It’s been a weird past few months for critics. For some inexplicable reason, it felt like everyone, from internet nobodies to big-name stars, had decided to grind their axes in unison and come after the world of pop culture criticism. All the usual insults were deployed: ‘You don’t have a real job’; ‘You’re only interested in tearing other people down’; ‘Why don’t you try creating something instead of criticizing for a change’; ‘blah blah bully bloggers etc’; and so on. Lizzo said we should be unemployed, then sort of walked it back. Ariana Grande said bloggers who criticized her and Justin Bieber’s Coachella set needed to find peace. Olivia Munn decided to try and make a name for herself as a feminist icon by putting targets on the backs of two of the nicest people on this here crooked internet. Michael Che… Well, I can’t even begin to think about what went wrong there, not right now. And then there was the usual cycle of hatred towards critics, from those who think there’s a massive conspiracy funded by Disney to keep DC movies low rated to every misogynist who sees a female critic’s opinion as a declaration of war. Rotten Tomatoes had to fix their rating system after it kept being hijacked by organized hate mobs. Quentin Tarantino was so outraged at a female journalist’s question at Cannes that his angry response became headline news. Perhaps there’s something in the water that’s making everyone lose their goddamn minds at critics these days, or maybe the cycle is just beginning afresh.
Whenever a new onslaught of critic hate arrives on my Twitter feed or in whatever comments section I am browsing that day, my first thought is to wonder if this opposition actually know what critics do for a living. I’m still surprised by the sheer number of people who imagine my life as an endless series of society parties and get-togethers where, over a round of martinis, my colleagues and I collectively decide what popular property to hate this week. I hear a lot of snide comments about how overpaid I am for this job, but these are usually comparable in number to those who think I am an unemployed blogger dwelling in someone’s basement. Criticism was a job typically coded as elitist for many decades, and it was a favorite occupation for the bright young things of the early 20th century who didn’t have all that much to do to outside of drinking and partying. That’s changed dramatically since the advent of the internet, and in many ways, that’s a good thing. Surely criticism can be democratized for the greater good? But then you have to deal with much harsher responses and the now horrifyingly mundane reality that is daily threats.
Lately, I feel like there’s been a fit of growing anger towards the entire concept of criticism as an occupation and intellectual pursuit. A lot of the biggest names in criticism on sites like YouTube don’t even like to call themselves critics. The preferred narrative is that critics aren’t fans or the things they talk about. How could they ever truly love film or books or food if they spend all day trash talking it? How can this be considered a real job in the same way that working in an office or doing manual labour is? It’s a job whose difficulty and entire status as work is frequently denied, which is an exhausting cycle to be a part of when you’re fully aware of just how hard you’re working and how draining it can be.
There’s nothing new or original about hating critics. George Lucas named one of the generals in Willow after Pauline Kael as revenge for all her negative reviews of his films. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla film features two highly mocked characters named after Siskel and Ebert. If there’s a movie about a dissatisfied creative trying to fulfill their lifelong dreams, then there’s probably a stock mean critic character in there to act as a villain who gets their comeuppance in the third act. In a sense, what’s happening now is what has always happened, but now it’s on a much wider scale, and there is greater opportunity for the debate to be weaponized beyond its original intent. There’s a reason so many online hate movements that target pop culture or use it as a breeding ground for violent rhetoric position critics as the enemy.
I can also see how this current era of endless chattering and near non-existent barriers can be tough for those being criticized. I can’t imagine the sh*t Lizzo and Grande have had to put up with on Twitter, and I can’t say I ever want to experience that volume of hatred myself. Sure, you sign up for this when you get famous, but it’s not really something you can prepare for. However, I struggle to have sympathy when that behaviour gets conflated with the act of pop culture criticism itself, as it so often does whenever a major star decides to speak out against ‘the haters’. It gets even worse when said figures decided to put targets on critics’ backs, or just anyone who they perceive to be a critic. When you have millions of adoring fans, it’s easy to encourage them to do your dirty work for you.
When Olivia Munn went after the Fug Girls under ridiculous and completely fraudulent circumstances, the defence that I heard the most often was that critics should be able to take what they dish out. Putting aside for a moment the fact that Munn decided to centre her grandstanding on two of the kindest people in fashion criticism, this isn’t really an argument that holds up to scrutiny. For one thing, in this current environment of anti-critic hostility, everything we say or do is considered ‘too mean’ or tantamount to bullying. I think this is the major shift in the discourse regarding critics and their perceived ills. Kael, Ebert, and company had to be a lot meaner to attract the kind of ire that is now an everyday occurrence for some of us who are, by and large, pretty mild in our rhetoric. Munn called the Fug Girls anti-women for benign jokes about clothes that never got personal or nasty. The Pitchfork review that seemed to upset Lizzo the most wasn’t even a negative one but rather a mixed write-up that had a lot of encouraging things to say about her work. Unquestioning loyalty is now the default expectation for fandom or at least fandom that remains prevalent on social media and is most typically focused on major figures and properties (think blockbuster franchises, top-selling pop stars, etc.). When your entire job is to question, it’s not hard to see why you would be put in the firing line.
There’s also an entirely new market around this anti-critic mentality. How many times have you read an article squeeing about a star who ‘clapped back’ at a critic, or seen a film advertise itself as being ‘for the fans but not the meanie critics’? There’s a soap opera thrill to this dynamic that can also handily be turned into #content. You don’t even have to be in the right to dunk on a critic talking about your work. If you’re famous enough and have a sufficient quip, it’ll go viral, and everyone will be on your side because something-something bully blogger critics etc. For some, it’s just a lot less fun to see it happen the other way around.
Honestly, I’m kind of sick of having to justify my job to everyone who thinks it’s a waste of time or a bully’s pursuit. I’m exhausted by every conversation with a stranger who, upon finding out I’m a critic, feels the need to launch into a tirade about how what I do is silly or cruel and maybe I should try writing movies myself instead of mocking them because clearly there’s no worth in what I do. I’ve practically rehearsed the spiel I go through whenever yet another celebrity decides to sh*t on critics. It would be a great comfort if I never had to do it again, and honestly, there’s nothing stopping me, but by now it’s practically instinct for me to go on the defence. I believe my work and that of my colleagues and contemporaries has immense value. I believe we should be fairly compensated for it and that we should be able to provide concise, well-argued, and intellectually succinct pop culture criticism without fear of being doxxed, threatened, or turned into public enemy number one. For me, great art doesn’t exist without great criticism.
Besides, if I may be so critical, constantly hating on critics for reasons that make no sense, rely on skewed power dynamics, or play into ideas of self-victimization are just so boring and passé. Try something new!
Header Image Source: Disney // Fox