Why I Am a Critic

I love being a critic. With particular emphasis on entertainment television and Hollywood film and their representations of gender, race, class and feminism(s), engaging in criticism gives me great pleasure on many levels.

“Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to just sit back and enjoy the show?” I am sometimes asked. Or, somewhat less kindly, “Don’t you ever turn your brain off?” I get the dismissive “I just can’t look at it that way” on occasion, as well as the “I hate to see you get so upset over TV.” Then there’s the guilt-inducing “You’re ruining it for me,” which is most true, of course, when a friend or family member makes the mistake of actually watching a movie with me and has to listen to me analyze and gripe the whole time.

Now, in my defense, I am capable of “turning off my brain” or at least actively choosing not to engage in overt critique as I watch a particularly favored program. Sure, I can give you a postcolonial critique of Doctor Who, a nuanced feminist reading of Katharine Hepburn or Angela Bassett, or a queer studies take on The Daily Show, but I reserve the right to opt not to at a given screening.

That said, I do pity the friend who catches me just after I’ve seen something that’s truly disturbed me (like those who had to hear me wax maniacal after seeing The Incredibles and wondering how the film earned 5 stars from every critic in the country despite the reactionary 50’s setting and message that white middle-class women’s disempowerment through return to suburban housewife drudgery is less worthy of attention than middle-class men’s midlife crises). It is sometimes difficult for me to assume that all is right with the world when I fear I’m the only one who makes counterhegemonic (resistant, oppositional) readings of certain popular texts.

Keeping all this in mind, I find it important to pause to note the importance of criticism, and of critics--particularly entertainment media critics.

First and foremost: I enjoy being a critic. While I may at times feel driven to critique for political reasons, I also get personal pleasure from it. There is downright masturbatory glee in delving into a text I thoroughly enjoy, in discovering clever and creative ways of reading the texts that others have not yet considered, in using language effectively to inspire challenges to mass-produced crap that invades our minds and makes it difficult for us to question the status quo. Plainly put, media criticism is intellectually satisfying and feels politically empowering.

This commentary has been partly inspired by rereading feminist media critic Bonnie Dow’s Prime-Time Feminism (U PA Press, 1996). Her comments on the critic via rhetorical studies are insightful and persuasive (despite the whiteness of her gaze throughout the book). For instance, Dow opines, “I view criticism as a species of argument rather than as a quest for truth” (Introduction, 3). Moreover, she reminds us that media criticism is “a kind of argument that, whatever its value to the reader, articulates the interests of the arguer first” (3). Good reminder there: you learn more about me than the music video we’re watching when I offer my critical take on it.

Criticism encourages the listener or reader to reevaluate a text, to see and evaluate it anew. Hence, says Dow, “criticism is not about discovering or reporting the meaning in texts. Rather, it becomes a performative activity, that is in some sense, dedicated to creating meaning” (3). When we do criticism best, we “persuade the audience that their knowledge of a text will be enriched if they choose to see a text as the critic does, while never assuming that that particular ‘way of seeing’ is the only or best way to see that text (or that all audiences do, in fact, see it that way” (4). And that is a real challenge: I must be persuasive yet remain humble, knowing I am offering but one of many possible readings.

And the feminist critic must be respected in her own terms, by “her own equivalent right to liberate new (and perhaps different) significance from […] texts: and, at the same time, her right to choose which features of a text she takes as relevant because she is, after all, asking new and different questions of it” (Annette Kolodny, qtd. in Dow 6).

Dow helps me stand proud as a media/cultural studies critic. In whatever arena (from after-movie chat to classroom teaching to academic scholarship to blogging), being a critic gives me personal-political pleasure and is a form of activism I esteem highly.


Kate said...

You make numerous valid points about the importance of criticism. It's necessary to show what is lacking in understanding of the staus quo and what is needed to rectify the common misconceptions of what is represented as fact to a broad pblic that pays no mind to what is.
However, and I find myself guilty of this, I am just hungry for the story, be it TV, movie or book. I want to just see it first, think on it later. I want the time to escape from the real world and go "someplace else". I hesitate to bring the two worlds together, because it would diminish the fantasy world. The real world has so many issues that must be addressed on a daily, hourly basis that two hours "someplace else" is a balm to my spirit.
That said, I know that by bringing the real world, and ideas to shape it anew in a better form in that fantasy world is a goal of the critic. Some of them anyway. Others just like to bitch.
So, do what you must to improve the state of the world, and I'm glad you gain pleasure from it. I would probably not be the person to watch anything with though, because while I'm "Someplace else", I don't want to think.

THE CRITIC said...

Me too