The Media Life, Unexamined

“There is no sin except stupidity.”  ― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist.pngIt started with a rather backhanded comment about movies after what was a days long dive into why I come off so ambivalent about everything in the office. I was commenting on the rape allegory in Maleficent and an acquaintance said proudly:

“I didn’t read that subtext.”

Subtext. SUBTEXT?

I was outraged. I flat out replied “I had a bloody nose from how aggressively that movie punched me in the face with it.” and it led to a conversation that when I think about it, still brings bile up my throat.

I want to talk about being critical and the epidemic (yes, epidemic) of non-critical thinking when it comes to media.

I’ve had run ins with folks more than once about how I feel about movies, television and more. I normally say “It’s fine.” as a shield. It’s an insurance policy that means “I do not actually want to talk about this movie because any conversation about it more than just ‘pew pew pew action, hot actress’ will fall apart faster than a Kardashian marriage and I’m not here for that.”

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant and critical people in my life. When we leave movies, we discuss agendas, biases, hidden messages and more. We also talk canon and how this piece lives up to its name ( Because every movie now is just based on something. Originality, be damned.). So I come off as intensely ambivalent to the untrained eye. And that is just not true. I have wildly strong opinions and the receipts to back them up. If I say:

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a farce because of the way it neuters Ultron’s storyline for the sake of a decades’ old grudge against Hank Pym as a character.

I know what the hell I am talking about. And back in my day of being a fan (when the buffalo roamed), being critical was a major asset. We broke down plot and story and motivations. And that never meant I didn’t enjoy something. The things I love the most, I am the most critical of.

Which brings us to the oh so common phrase of: “Just turn off your brain.”

I’m going to say the strongest statement ever on this blog in 5 years…turning off your brain is how we got Trump as president. Turning off your brain is how we have 5, yes 5, Transformers movies. Turning off your brain is why we have the casual racism, sexism and homophobia in film  to this very day because no one, no one has the audacity or courage to challenge their media and demand more.

I’m an English major, writer and longtime fan. It is my job to be critical of everything I see. I spent conservatively 4 years learning how to train my brain to be aware of what the things I consume are trying to tell me. Comics have always been political and people who say they shouldn’t be or aren’t are wrong and I hate them. Media has always been political, everything is political. Everything, every choice, every aspect of what we do, buy and see is trying to sell you something, even if it’s just an idea. And turning off your brain means you don’t see that and thus you are likely to fall victim to vapid thinking that is damaging to you as a person (i.e. internalized sexism and casual racism) and thus existence as a whole. Critiquing media has given us better representation (most of the time) and forced us to look at the status quo of our current media landscape and demand better.

The people who know me, know my heart and soul know that I am enthusiastic and passionate about media. I have strong opinions and I love what I love and hate what I hate. But in this modern media and culture landscape only emphatic zeal is accepted and nuance goes to die, I must look horribly negative. To an uncritical mind, I must seem like I hate everything. And vice versa, I don’t understand how you can “turn off your brain” and not be critical. I don’t think of it as a stretch to consider a movie what it is, a piece of art. We don’t shame people who critique art pieces. But for some reason, I’m a bad person for demanding more out of my movies. I’m a curmudgeon for wanting complex storytelling. Oh, the hobgoblin I am. How dare I want something from a film or a television series. Shame on me. Shame the non-believer.

Here is where I’ll pause for folks saying:

“Well, if you over-analyze a movie/television show/anime/comic book/manga, you ruin it.”

Sure, it’s why I stopped watching CinemaSins. If you do nitpick on stupid things, you will ruin a movie. I have zero questions about how Captain America and squad got from Scotland to Wakana in zero time at all in Infinity War; I do, however, have questions about how Black Widow can take down Proxima Midnight because I have read at least one comic book in my life. I’ve never been one to over-analyze and it’s never done just to be “that person” (which is only included because I had someone accuse of being a contrarian). If I don’t like something, it’s for a reason. I always give something a chance. And again, having one negative thing to say about a thing doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I rip to shreds the things I love because I have to. I am obligated to as a consumer of media. And if something influences me, I have to be doubly critical of that thing because it then becomes baggage that I carry with me everywhere I go. I carry the media I take consume in a little bag with me and that bag leeches out bias into the things I write, I say and I do. I internalized misogyny for years because of the media I was ingesting. I accepted the casual racism in movies in everything I did. I dealt with how religion is depicted in media. And I don’t ever want to go back to not being aware of the messages being forced down my throat. 

All of this is exhausting. I miss conversation. I miss discourse. I miss and  do welcome thoughtful conversation.

 

The Burden of Knowledge

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”   ― Margaret Mitchell  Gone with the Wind.png

It was after discussing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald with a few mutuals that I realized something: I was the only one in the room bothered by a few things that the trailer brought up and made me even more angry than usual at Jo Rowling.

This post is going to be a little self-indulgent and may even come off as a little narcissistic but I want to talk about critical conversations about media when you’re the only person in the room concerned about it.

I’ll preface this by saying I am a well-intending idiot. I’m proud of my education but when it comes to the people I choose to spend my time with, I am the dumb one. Amber can talk circles around me in a dialogue, I am nothing as far as trivia goes in comparison to Victoria and Carlos.

I’m proud of my education and proud of my level of intellect but I am far from remarkable as far as I see it.

That being said, I’m also willing to cope to the remarkable amount of privilege that I have with my ability to be pedantic about comic books.

All of that aside, let’s get back to the topic.

My issues with Jo Rowling’s recent romp are numerous and the most recent trailer only pushed me over the edge with disappointment for Good Ol’ Auntie Jo. Choosing to make Nagini an Asian woman now held in animagus and bondage is vile and a perpetuation of the submissive Asian trope on a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 level and continuing to allow Johnny Depp to be in anything is a vile cash-grab. Additionally, the continual teasing of “finally getting a gay Dumbledore” have proven to be mostly a queer-baiting PR stunt. I had plenty of new reasons to be disappointed with this movie on top of the foundation of reasons I had to be disappointed with this movie.

And when pressed about my issues and explaining that I was tired of the mystical Native American trope and a world where it’s the 1920s and racism isn’t real but discrimination against non-magic users is a thing, I realized something. I was the only person who seemed to care about these issues.

I was the only person in the room that seemed concerned about perpetuating damaging stereotypes and authentic representation.

And that bothered me.

Time and time again I’ve been told that I’m too critical of media. That I should just turn off my brain.

Let’s kill that in its crib immediately.

I am an English major, literary student, research scholar, writer, reader and more.

My brain is hard-wired to be critical of the messages I see via the media I consume.

Turning off my brain is not something I think I’m capable of. I was even dissecting casual movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard because yes there was stuff to dissect in that raging garbage fire of a movie.

Keep in mind, I am a huge nerd. Well, not huge. I’m a very petite nerd. I have YEARS of canon knowledge and trivia. I am also an avid reader who tries to fill the void of existential dread with books and literary criticism. I know my references. And I’m passionate about knowledge and learning more.

And considering that literally every piece of media is trying to push an agenda, it’s vitally important to be aware of what comics, movies, television and more are trying to sell you.

Besides, being critical is sort of my thing. Never in a contrarian sort of way but being more “aware” and “critical” of the media around if has helped me carve out a niche that I’m quite proud of.

Let’s take a moment to remember that being critical doesn’t mean hating everything. Which brings us to the other part of the uncomfortable conversation I had:

Well, do you like anything?

Dear reader, I love many things. That doesn’t mean that anything is perfect. I love John Constantine as a character but he is a tire fire and I am empathetic to anyone who wants to punch him in the neck. I love most comic books but I also absolutely understand that the Marvel movies are just a scheme to funnel cash into Disney’s gaping monopoly. I tear apart the things I love because that’s what a critical reader and viewer does. Nothing is perfect, everything has flaws, everything has an agenda.

And there are times I can be highly critical of a piece of media while still mostly enjoying it. Deadpool 2 is a mostly forgettable superhero sequel with huge problems like another shocking instance of Girlfriend in the Fridge but for the most part, I really laughed during that film.

There are other times, however, where a story’s issues are too distracting like with Black Panther where I was so overcome with disgust at the misuse of words and verbage actual militant African-Americans used that I struggle to get through the second half of the film without a stomach ache.  

And again, I’m surrounded by folks who echo similar feelings to mine. We may not all share the same opinions but Amber and I left Black Panther and talked about race relations for literally about an hour. I walk out of a movie and immediately have a call with Carlos. I get to talk with the other writers of FanGirl Nation and chat about tropes and more. I am surrounded by brilliant human beings who are just as critical, if not more so, than I am and I am a better person for it.

I do sometimes wish I could “turn off my brain” and come down and talk about a movie for just what it is. Increasingly, critical reading and watching is a rarity, kept in niche communities. I do wish I could talk about feminism in movies more and political themes in pop culture more but many just want to “turn off their brains” and enjoy their media.

I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of how grossly sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and harmful popular media can be.

But I am.

And with that heavy burden I will continue to call those things out for as long as I am able.

A Blog Post About Jokes About Jokes

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” ― Nikolai Gogol.png

When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.

Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due,  the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.

Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.

A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.

It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.

It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.

 

Sympathy vs. Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.png

If there was one concept I could just magically teach people when it comes to the matter of how to be more critical readers and more skilled writers, it would be understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. And it’s a lesson that it took me a while to learn as a writer and reader, myself. There are apparently very few sage teachers in such a discipline. The two words are used pretty interchangeably in common speech but they are not the same at all and understanding that key difference makes for richer reading experiences, better movie watching and a better understanding of the real people around you.

Let’s firstly go over some basic vocabulary.

  • Sympathy
    • The fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
  • Empathy
    • The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

These definitions seem very similar, hence this little discussion. We’re going to boil things down here: sympathy is understanding a feeling while empathy is feeling that experience as well. I can sympathize with a person and not empathize with them and vice versa. I can sympathize with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther with his feelings of anger after the loss of his father, but I cannot use his grief to rationalize him being genocidal. I can empathize with Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, his use of pragmatism and cynicism to cope with the loss of his mother is almost exactly how I dealt with the loss of my own father and I could even sympathize with his decision making, even when it was less than ideal.

By now, you may be asking: well, why does it matter if these two words seem so similar?

It goes back to the theme of this year’s blog posts: framing.

Framing gives form and shape to empathy and can influence, force or even create sympathy.

Let’s take an example that I’ve beaten nearly to death: Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Thanos’ motivations seem so rational, so easy to understand, his pain so real. Because Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and there’s fantastic writing behind his portrayal of The Mad Titan. And that is a huge problem. Thanos’ point of view is insane but clever writing made him seem like the most rational character in the damn film. That feeling of looking down the road and seeing only one crazy choice is one many feel now and for some reason in our hellscape of a current world: The Mad Titan’s plan doesn’t seem so mad. And that is bad.

Here’s one of the most interesting parts of this discussion: for the most part, it’s entirely subjective, too. I have the background of the average anime antagonist, so it’s easy for me to empathize with them and thus sympathize with them. It’s harder for me to wrap my head around characters that are more outgoing or optimistic; their motivations are foreign to me and thus, it’s difficult to build a sympathetic bridge to understanding them. Your world view changes how you feel about characters and narratives and it absolutely can change and grow over time. Characters that I looked to with great admiration when I was younger suddenly seem entirely too impulsive and egotistical now as an adult.

One of my favorite things is looking at a movie from my admittedly jaded worldview and listening to a friend who didn’t see or feel the same thing that I did during a movie. I may gloss over an issues that is morally repugnant to others. I may take immense umbridge with a scene that others think is fine. Our experiences shape how we view narrative but there is where writers and creators also have to be careful: writing is a powerful tool and a good story line and likable characters can turn evil into something not so deplorable.

I’ve used this example before but he really illustrates the point: Richmond Valentine from Kingsman: The Secret Service. Valentine’s motivations are straight up genocide but Samuel L. Jackson is so charismatic and his plan almost doesn’t seem like it’s so bad: hell, he seems logical and rational with his plan to wipe out a majority of the population and let the cream of the crop reign over a newly mostly emptied world.

That’s a problem.

Anime historically had a problem with making bad ideas sound great, Death Note despite being one of my favorite series has a major sympathy and empathy problem. If you were anything like me: too smart for your own good, cynical and bitter and angry at the entire world; Light’s plan of wiping people out using a magical murder diary sounds excellent. I was proudly Team Kira during most of my high school years. The work however does all it can to show that Light is the bad guy. We almost immediately meet L who calls Light exactly what he is: a murderer. And that shift in framing greatly dampens how easy it is to empathize with Light’s murder plan but by the time it tries to establish Light as a bad guy, many have already gotten on board with his delusional idea.

Let’s use a really tricky example and one that actually touches my personal life: Tony Stark.

Stark as a hero is complex. He’s the first to say he isn’t actually heroic but his story is more universal than I think many give credit for. His descent into substance abuse and excess is not too uncommon for many who lose their parents and have the world in their hands. While we all may not be billionaires many of us who lost the thing that keeps them grounded are playboys and are addicted to something be it a substance or to a person. But many can see themselves in Stark, even if their pasts are not as dark or extreme as his. He’s charismatic even when he isn’t likable and there are rationalizations even when he makes the most reckless decision (another good comparison on that front is Peter Quill but I dislike the Lord of Stars so I rather not talk about him). And we see this come all to a head during Age of Ultron the hot hot mess that it is. Stark’s choices are the reason we have Ultron in the MCU (which is a whole other can of worms but back to sympathy I go) and he’s made bad choice after bad choice in the comics. But dammit it’s easy to let him off the hook because we can either  personally understand how grief affects judgement and decision making or we are willing to give him a pass because he’s just so damn smooth.

This liberal dosing out of passes is especially problematic when more troublesome matters in media are perpetuated. Comic books still have a major issue with trivializing trauma and exploiting the death of women as a plot point (looking at you, Deadpool 2), modern romance movies often end up being a series of stalking or downright blatant examples of harassment (looking at literally most of the romances Chris Pratt has been a part of film-wise [we’re touching on that, don’t worry]) and television continues to perpetuate a casual level of misogyny that is just gross (looking at you, Big Bang Theory, you loathsome toad).  But oh, those likable characters. It makes it so easy to gloss over their nonsense.

Speaking of Mr. Pratt…I want to use this time to explain just how much I can’t stand the movie Passengers and how we ultimately are held hostage by not only Chris Pratt but how passable movies and tricky writers can manipulate you into caring. If you haven’t seen Passengers, there’s a spoiler warning here. So long and short is Pratt plays a guy who is on an interstellar cruise from Earth to find a new planet. He’s in a stasis pod and suddenly, he is woken up years (hundreds of years) before he is set to. He is alone. No one else is awake on this cruise ship version of the S.S. Enterprise. He has a weird robot bartender friend but no other companion. All his physical needs are met by the ship and the ship’s robots but no one else to talk to. He spots a woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence at maybe her laziest) who is still asleep as she should be. Pratt wakes her up. He destroys her pod and wakes her from her beauty nap but he doesn’t  tell her that he did it. When Lawrence comes to, she asks what happened. Pratt lies. They spend blissful time together and try to solve the “mystery” as to why they woke up. And in the end, it is revealed that it wasn’t an accident that woke Lawrence and damned her to frightful mortality, it was Pratt and his selfish loneliness. She forgives him because movie has to movie and I left fuming at this. Pratt’s character ruins any chance Lawrence has at making it to the planet they are spiraling in space towards. His act removes her agency and choice but because Chris Pratt is such a nice guy and we spend so much time with him and we watch him struggle with being alone: it’s okay that he damned a woman to die because his sassy queer robot from wasn’t enough companionship for him.

That’s where sympathy fails us as an audience. Pratt is the villain of this narrative and any other re-telling of the story is irksome and troublesome. Sympathy bypasses the logic centers of the brain and allows characters to murder, rape, assault and more under the guise of romance or charm.

It’s why I much rather have an empathetic character. One that I can absolutely feel for but still can disagree with. I love Light’s world view in Death Note but I can agree that the way he wants to craft his new world is awful. I can admit that Samuel L. Jackson is the second best part of Kingsman but still say that his plan is terrible and also genocidal. I can feel Edward Elric’s loss and not let him off the hook for being abusive to those who care about it.

Empathy is just as subjective as sympathy but it brings with it the wisdom of hindsight. I get where Bruce Wayne is coming from as far as using trauma and grief to be the best version of one’s self and knowing that feeling from my own personal life means that when Bruce Wayne is a garbage fire of a human that I can recognize it even faster because during those times I was also likely a garbage fire of a human.

Strive for empathy in your critical watchings and writings. Strive to understand motivations while also being able to admit something is troublesome. Call out troublesome things in media: things only get better the more we express being tired of stalking as romance and the girlfriend in the fridge. Be critical of everything you ingest media-wise and hold your characters accountable, even the ones you didn’t create yourself.