Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Difference Between Criticism, Rage, and Villification: I May Not Like J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek' Movies But I Don't Hate the Man

I happened to discover Emily Asher-Perrin's essay Protecting What You Love: On the Difference Between Criticism, Rage, and Vilification over at and thought it could be of interest given our recent conversations about Star Wars, the Hugo awards, and other related topics.

Fans are a passionate group. Self-identified members of "fandom" can be especially passionate.

Social media has only exacerbated those feelings as accessibility often creates a sense of entitlement and a twisted sense of "ownership" between consumers of a particular type of art and/or entertainment and those who make it.

I would also suggest that the entitlement and anger felt by the most rabid of fans can reflect both jealousy and envy in that while they may admire the creators of a given object of popular culture, most will never be able to have that same level of success both because most fans (like most people) lack the talent and also the courage to try to become a creator.

[Retired professional wrestler and Chicago native CM Punk described his relationship with Twitter as millions of entitled people yelling into the open window of his house and then expecting him to opposed to telling them to go to hell and then closing the windows in their faces. Spot on me thinks.]

New media, technology, and a coarseness to our public discourse has also created an environment where fans are not just critical of a given cultural worker's art. Instead, they translate it into personal invective.

Of course, this has likely always happened as art moves emotions. Thus, the public and spectator transfer those feelings to the art and its creators.

Writing in response to what she views as a decidedly negative moment in which the Hugos are being derailed by entitled angry white men and their allies, and various elements in fan culture are out of control, having forgotten or never learned basic rules of civil discourse and propriety, Asher-Perrin observes:

David Gerrold (who is known for penning the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” among other accomplishments) went to Facebook recently to discuss his issues with fans who take creatives to task as “the enemy” when those people don’t handle properties the way they’d like. The point he was trying to make is that creation is a complicated process, and no one sets out to make something horrible. Getting up in arms about this writer or that director as though they’ve personally slighted you and everything that matters to you is not only ridiculous, but simply isn't constructive or productive for either the fan community or the creatives being taken to task. It’s fine not to like things. But it’s wrong to spew vitriol simply because something you normally like is currently not your cuppa tea. 
The dividing line between criticism and keyboard-smashing rage is hard for some to parse out. And this is especially true because criticisms can get heated, particularly when the critique is centered on a group of people or subject that is often mistreated by fiction. And the fact is, angry criticism is not automatically bad criticism. Angry criticism might lack clarity on occasion, but that doesn’t make it incorrect by any means. However, the point of criticism is to direct our attention to places where the material might need work or deeper consideration—ways in which it's perpetuating regrettable patterns and stereotypes or contributing to unfortunate trends, or simply falling down on its message and mission as a work of art, whether we're talking about a Batman comic or a Virginia Woolf novel. 
And criticism is not out of place in pop culture, no matter what anyone says.
She continues with:
But maybe none of this is the point. Maybe you’re just upset with the people in charge for creating something that didn’t grab you. To which the answer is simple: Disliking something is fine. Hating a person, a human being you’ve never met, for no reason other than the creative choices they made? Even if they’re weren’t great creative choices? That’s pretty extreme. And openly attacking that human being? That’s unnecessary and damaging to all fandom communities. Choices themselves can be critiqued. But that person was doing their job, trying to make something that they were hoping you’d like. Regardless of how strong your feelings are, they do not deserve that level of fury and contempt directed right at them. 
I should mention that this goes in both directions. Creators are fans, too, and sometimes, they don’t take rationally to any manner of criticism. Sometimes they turn around and attack the fan community for not being of one mind with their decisions. In this case, they need to remember that a) they will never get everyone to love the things they make; b) there might be some good points in outside criticism that could be valuable to them going forward; and c) once they step into the role of creator, they are now acting as a professional and should behave professionally toward fans and critics alike. Unless you are being outright harassed or abused, there is no call for deriding people who have opinions on your work. It is the nature of the beast.
I am not a fan of J.J. Abrams work. I enjoyed Super 8. I felt that Cloverfield's first two acts were strong but that the film fell apart at the end. His two Star Trek films are sub-par. The latter is an abomination.

Ultimately, Abrams made two Star Trek films that looked like Trek but that possess none of its majesty, introspection, weight, or depth. In all, they are films about nothing--Trek fans for those who know nothing about Star Trek.

For those reasons, I was very concerned about his taking the reigns for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The new trailer has soothed my worries a small amount; I am still proceeding with caution in regards to the final product.

However, I do not take Abrams' cinematic failings as an indication that he is a horrible person. Perhaps, this is a function of my deep love and respect for Star Trek--but not necessarily a sense or feeling that Trek is the embodiment of my childhood.

In contrast, I have a much more personal relationship with Star Wars. But again, the rage and anger that Asher-Perrin writes about in her piece is lost on me.

A story.

Last year I saw George Lucas and his wife at a movie theater in downtown Chicago. As they walked past me and went down the escalator, I had a moment where I wanted to briefly talk to him, perhaps get an autograph or picture, and thank him for all that he has gifted the world with. Instead, I stopped myself. I wanted to make sure that he and his wife were allowed to have their private moment as normal "civilians" at the movies. Lucas noticed the look on my face, that stunned moment when I realized the creator of Star Wars was there, in my presence, mere feet away. He winked, gave me a half nod, and waved.

I am sure there are some people, maddened by the Prequels. who would have yelled at him, "you raped my childhood!"

Why do such a thing?

The work of Abrams, Lucas, and folks such as Zack Snyder can be very divisive among fandom (his Batman versus Superman trailer looks great; I am not a fan of that classic match as Supes could destroy him with ease, but Wayne's ability to pull a trump card is always great fun). Adoration by fans can make you rich and ensure that your bed is never cold or empty. The roots of that adoration can also be a source of rage and hatred. Fame is a double edged sword.

Do you think fans or "fandom" is any more entitled and mean spirited than in the past? I have to imagine that Shakespeare had folks who hated his guts and that the master painters had many enemies too.


Black Romulan said...

I don't think fans today are any more entitled or mean spirited than in the past. We just have more outlets to voice our opinions about the things we love than we've had before (and remember the old saying about the fact of everyone having an opinion being akin to the hole in one's tookus). I, for one, didn't find the SW prequels all THAT bad (except for Jar Jar Binks), and I'd even cut Star Trek: Into Darkness some slack (and would remind folks of some of the terrible movies that came out under the ST masthead while Rodenberry was still alive... Hello, ST: Final Frontier, anyone? What does God need with a spaceship?).

As for Shakespeare, the only critic he needed to please most of the time was named 'Elizabeth', and after "Merry Wives of Winsor" (far from his best work but, hey, he was under deadline) he and her were just fine; the perks of having your main patron be the queen of the (emerging) British Empire.

TenarDarell said...

What Black Romulan says.

Mass literacy and mass culture combined began to put fandom on steroids. The 19th century's first superstars were writers and actors. Dickens toured the U.S. and IIRC was mobbed, wasn't he? (I'm guessing that he got quite a few nasty grams when he killed off a character in his serials).

The Internet really kicked it up more levels. You're not just sending in a letter via a fan club. You're talking to other fans in real time, and you can share your disappointment and despite. I think the criticism becomes much more self-reinforcing this way. You're not just saying "WTF was that" after leaving the theater while chatting with a friend, and then letting it go. Like a focus group with not enough diversity of opinions.

TenarDarell said...

One thing is for sure, when Ty Burr and Jeet Heer are writing think pieces about the Puppies who have hijacked the Hugo awards, fan outrage can move outsiders (are the columnists outsiders, or is it their publishers?) to take a close look at a thing.

chauncey devega said...

Good old Elizabeth. What do you think of the theories that the Bard was actually a woman?

chauncey devega said...

Great point about how these seemingly niche controversies are a reflection of broader social currents.

Black Romulan said...

Mary Sidney, Duchess of Pembroke? As worthy of a candidate as she might be, as a Shakespearian purist I must bite my thumb at thou for such an slight against the Bard... (and so close to his birthday, too, tsk!)

Maybe that theory would be valid under Elizabeth's patronage - I could see the two considering each other kindreds of a sort - but I have trouble seeing Sidney continuing the ruse under James' rule. Still, from the evidence I have heard in defense of Sidney as Shakespeare, she's a compelling candidate. However, it would just kill off too much of my nerdy childhood love of the (standard) Bard to accept the possibility, so...

joe manning said...

Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. Initially celebrity is for a few, subsequently its expanded to many. Fred Astaire danced like an elitist, Gene Kelly demonstrated that anybody could do it. Elvis orchestrated rock, the Beatles garage-banded it. A few columnist became many bloggers.

Arthur Chu characterizes 80's anti-disco and "male metal" as early manifestations of "sad puppy" types.

kokanee said...

The self-filtering of our news is a huge problem. All good Republicans watch Fox News. All good Democrats watch MSNBC. It's called confirmation bias and there are some good articles about it by Chris Mooney and/or on

Anyway, see:

TenarDarell said...

Yes, self filtering is a problem. But this is another one of those "one thing is not like the other" situations. One set of filters is not the same as the other set of filters.

Pew had a poll out recently that showed that Republicans only trust Fox, whereas Democrats trust almost any other news source excepting Fox. Those are not exactly perfectly equal confirmation biases. (I can't find it right now, however I saw a few articles which dug below the headline of "Fox is the most trusted news source for the Xth year.")

The poll showed that one side gets all their "facts" from essentially one source, the other still has multiple sources. That's a significant difference, in my opinion.

I don't watch MSNBC at all, and by your metric that makes me no Democrat. Yet MSNBC is not, and never has been the liberal or leftist equivalent of Fox... It is really too corporate and too dependent on shows like Morning Joe to fit into this trope-ish equivalence.

I'm not saying that confirmation bias doesn't exist, or even that we haven't sorted ourselves ideologically. I am saying that the biases are not remotely equal. And the comparison of Fox to MSNBC is a false equivalence.

kokanee said...

Your point is well taken but due to my stubborn streak:

Fox News is the pro-Republican channel and MSNBC is the pro-Democrat channel. The fact that Democrats watch a variety of different news channels says more about the discombobulated left verses the lockstep right. The equivalency is between the channels.
The Green Party didn't get mentioned at all on MSNBC during the 2012 elections whereas Fox News did discuss third parties including the Green Party.