Since 2007, I’ve attended academic conferences, mostly on popular culture and media communications. At first I was a graduate student and then I became a part-time academic and then adjunct instructor.
I loved how these experiences fueled me intellectually and introduced me to a lot of like-minded people. It opened me up to view things that I love from multiple perspectives and exciting new ways. I also gained awesome public speaking skills and confidence in the process.
Over time I have lost some of the thrill I once had going to these conferences. Maybe it is the life cycle of an interest. You know you get hyped up on something and after a while, it isn’t as fun or exciting anymore.
Another factor that may be at work is the movement that has infiltrated academia, fandom, and these conferences within the last few years. It is a thing where everything you like is a problematic fave, nearly everything needs a trigger warning, and all media should fall in line to a rigid set of social ideologies. At first, I enjoyed this speaking truth to power thing. And honestly, it’s not like any one presentation or topic is necessarily bad or turned me off, but collectively it gets overwhelming and repetitive.
I enjoy popular culture analysis, but at some point it becomes no longer productive as people are ranting from a soapbox against every little slight or perceived problem. This type of approach is not interesting, creative or new. It often seems like a loud sermon of on how the critic knows better than you and the team that created the TV episode or movie. This approach seems to shame people into thinking that a particular point of view is the ONLY and correct way to perceive it. I personally like viewing things from multiple perspectives and points of view. Nothing should be viewed from just one lens.
The other day I heard something that totally expressed my feelings on this. It was a celebration of Joss Whedon on WNPR Connecticut public radio Colin McEnroe show. It was a conversation between the host, Joss Whedon himself, Jeanine Basinger (Chair of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University and Joss’ former professor), and David Lavery (author of Joss Whedon, A Creative Portrait: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Avengers; Director of Graduate Studies in English at Middle Tennessee State University and Co-Founder of the Whedon Studies Association).
During this discussion (around the 46 minute mark) this topic comes around and I found that this so much expressed my issues with this type of analysis at conferences and popular internet criticism of creative works.
David Lavery: “It’s troubling in a way because I’m very bothered…how purest some of the academics get about this how much everything must tow the party line and be and I hate to use the term politically correct…but that gets us into all kinds of issues about modern academia.”
Jeanine Basinger: “Storytellers can’t pay any attention to that. They’re the storytellers and they tell the stories. Stories have to hurt us, make us angry, not satisfy our needs…directions, they don’t have to adjust the way we want them to be, we have to take them as they are and that’s the way we learn from them.”
We are nitpicking our art and entertainment to death. Great art and compelling stories shouldn’t have to fit into neat, little boxes of thought. Interesting stories can’t be told when a writer and creator is hampered by potential social media outrage. At some point, will creative people just churn out blandness, because the boldness and brashness of truth hurts too many feelings? I fear that this inclination will water down our culture’s art and entertainment. I’m old enough to remember a time when it was cool to be edgy, dark and fucked up.
We have a right to call out something as offensive and vulgar, but it shouldn’t stop someone from creating it. Writers should attempt to get things correct and do proper research when dealing with potentially sensitive issues and that shouldn’t get in the way of telling stories. But some would argue that media shouldn’t ever show instances of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc…, but how can artist tell stories about the realities of these things, without fear of offending the easily offended. How can a story show transformation and transcendence without illustrating bad or problematic stuff in an early part of the story or narrative arc?
Television, movies, and music shouldn’t lose the ability to be edgy. Brutal stories can enlighten us to harsh truths about our world and culture. Off-color jokes can make us think about ourselves and the world in different ways. Sometimes art needs to be offensive, violent, twisted, strange, evil, to make us think.
I hope that this movement in academia and fandom doesn’t suppress great and interesting ideas, media and art. I hope that artists listen to critics, but stay true to their creative visions in the end. I want to live in a world where interesting and complex stories to be told without social or political pressure.
I’m less about critique these days as it sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it is outside of my comfortable or preferred worldview. That is where good storytelling happens.