Push(back) at the Intersections: But it All Feels So Personal

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

It’s time to cut to the heart of one of the most common responses to intersectional critiques of pop culture, and another thing that plays into the sometimes vicious pushback to people talking about pop culture from a social justice perspective.

It all feels so personal.

When people read critiques of things in pop culture that they really like, it is sometimes read as a personal attack. They mistake the institutional criticism, talking about the content in the piece and how society is responding to it, as a personal indictment.

Ironically, I think this comes up even more in feminist circles because feminists want to be sensitive to social justice issues, even if they don’t fully embrace the idea of intersectionality. It can feel embarrassing to read a critique that points out things that you didn’t see. Sometimes the response to perceived humiliation, whether or not it was meant, is to lash out—if you can deny that those things are there, you can be assured that you didn’t miss anything problematic in the piece.

And so, people take pop culture critiques personally. They turn it into something personal with ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about’ or the old ‘well, you’re just wrong.’ These denials can take a very sinister and sometimes even vicious edge. They have the effect of silencing the critic and dismissing the criticism, but they don’t make that criticism go away. It still exists, it’s just not being heard.

I don’t know what to do about this problem. When people engage with structural critiques of social justice issues, it comes up there, too. My fellow white folks, for example, really do not like being told that we have internalized some racist attitudes, and our positions of privilege and power make it impossible for us to fully escape the structures of the society we live in. Suddenly, a discussion about a racial issue becomes ‘well, but I’m not a racist!’ which allows the respondent to decide it doesn’t apply to her, and completely ignores the actual point of the discussion.

Just for example, I don’t think that people are ableist for not recognizing the problems I see in Glee or for reading the show differently than I do. A lot of people accuse me of thinking that, but it really isn’t true. I think that people who don’t recognize what I see either view disability in a different framework than I do, and thus reject some of my conclusions about the show, or they haven’t been exposed to disability very much, let alone discussions about harmful depictions of disability. If you haven’t been told about common disability archetypes like the supercrip and the good cripple, how are you supposed to recognize them? Likewise, if you’re a person with disabilities who uses a different framework than I do for conceptualizing disability, that doesn’t make you or me wrong, just different, and there’s room for both of us in the world.

When I encounter critiques of pop culture that I disagree with, especially when those things feel personal, I try to explore why that is. Especially if the discussion is coming from someone in a group I don’t belong to. When I read critiques on depictions of d/Deaf people by d/Deaf folks, for example, I assume that they know what they are doing and I don’t. If I feel uneasy reading, maybe that’s because I am being forced to examine my own privilege, to view something in a new way, or to explore something I haven’t thought about before.

My response to things that make me uncomfortable is usually to do more reading. Because when people see things I don’t in a piece of pop culture, I figure I’d better find out why. I might decide after doing all that reading and exploring the issue that I still don’t see those things, but I don’t feel a need to devalue the original critique just because of that. Not all people see all things in everything, but to say ‘well, I think you’re wrong, I don’t see that at all’ is a dismissal of someone’s experience.

I think the best way to fight knee-jerk reactions to pop culture discussions, to resist the sense that one is being personally attacked, is to step outside the equation, and to step away from the keyboard to do some thinking. Remember that the writer probably doesn’t know you, isn’t thinking about you while writing the piece, and doesn’t think that you are a bad person. The writer is just discussing something seen, an embedded message.

After all, you didn’t create the piece of pop culture under discussion. You may be complicit in the social attitudes that it embodies, but that often happens on an unconscious level. You are not responsible for not seeing everything in all things, but you are responsible for seriously evaluating and considering critiques pointing out things you didn’t see.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Interesting blog

I believe pop culture reveals a lot about deeply embedded assumptions. These assumptions are hidden, and the feeling of discomfort that arises when someone points them out is often about not wanting or being able to acknowledge them ("I am not racist"). Culture is a collective expression of individual assumptions and beliefs, so critiques of culture--pop or otherwise--IS a personal critique. I don't have a problem with that.

My problem comes from what I think is an assumption that pop culture ought to be "better" than the cultural attitudes that give rise to the artifacts. It's the idea that TV shows, movies, lyrics to songs, etc. ought to be purged of racism, sexism, ableism, etc., as though if we can get those isms to disappear in pop culture, they will be gone. The critiques need to be about our assumptions as revealed through pop culture, holding society accountable more than the writers, producers, actors, and musicians who serve as artistic mouthpieces for what is being expressed far more subtly every day.

Thank you for writing this

Thank you for writing this piece.

Great piece.

Great piece.

About criticism


I get your point people is touchy, specially the ones who think themselves as the "goodies". People is insecure.

You can always count on that, and you know when somebody have enjoyed something like a show and then one tells them that show is demeaning to certain group and they didn´t saw that, they tend to feel guilty, they felt they have not been up to their goodie identity and that provokes anger, and they may feel personally attacked. I can tell you that with authority because I have been in both ends. But with my offended party experience, I can tell you that anger fades quickly and people start thinking about it, that doesn´t mean they found the other´s point right, but you can see where it comes from, and be fairer on the argument and the other person.

But I wanted to tell something about telling the truth about things, and this is not intended for you S.E. Smith, I´m not saying that you are to blame, is only my thoughts and experiences about the way telling thruths (or what one person thinks as such) should be done.

I am a chilean activist, I´m more privileged than average and I love to think of me as really openminded and unprejudiced, and even I intellectualy realize I probably lack a lot of thinking about my relationship with privilege. To be told that I am prejudiced, ignorant or racist, puts me on a rage. Thruth have to be told, but there is another human being at the other end, and that should be done with gentleness, or the other would stop listening inmediatly, for example to say bluntly to another person that ze is ignorant, and then to get upset because that person got angry and defensive and refuse to see your point, is not very sophisticated, even if you are right.

Well, I have been reading some of your articles, and I am a fan, love your work.


Awesome post, s.e.

Bookmarking for future reference. I continue to *not* understand why people get all knee-jerk defensive when a marginalized person says something about a pop culture artifact/image/project that they don't agree with, instead of trying to figure out why they themselves are getting defensive and/or all "HOW DAAAAAARE YOU" and "But [person] cannot possibly be [x]!"--even though, oftentimes, the discussion at hand is WAY MORE NUANCED THAN THAT. It's not all about going "This person is bad" or "This work is awful and no one should like it and if you do, you are a BAD PERSON." One would think that most people could actually sit with critique and consider it -- even if they don't agree.

Yet the denial/pushback/attack process still happens, over and over again: when non-white people offer their interpretations of pop culture and media, when people with disabilities offer theirs, when trans* and genderqueer people offer theirs.

Nuance in regards to responding to pop culture critique is really not the internet's strong point.

This is an excellent piece,

This is an excellent piece, and I especially appreciate your advice to step away from the computer and take in some thinkin' time before typing up a response, especially when you are feeling emotionally roused in some way by what you've just read. (This is advice I'm not always great at taking...)

Another thing I think we should all be aware of is that we're all in this together. We are all people who care about social justice, even when we don't see things in the same way. I think the internet makes it way to easy to attack each other, both commenters attacking the writer and commenters attacking each other. Telling someone she's wrong isn't productive, no matter what "side" you're on.

I think you are totally right

You pointed out that blunt criticism and attack, can alienate somebody who can be an ally. So to tell somebody blunty you are wrong won´t do any good.

So simply and so easy to overlook in a moment of passionate debate.


Thanks for posting this, s.e., I'm so glad you did.

I think it's important for people who might get defensive over critiques of their favorite pop culture icons to remember that critique is actually good for everyone. Pop culture icons (say, oh, Lady Gaga) are, first and foremost, artists and performers and as such, require criticism for growth. Finding a flaw or area that could use improvement is not an insult, but rather something helpful. Simply saying that everything this person does or says is "good" (or, conversely, "bad"), does not make room for growth. The fact that people like us take the time out of our busy days to look critically at the work of people at the center of pop culture should really be taken as a compliment; we're saying that these people and their contributions are worthy of thinking about, and that we hold them to a certain social and/or artistic standard.

Criticism has a bad connotation sometimes, and it shouldn't. Being "all for" or "all against" something, for the most part, is to refuse to consider all sides. And that never helps anybody.



I wish I could print out this piece and hand it out to everyone who has ever said to me (in response to my critique of something I consider problematic in pop culture) "You have no sense of humour" or "You are just being overly sensitive/defensive"


Don't forget the classic "You're looking at this the *wrong way*!!" or the all-purpose "You're just JEALOUS."

How about

"It's a satire/thriller/comedy/western/[vague descriptor of genre that is prone to hyperbole or often uses stock archetypes]!" I'm always befuddled by people who think that statement, by itself, is an effective counterargument against the presence of -isms.

This is an excellent piece, s.e. Conversations about pop culture get much better when participants realize that the TV/whatever will not repel them if they acknowledge problems with something they generally like.

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