Music Matters: Why Feminist Pop Criticism Matters

A few things have been rolling around in my brain today while at work doing other things.

Sunday night, I was watching Firefly and g-chatting with a friend. I idly mentioned something that annoyed me about the show (and about Joss Whedon more generally), and the conversation went in a direction I wasn’t completely expecting.

My friend said to me that sometimes my critiques make her feel like she’s doing something wrong with her writing. That it can feel like navigating a minefield as a creative writer, trying to not cross any lines or do something wrong.

And I know that feeling. I know what it’s like to read through feminist readings of different bits of pop culture and suddenly feel guilty for liking something, or feel you have to defend yourself constantly. And forget about trying to write it yourself, right?

Creating art is walking through a minefield, especially in a society like this one that doesn’t really do much to support said art. And since many of us critics are also creators, we know that we don’t want to discourage creation, we want to make it better.


I was exhausted (still am) and frustrated and hurting a bit last night when I had this conversation, and instead of having a nuanced discussion I typed:

But I also feel slightly shitty about MYSELF when I see, over and over again, characters who act like me, talk like me, the ones who I identify with, get shit on again and again. It’s far less an intellectual reaction to wanting this story to serve a cause and much more a THIS HURTS ME moment.

And it wasn’t until I looked back at what I’d said that I realized it was true, and I realized I was crying.

Over Firefly? Over a conversation that hadn’t even really dipped into argument?


Over having it hit home for me that feminist pop culture criticism isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. Having it click in my head that the reason this moment in this show bothered me at the time was what it was telling me about myself, about something that hurts me.

And that maybe this is why I do this—this meaning all of it, any writing that I’m doing that could fall under the heading “feminist pop culture criticism” is that it’s better than crying. (Sometimes. Sometimes I damn well need to cry, and I think probably last night I did, and then I felt better. Really.)

And when more than one of us does it, points out that “this story hurts me,” and interrogates it a little bit, poking and prodding until we figure out just why (and maybe it’s Firefly and maybe it’s Taylor Swift), and shares it in public, there’s a space created for more of us to say “Wow, this hurts me too.”

Maybe, like the best Tumblr conversations about the Eminem/Rihanna video, it makes us share our own stories. Maybe it opens up space for us to disagree about it, because criticism is necessarily subjective and our reactions to things are based on our experience, and the reason a silly TV show or a song makes me cry is entirely different from the effect it has on you.

It’s not a test. It’s not a way to prove I’m smarter than you. It’s a way, ultimately, for me to talk about the rest of the world, and what’s wrong with it as well as what’s right with it (I’ve got a hint for you: Robyn).

Ultimately it matters not because if we make the right judgment about a band or a movie or a TV show now we don’t get 10,000 points at the end of our lives or something. No one’s actually going to remember if you like Coldplay. It matters because it’s about human experience.

by Sarah Jaffe
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Girl, what part of 'Firefly'

Girl, what part of 'Firefly' made you cry? I'm curious. (I've totally cried at that show, too, so I need to know.)

Twisted Sisterhood

I had the same sort of gut-wrenching reaction when I read yesterday about the recently published book "Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships." This woman had such a negative, hateful view of female friendships and women in general, that I felt personally offended. Her interpretation of women as jealous, snarkey, catfighting bitches ready to backstab any friend who gets too powerful, becomes too attractive, or otherwise steps out of line, just did not ring true to me. I feel so lucky to have so many amazingly supportive female friends, and I was so shocked at the unscientific, irrational, approach to the subject. Granted, she has a right to speak her mind. But did I take it personally? Hell yeah, I did.

The Twisted Sisterhood

Hi Ali,

In all seriousness, I would really welcome your thoughts after you've read the book. I think you'll find that the way you describe it here is mistaken and quite antithetical to its actual contents. I don't blame you for that - the media has oftentimes spun the book in a provocative, exploitative manner that, ironically, undermines the book's very essence. Plus, gender-based issues do tend to ignite passions in us all. But I can assure you that once you check it out you'll see that I most definitely do not have a "negative, hateful view of female friendships and women in general." To the contrary, I quite love and revere the women in my life, have lamented my personal struggles in this context but worked on them, and recognize that our positive female connections can be downright vital in terms of health and quality of life. It's all in the book. And while I don't claim to be a scientist, I have heard from thousands of eminently "normal," functioning, perfectly social girls and women who care deeply about the unique issues within our gender, do crave a more consistent and authentic civility, and do want to improve the overall status quo for themselves, their daughters, and the next generation of women.

Particularly at a time when bullying and other relational aggression issues have finally become part of the national conversation, I hope you'll give the book and the voices of the girls and women who contributed to it a chance before dismissing it out of hand. The positive message of TTS means a lot to us and it's demoralizing to see it get, well, a priori twisted without at least a read-through.

Please do feel free to email me anytime. I value and welcome the viewpoints and perspectives of all women, and merely wish folks would read the text before taking things personally and making assumptions about a book that, yes, isn't afraid to examine some unpleasant issues but also celebrates the glory that female friendship can be. As you'll see, it is ultimately — absolutely — a pro-woman work that might well leave you feeling inspired and even empowered. Thanks and I wish you well,

Kelly Valen

You are on point.

As always. Remember how we met? Feminist music blogosphere sisters. Those were the days.

A couple months ago NPR (at

A couple months ago NPR (at least I think it was NPR) posted their list of the best female music critics, and while I agreed with a lot of their pics, some of the best critical writing -- of music, tv, or just pop culture as a whole --- comes from the feminist blogosphere. It <i>is</i> important work. and gets little of the attention. (This is why I am a long-time reader of Bitch.)

This really hits home because I often feel as though I'm straddling two worlds: this feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic one where it's okay -- nay -- expected to question and criticize, and the other one, the "real" world, where I'm told "stop obsessing over every little thing." It's tough to find a balance, and to be honest, I don't always want to.

Like with Glee

Jezebel and Feministing and, oh so many feminist blogs spend hours each week trying to tell me how terrible these shows are because they don't show enough disability, or sexuality, or race.

You know what? It's a lot more than other shows, and I damn well like it.

I think you bring up a good

I think you bring up a good point here that gets overlooked far too often in the midst of heated pop culture debates: Criticism isn't about saying, "This is bad, bad, bad, and you are bad for liking it/making it/watching it." Criticism is about saying, "Hey, let's unravel this and figure out what's it's all about, and what it says about us." If a particular culture object hurts me, I want to figure out why. I don't think the person who created it is bad, just that he/she sees things from a different perspective, and has likely never had to look at things any other way.

I get so frustrated with culture debates so often because people take things personally, or it seems like a battle with two sides pitted against each other, and I don't think it has to be like that. I don't know why it's so hard for us to say, "Hey, that's an interesting point, and what about this?" or "You're right, this thing that I love does have some troublesome aspects. I'm glad you pointed them out to me." Most cultural products aren't wholly good or bad, and their creators aren't sainted or evil. And we are not sainted or evil as consumers of cultural products.

I guess I'm getting off track here. I suppose my only point is that I wish we could talk about cultural objects with a little more mutual respect and understanding than we sometimes show. I think we all agree that we live in a world where some viewpoints are privileged over others, so why do we still end up attacking each other so much?

ROCK. This is a fantastic


This is a fantastic rationale for the work you do and I say AMEN. Keep it up - I love your posts!

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