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.