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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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!
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