Essays on Technology and Culture

Problematic Media and How to Live With It

A while back, my Twitter feed was blowing up about an episode of the podcast Top Four, wherein Marco and Tiffany Arment discuss their picks for the worst four Weezer singles. I didn’t listen, largely because I didn’t have an hour to devote to the discussion, and I already know Weezer’s worst four singles. Frankly, Weezer has two good albums: the self-titled blue album, and Pinkerton, and I will hear no defenses of their subsequent material. Well, the song “Keep Fishin’” gets a pass, mostly because of the music video. Muppets make almost anything better

Going back to Pinkerton, like all good Weezer fans, it’s an album I appreciate a lot. I, too, was once a shy, love-lorn dork who found a seemingly kindred spirit in Rivers’s emotional lyrics. Then, I came across an amazing piece in The Awl about Pinkerton that woke me up to the album’s serious issues. Between the casual racism of “Across the Sea” with its broken English lyrics and exotification of an underage Japanese woman, the rape-apology-not-apology of “Butterfly” and the queer erasure of “Pink Triangle,” there’s a lot of gross to unpack. As a queer person, I know my feelings on the latter song alone have changed a lot from before I understood my sexuality. But, despite these issues that I cannot un-hear. I still like Pinkerton. It’s a great record, and one of the albums that I have deigned to be in my iPhone’s “Permanent Rotation” playlist.

I bring up Pinkerton, because it’s a good example of an ongoing debate in, for lack of a better term, “geek” circles, about the media we love, and whether loving a piece of media requires us to look beyond the issues it has. The word “problematic” is thrown around a lot—and is a source of backlash in itself. From a distance, the argument looks a lot like people saying that beloved geek works are sacrosanct and above criticism, at least when those criticisms are focused on “social” issues like gender, sexuality, race, class, etc. On the other side, you have the people shouting that loving these problematic things is the same as endorsing their problematic aspects—though the existence of this side is largely mythical, it’s more a side effect of the volume of the other side.

What I find odd about this debate is that there is a long geek tradition of tearing down works based on certain flaws. For example, there’s a long-running YouTube series called “CinemaSins” that takes a film, often ones that have popularity among geeks, and tallies up all the various goofs, inconsistencies, plot holes, and other issues that happen in even the best movies. There’s a strain of geek who wants reviews to focus on what they term as “objective criticism.” Objective in this case refers to a focus on gameplay, production, special effects, and not “subjective” topics like the social concerns I mentioned above. What is it that makes one subject of critique more valid than another? You’ll get people complaining that engines wouldn’t make noise in space, but turn around to say that a gratuitous shot of a female character in her underwear that adds nothing to the story is no problem at all.

There’s an idea that criticism of a work is something that determines whether it is good or bad, or more accurately, whether the reader should spend money on it. We conflate the “review” which is, by nature, a subjective set of opinions on a work with the intent of making the case of its merits as something to spend money on with “criticism,” an academic discipline that attempts to identify aspects of a work and what it’s trying to say. In other words, a video game review is: “Action-packed, great controls, graphics aren’t great: 3.5 stars,” while a video game critique is: “The series continually denies agency to female characters…” One can use both to come to a purchasing decision, of course, and the lines between a review and a critique are often blurry outside of academia. It’s still important to make the distinction.

The distinction matters because too much of geek identity is tied up in the media we choose to consume. Some people are video game geeks, some music geeks, some comedy, or sci-fi, or anime, or a combination of a bunch of these. It becomes our identity: we tie ourselves to the things we love and they become part of us. When a criticism we see as off-base is levied at a piece of media we love, it’s easy to take it as an attack on us. The social critique reads to the media-affiliated geek as “This is bad, and you are a bad person for liking it,” but that is almost never the intent. Social criticism is just another way of thinking about the work. Many critics (in the academic sense) approach their subjects out of a sincere love of the thing they’re critiquing.

As long as we allow our identities to be defined by the media we love, we’re going to keep running up against legitimate critiques of that media and puncture our balloons. It’s important that we understand that we are allowed to like what we like, and to dislike what we dislike. It’s also important that we realize that, as we grow older and learn more about ourselves and others, our opinions may change. The rest of the world doesn’t have to agree with our specific media opinions, either. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong; it doesn’t mean you’re right, and vice-versa. And we really need to learn that nobody is going to take the media we love away from us. The days of Jack Thompson, the Comics Code Authority, and The Hayes Code are all behind us.

More importantly, we need to come to terms with what it means to love someone else’s creations. When we love a work of art—a video game, an album, a movie—we need to acknowledge its flaws, not to single them out, but because we know it can be better. The attitude of loving a thing “warts and all” doesn’t mean ignoring the warts. It means acknowledging them, and understanding someone else may not see it your way. And that is okay. The people who make social critiques, who talk about the problematic nature of a lot of the things we geeks love, they’re not doing it to hurt us. They’re doing it out of love. It comes from the same place as your love. The sooner we understand this, the better.