surrounds so many major media releases. Instead of a passionate discourse about how stories could be better, we end up with unproductive shouting matches where no one learns anything. This is also the sort of environment that leads to storytellers being harassed because their work wasn’t up to someone’s standards, a problem that’s magnified if the storyteller in question is part of any marginalized groups.

4. Saviorism

Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and R2D2 from Phantom Menace. Phantom Menace is going to fix Star Wars by finally introducing a cold, hard scientific explanation for the Force.

Good news: there’s a new hard scifi novel out, and this reviewer really loves it. They love it so much they say it’ll finally make hard scifi worth reading. It won’t be like all those other hard scifi novels that are bad and gross, the reviewer promises. In fact it’ll cure all the genre’s ills without breaking a sweat!

When someone’s analysis holds up a piece of media like the savior of its genre, the first problem is that it’s almost always overpromising. It’s extremely difficult for books written by humans to live up to that kind of hype, and frankly it’s rude to set a storyteller up for failure like that. If a story is good, by all means say it’s good, but praise beyond a reasonable level should arouse suspicion.

At the same time, reviews that treat a genre like it needs fixing make it sound like the reviewer just doesn’t like the genre much. This in turn makes it difficult for fans of the genre to gauge how applicable the review will be to their experience. Is the story a shining exemplar of everything they love, or does it lack all the things they want from their favorite genre, and that’s why the reviewer likes it? No one knows!

If a story is so good that it brings in audiences from outside the genre, that’s great to know, and reviewers can say so. There’s nothing wrong with writing that you normally don’t care for hard scifi but the book you’re reviewing is good enough to be an exception. Likewise, all genres of fiction have common problems, and if a story addresses some of them, that should be advertised. But the analysis needs to be specific. Vague statements about revolutionizing the genre just make it sound like something existing fans won’t actually like.

5. Problematic Critiques

Rey with Luke's lightsaber in Phantom Menace. It’s terrible that Rey can use a lightsaber like that. She really shouldn’t be able to.

There’s a hot new comic about to hit stores where a badass Latina knight befriends a dragon and defeats an evil king. Sounds way cool! But the reviews aren’t so kind. The protagonist isn’t really “authentic,” they say. She never once says a line in Spanish. Never mind that the entire story takes place in a fantasy world where Spain doesn’t exist.

When critics penalize a story based on marginalized traits of either the characters or the author, it’s not only wrong in itself, but it also means the rest of their analysis should be treated with extreme skepticism. They’ve shown that their objectivity can be trampled over by biased cultural attitudes whether they are aware of it or not.

Sometimes this type of critique is obvious. When reviewers tell marginalized authors that their writing doesn’t seem marginalized enough, we know to roll our eyes and go elsewhere. But in other cases, it’s possible for problematic material to slip under our noses. No matter how many types of subtle bigotry we’re familiar with, there are always more to be discovered. It really is the gift that keeps on giving, except that no one wants it.

The best way to spot this kind of thing is to pause for a moment when something feels off and imagine how the critique would sound if applied to a more privileged character or author. It’s obviously nonsense to say a character isn’t “authentically white,” for example. In this way, your subconscious can help you out, even if you don’t intellectually recognize the problematic content. You might not be aware that because fan fiction is overwhelmingly associated with women, it’s often used as an insult to mock female authors, but it would probably feel a little weird to accuse a respected male author of writing fan fiction.

6. Targeting the Audience

Why would anyone think Kylo Ren can be redeemed? It’s not like the films keep hinting he can be redeemed, except when they do.

A critic you follow has finally found an anime series they love. It’s the best cartoon they’ve seen in years, and they’re not afraid to say so. The only problem they have is how other fans think the villain can be redeemed. The villain is obviously way too evil for that, the critic says; why would anyone think they could return to the path of good? It doesn’t mean anything that there are long scenes with the villain talking about their feelings and wondering if they could ever achieve redemption. Clearly, this is something other fans came up with because they have terrible taste.

In this scenario, the critic is making the cardinal mistake of going after the audience rather than the media itself. That’s pretty annoying for other critics since we spend about half of our time assuring people that we’re not criticizing them for liking flawed media, but I digress. The real issue is that this sort of critique puts responsibility on the wrong party.

It’s true that fans often get invested in some pretty terrible ideas about stories they like. They imagine a loving relationship between characters who at best have no chemistry and at worst are flat out abusive. They excuse a villain’s heinous acts because that villain is cute and cuddly. But as bad as these ideas are, they rarely come from nowhere.

If the fans are shipping two wildly inappropriate characters, it’s probably because the story wants those characters to be shipped, trying to force romantic tension between them even though it’s a bad idea. Likewise, when audiences are overly forgiving of a villain, it’s usually because the story fails to put that villain’s actions in an appropriate context. In an ideal world, everyone would have the analysis skills necessary to see through such ruses, but until that happens, the main responsibility lies with the people who set the trap, not those who fell for it.

7. Ignoring Context

Wakandan soldiers battling in Black Panther. Black Panther’s battle scenes are so unrealistic, unlike the rest of the MCU of course.

The latest installment in this fantasy trilogy is just terrible, or so the critics say. It’s got dragons that shouldn’t be able to get off the ground, let alone cruise majestically through the clouds. The elves are supposedly immortal, yet they don’t overpopulate the land. The book even has anachronistic combinations of technology from the early and late Middle Ages, if you can believe it. Of course, previous books in the trilogy also had all these problems, but this is the bad one!

This particular type of bad analysis can be the most difficult to spot because it usually starts with a legitimate critique. Someone will point out problems in a well-known story, and while something feels wrong in the back of your mind, you can’t put your finger on it. Then, suddenly it clicks: the critic is treating the story like it exists in a vacuum.

When an entire franchise of stories contains the same conceits and problems, it doesn’t make sense to single one out as specifically having the problem. It’s reasonable to use examples from the most famous or egregious entries in the franchise, but if the critic isn’t clear that they’re looking at the issue holistically, it seems like they’re being especially harsh to one film for their own reasons.

Likewise, it’s reasonable to critique bad tropes that keep appearing in stories, but it’s a bad look for critics to focus exclusively on the marginalized storytellers who use these tropes. It contributes to the problem of marginalized storytellers being held to a higher standard than their privileged colleagues, and it dilutes any commentary the critic was trying to make. This doesn’t mean that marginalized storytellers are off limits, just that critics need to be aware of whose stories they cover and in what ratio. This isn’t news to most critics, but a few still need to learn so that their critiques can be judged for what they say instead of who they say it about.


Critiquing media is a complex business, and simply displaying one of these warning signs doesn’t mean a critique is necessarily wrong, but it does mean there’s reason to be cautious. Mythcreants encourages everyone to be critical consumers of media, and, likewise, we encourage everyone to be critical consumers of media critique. And yes, in case you were wondering, we also encourage you to critically consume this critique of media critique. It’s critical consumption all the way down!

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Bunny

    Can I just say how happy it made me to see Lindsay Ellis linked in the article! That’s one of my favorite Youtube channels and her analysis of The Hobbit is spot-on and fascinating.

    If I may shamelessly plug a few of my other faves, Jenny Nicholson and Chris Stuckmann also provide awesome media analyses, and more. I recommend Jenny in particular if you’re interested in Disney theme parks

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Jenny Nicholson is pretty great. Disney theme park history is so weird and creepy!

    • SunlessNick

      You’re a bad car.

      • Bunny

        There make be snakes!

    • SunlessNick

      More seriously, much as I love Rogue One, I can’t deny that Jenny’s evisceration of it is dauntingly well argued.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Honestly her two Star Wars videos are easily my least favorite videos she’s made, and are part of why it took me so long to start watching her regular stuff, since that was how I first heard about her. First we have a video about how you’re wrong to dislike Last Jedi, then a video about how you’re also wrong if you like Rogue One? Those are actually classic examples of the “blaming the audience” stuff I talk about in this article. Granted I didn’t watch either video all the way through so maybe she got to some more legit critiques later but that’s not what she opened with.

        But oh well, feelings were running super high when TLJ came out and for understandable reasons, a couple bad videos don’t ruin the rest.

  2. GeneralCommentor

    Relatively minor word-smithing qualm:

    “…and by traumatizing marginalized audiences.”

    I feel like you may have gone a little far with the hyperbole there. I definitely agree that works that either contain bigoted subtext (or regular-level text) have larger negative repercussions and are not going to be appreciated by the subjects of this bigotry but your wording here kind of makes it sound like the mental constitutions of marginalized groups are fragile to the point of absurdity. I’d suggest maybe using something more along the lines of “alienating” or “frustrating marginalized audiences”.

    Overall thoughts on the article as a whole: Alright, but a lot of the points feel overly obvious or like low-hanging fruit. I’d have preferred to see more points like #7 which go into the nature of criticism and analysis and less like #1 & 2 that feel like more generalized issues with production values.

  3. Innocent Bystander

    The saviorism part reminds me of when “The Cruelty” was being published and both the author and his publicist made a point of putting down YA novels (which the book was categorized as) for “being too morally simple” and that his work would be more morally complicated. It didn’t help that a male author was saying this about a genre that is mostly by women for younger women.

    Needless to say, many YA readers boycotted his work because of that statement.

  4. Mr. Bottle

    While I definitely agree with No. 6, I’m not sure using Kylo Ren as an example is accurate. While characters seem to believe he’s redeemable (though I cannot call to mind any redeeming quality he may possess), every time he’s given a chance at redemption, he keeps rejecting it, committing patricide in one of them.

    So while him being redeemable may not be inaccurate (he does feel the “pull to the light” as he calls it), I think it would be more precise to mention how he actively resists that call to be good, actively resists redemption.

    • LazerRobot

      I’m pretty sure what Oren is getting at in this article, is that the movies themselves continually hint at Kylo’s redemption, not that it will necessarily happen. In the context of point #6, the article is explaining why it isn’t ridiculous for fans to believe he will be redeemed, and that it’s unfair for critics to call them stupid for it. Whether it happens or not, and whether it’s logical or not, the movies strongly hint at it, so it’s reasonable that fans pick up on that.

  5. Xelian

    Very useful and well laid out, I can think of a few Youtube critics this applies to.

  6. EquinoxNight

    Hey there, I loved the article but I have just have one mild question about Point 5.

    I may have misunderstood, but are you saying that a story with diverse or possibly marginalized characters cannot be criticized without it being about innate cultural bias?

    For example, I never thought that the criticism of how Rey used a lightsaber was about the shape of her chromosomes, but because, unlike Luke, she received zero tutelage in its use. Luke tended to rely on his blaster until a solid halfway through Empire, although he received it at the start of A New Hope. People didn’t refrain from mocking his abilities with it because he was male, but because we saw Ben show him the basics, and then Yoda instruct him more in the ways of the Force (I’m assuming from his performance against Vader that lightsaber training was part of this).

    Also, some of your complaints about criticisms of Black Panther seem to indicate that you’re taking these criticisms as assaults on the movie due to the all-black cast. I thought it was a good movie and had definite positive messages about black empowerment and the removal of bigotry, but that doesn’t put it above all possible criticisms on other scores.

    I do agree wholeheartedly that minorities need to be represented and encouraged more in popular fiction, and again, I may have misunderstood. Thank you for the article and please keep writing!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      No, I don’t believe I ever said that stories with marginalized characters or authors can’t be criticized. What we must be careful of is critiques that focus heavily on those marginalized traits. You’re right that many people claim their issue with Rey’s lightsaber skills is that she wasn’t trained, not that she’s a woman. But you’ll note that these people don’t have any issue with Luke being able to fly an X-Wing despite never being trained for it. His prior experience was in flying civilian aircraft, not military spacecraft, but we generally accept that those skills would transfer over. Similarly, Rey is trained with a staff, so insisting her skill wouldn’t transfer over to a lightsaber is pretty sexist.

      This does not mean you can’t criticize anything about the Force Awakens. For example, I think it was a serious mistake to have Kylo Ren so thoroughly defeated at the end, because now he’s no longer threatening. That, however, is a separate issue from Rey being able to use a lightsaber.

      As for Black Panther, it’s a similar situation. Most of the critiques people make of Black Panther are actually critiques of the entire MCU, which is also fine, I love critiquing the MCU, but singling out Black Panther is a pretty bad look. There’s definitely some bleedthrough in my examples for #5 and #7, but I hope this clarifies things for you.

      • SunlessNick

        Similarly, Rey is trained with a staff, so insisting her skill wouldn’t transfer over to a lightsaber is pretty sexist.

        They are different skill sets, although I’ve seen the fight get a lot of praise from reenactment types for Rey’s early moves being what you’d expect to see from someone using a sword when they’re used to a staff.

        One difference I always bring up is that Luke’s life was fairly idyllic, if not rich, whereas Rey was a hardscrabble scavenger in a postapocalyptic wasteland who’d have been dead long ago if she wasn’t the type to get good at things quickly.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Staff fighting and laser sword fighting are different in real life it’s true, but so is flying a crop duster and flying an F15, and those are both atmospheric craft!

          • SunlessNick

            Yep.

      • EquinoxNight

        Okay, I think I understand now.

        You’re saying that a critique that targets ONLY inconsistencies and flaws that concern marginalized characters or people groups definitely looks suspicious.

        For example, someone who sang the praises of the entire rest of the MCU but lambasted Black Panther would deserve the raised eyebrows they would receive, as would someone who complained about Rey’s instant proficiency with a lightsaber but not about how being a great X-Wing pilot automatically made Poe a great TIE fighter pilot (or any other inconsistency concerning a white, straight, and/or male character).

        In other words, just because a character is a marginalized person does not exempt them from possible criticism, but a person who criticizes only or mostly only marginalized characters is likely allowing their bigotry to show through.

        Did I get that right?

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Agree with everything. Also: When people see some kind of feminist/anti-racist/otherwise ideological conspiracy behind a movie’s failings, when it’s really just run of the mill failings.

        I was in a Facebook discussion with a dude who thought he was being unfairly called sexist for criticizing a lot of female-led movies. He said that he doesn’t mind a movie being female-led at all, since he liked Wonder Woman! It’s just that he hates how in so many movies, the moviemakers only care about broadcasting feminism, and care nothing for the plot. He gave a bunch of examples, I think the new Star Wars were among them, but also 2016 Ghostbusters.

        I said I didn’t much care for 2016 Ghostbusters despite being a big fan of Bridesmaids and Spy. I thought the pacing often felt off, it seems a bit cringeworthy racist to have only white scientists and a black street smart and sassy character, a character like Holtzmann felt more like a collection of quirks than a real person, and some running jokes, like the wonton soup thing, weren’t funny at all. I think these are pretty common criticisms among people who didn’t really like that movie. But can you explain to me how any of these elements were caused by the moviemakers wanting to broadcast a feminist message? Like, what’s so feminist about wonton soup, for instance, that FEMINISM would lead someone to include that joke despite it not being funny?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          People will convince themselves that feminism is the cause of just about all evils, it never ceases to amaze me. The dangerous ones are the people who don’t fabricate this shit completely out of thin air but find a feminist doing something bad and then wield that example like a club. “This one feminist was racist therefor feminism is racist!” It’s an obvious logical fallacy but people are happy to fall for it.

  7. Deana

    Had a good laugh when I saw Phantom Menace under “Saviorism.” I have actually used the movie when lecturing on the debate between Luther and Erasmus on the Freedom of the Will.

    The short version goes something like this: is it possible for a savior to fall? Constantine would work as well, but more people know Star Wars so… Anakin it is.

    I was nearly dragged from the room to be tarred and feathered.

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