Your Taste is Bad and So Are You

“Some nights it’s just entertainment, and some other nights it’s real.”
The Hold Steady

“Your favorite anime is SHIT. SHIIIIIIIT.”
– The Internet

“Do you think that, when making an evaluation on a piece of media, you are in part making some statement about those who enjoy that media?”

That was the question that prompted this post, and it really stumped me for a long, long time. The knee-jerk reaction is “no, that’s not true – people all like different things, and they have the right to like whatever they want.” But that’s really just avoiding the question, right? Yes, people have the right to like, say, an incredibly racist fantasy about how Hitler was right. But when I say “agree to disagree” to a fan, aren’t I silently adding “you crazy racist fucker”?

Sort of. Maybe? It’s not that simple.

“It’s not that simple” was my answer at the time. “This deserves a whole essay’s worth of elaboration.” And it’s true! Both of those things are true. Our relationship with media is complex – what we like doesn’t wholly define us, but it also isn’t completely apart from who we are. It says something. It means something. But it doesn’t have to mean that much, and we don’t have to take these criticisms personally. Or maybe we should take them a little personally, and that’s actually kind of important. Maybe we should learn to think a little less of ourselves than we do.

Here’s what I think.

Nagi no Asukara

First, I think I should reiterate one, two, or several dozen more times that our relationship with media is extremely complicated. The experience of engaging with an art object is a kind of alchemy – the work itself has a variety of aesthetic touchstones, the viewer of that work has a variety of emotional touchstones, and the experience created through the intersection of those wires will always be a personal one. Shows are intensely, bewilderingly complex, and offer endless details to respond to and avenues of connection. People are even more complicated, and each of us carry within ourselves the collective weight of millions of experiences, all of which affect the ways we engage with media, and what exactly we get out of it. Reducing our relationship to media to “we like things if they’re good, we dislike them if they’re bad” does an extreme disservice to the complexity of both art and human nature. And “identifying with your media” becomes a much more complicated concept when you accept that your relationship with “your media” is a unique and personal thing. We can like things for so many different reasons.

In light of that, one of the first points I should clarify is that you can both like and dislike a work at the same time. Works of art are not narrow conduits of single messages – they are complex amalgamations of many ideas and concepts. If you identify something you find objectionable in a work, that doesn’t mean the work will automatically fail for you. My go-to example here is Monogatari – it’s one of my favorite shows, but I consider its central protagonist Araragi a reprehensible character that the show actually loves and supports. That creates a distance between me and Monogatari, but Monogatari is an extremely complicated work, and I can enjoy the show for a variety of reasons while still disliking significant elements of it. H. P. Lovecraft is another example – his work is often reflective of his personal racism, but I love his worlds and prose, and so I’m still able to connect with his work. This doesn’t make me “better at enjoying media” than someone who’d be put off by either of these issues – it’s just that my wires are different from other people, and so in my personal experience of these works,  I’m able to brush off things that could very reasonably make others think they’re terrible works. And this obviously isn’t exclusively related to when we morally or emotionally disagree with a work, either – this is just an extension of the fact that we can find things to love even in works we find very aesthetically flawed, as well.


We can enjoy works without admiring or agreeing with every element within those works. That seems simple, but it’s reflective of those thousand ways we engage with media, and sometimes it can be hard to admit. The important thing here is not aligning yourself wholly with what you consume, or defending it as either righteous or meaningless – the important thing is being aware of what you are engaging with. And that’s where we get into territory people are a little less willing to admit to.

People don’t like to be judged for their media. They don’t want to think their taste is “wrong” in some way, and that that is possibly reflective of something “wrong” with them. And in light of that, people have developed a few media-criticism defense mechanisms. I’m sure there are many more, but I tend to mostly see two, somewhat diametrically opposed defense mechanisms when it comes to media – either declaring all of your media choices meaningless, or defending all of your media choices as valuable. These generally fall into fairly predictable categories – people who watch a lot of violent movies or harems or whatnot will lean towards “all media is just entertainment, and is not reflective of me the viewer,” whereas people who tend to see themselves as advocates of progressive media will attempt to shoehorn everything they watch into some kind of progressive message. Both of these perspectives make emotional sense – on the one hand, people often go to media to indulge in consequence-free escapism, and on the other, people who deeply identify with their media often want that media to deeply identify with them. Though these are opposite messages, they come from the exact same place – a desire to defend the bridge between your media preferences and your personal identity. Media either means nothing, or it means your personal preferences are “good.”


Both of these choices are, unsurprisingly, traps – they’re not based in an actual engagement with your media, they’re based in defending your personal identity. They blind us to media awareness, because they either mean we can’t start the conversation of what art actually means and says about us as people (on the meaningless end) or are starting from a position of defensiveness and a strong personal agenda (on the valuable end). They stimy conversations, because the art conversation immediately becomes the identity one. And this shouldn’t be surprising, because for all of art’s complexity, art does contain clear messages, philosophies, and worldviews for people to respond to. No art is meaningless, no art has no agenda – every story contains a message, even if that message is just what the creator of that work assumes a “normal” world looks like. Our relationship with art is complex, but that does not mean we respond to art completely at random, and that our preferences are wholly divorced from our identity. We like things because of the combination of elements inherent in that work and our own view of the world. Our media choices are reflective of our inherent preferences.

This doesn’t seem like it’d be a controversial statement to make, but our relationships with our identities are apparently fraught enough for that to be the case. We like things because we like them. We appreciate what they’re saying and providing for us. They tell us things we want to hear, or provide examples of things we desire, our human preferences. Sometimes those preferences are “cute boys taking their shirts off,” sometimes they’re “a world where someone I can relate to is powerful.” We tend to enjoy media because media is kind to our preferences and beliefs.


That’s a large part of why we identify with media, and why we perceive attacks on it as attacks on us. Because sometimes they are. If someone criticizes a work as a “pandering power fantasy,” and you actually enjoy it because it makes you feel empowered, then yeah, there’s an argument going on there. The “we can like works for a vast variety of reasons” argument begins to break down when both the critic and fan are talking about the same reason. The distance between the art argument and the personal argument can very easily become meaningless, because our aesthetic preferences reflect our personal ones. The artistic is inherently the personal, and the personal is inherently the political – just as our art carries a message, so do our art preferences. There’s no escaping this – even “this work has no message” is a political statement, implying you already agree with that show’s idea of “neutral.” And when someone says a show you like is pandering or bad in a way you can actually recognize as directly reflective of your own enjoyment, it’s hard not to see that as a criticism of an element of your own identity.

And you know what?

That’s okay.

We do not all engage with our media for reasons reflective of our highest, most noble instincts. Much of the stuff we like, and many of the reasons we like it, will be silly, base, and reflective of personal quirks, not personal virtues. Most of the stuff we like is not Shakespeare, many of the reasons we like things are not because they promote aesthetic bliss and greater common humanity. Our personal preferences are not always “laudable,” and it’s silly to assume they are. Silly because it’s just clearly not true, and also silly because it stops the conversation dead – if we are unwilling to hear critiques of our media because we are unwilling to hear critiques of ourselves, then we become blind to what we consume, and can’t learn more about our media or ourselves. And that’s a goddamn shame, because even when we’re watching absolute crap, one of the best things about media is that it can always tell us something about ourselves. Why do we like these things? No, the answer isn’t just “because” – because why?

Sword Art Online

Many people want to believe that their media choices make them special. The truth is, they do… sort of. The media you have consumed and choose to consume is reflective of what you want as a person, what you know as a person, what you assume to be true, the things you value or are passionate about, and everything else that makes up your inherent personality. Your media choices make you special because they are reflective of your identity, and everyone is different, everyone is “special.” But this is very, very different from your media choices making you admirable. There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with spending your free time enjoying silly entertainment, but there’s also nothing inherently noble about it. Its value is not self-evident – people create value through meaningful engagement, it isn’t just acquired through every action we take. And the desire to prove otherwise is indicative of a clear, critical step people are subconsciously leaping here.

Self-reflection is tough, and as simple as it is, “my media is reflective of my personal preferences” can be a bitter pill to swallow. But I think the actual reason people get so up in arms about this topic is the commonly linked follow-up assumption: “therefore, my taste in media can demonstrate whether I am a good, bad, interesting, or boring person.” And that’s a line we shouldn’t cross, and one reflective of the sad fact of how much our media has become our identity. The messages of your media, and what it says about your existing preferences, are important things to be aware of and actively investigate, but they do not dictate your value as a human being. Only your actions can do that.

Zankyou no Terror

We can’t really help the media we enjoy. Slowly, over time, we change as people, and our preferences change as well – but there is no switch we can flip to suddenly start enjoying postmodern fiction or freeform jazz. We’re products of our environment, raised on media to like what we like, and our conscious control over our subconscious desires is limited at best. All of us are social and psychological works in progress – all of us are mixtures of ignorance and wisdom, selfishness and empathy, pride and regret. To deny our media’s mirror is to deny ourselves, and it’s only through acknowledging both that we can hope to honestly engage, hope to learn about ourselves and others. But media’s reflection of our identity does not have to dictate our value or actions. Every one of us has strange, individual media preferences, because we are all individual people – but we are not defined by our base desires any more than we’re defined by the media they’re reflected in. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weird, twisted person on the inside – if you spend all your time thinking about setting puppies on fire while in reality volunteering at your local orphanage, you are a very good person.

I’m not sure where people were told their base behavioral preferences are inherently honorable, but the interaction between our desires and our actions isn’t that simple. Values are things we impose on ourselves in pursuit of the world we want, not just whatever inherently feels good. Our media preferences are often reflective of our animal selves, but we are not animals. Our minds can conjure and actions adhere to a higher standard of behavior than whatever our lizard brains desire. We are so much more than our media, and the greatness of our actions should be more than the base tentpoles of our media preferences. Our identities should not be predicated on our most self-indulgent selves. We have to be more than what we choose to consume.


Which leads back to the danger of building an identity out of the media you love. It can be comforting to define yourself in a way that inherently provides you with a like-minded community, but we have to be more than our media. Both for the sake of self-criticism, and for the sake of our own lives – because an identity constructed solely of media preferences is both hollow and prone to collapse under critique. This defensiveness, born of an understandable desire to defend your existing self-image, will only impoverish you in the end. Don’t try to prove you’re an interesting person by demanding others respect your media choices. Prove it by being interesting – by digging into that media and finding something worth talking about, or, better yet, by enjoying it because it’s what you enjoy, and then going off and doing something else too. Our preferences and media are meaningful because they can teach us about both ourselves and the world. But we choose our actions, and we must never forget that. So be more than your media. Take attacks on your media under consideration, but if you already know yourself, you should not see these statements as attacks on your entire identity.

And remember, you’ll often like media because it tells you what you already want to hear. But just like with people, if you only interact with media that agrees with you, you won’t grow as a person. And if you don’t challenge your media, and actually interrogate its philosophy, then you’ll absorb its messages unquestioned. To claim you’re above the influence of your media is essentially to be the kid claiming he’s old enough for the scary movie, and he’ll definitely be able to fall asleep afterwards. We don’t get to choose how a lifetime of media messages interact with our subconscious, our perception of “societal normal” – media normalizes attitudes, and our response to media indicates what we’ve already normalized. All media is propaganda. All media is advertising something. Which is the last reason media criticism and self-reflection are so important – because a message unexamined is a message believed.

Knights of Sidonia

So if you want to make media a big part of your life, then I’d advise you to challenge yourself. Take in experiences you’re not already predisposed to like and agree with. You’ll likely find you can engage with more things than you expected, and through that you can follow the trail backwards and connect with new people, new perspectives. The individual weirdnesses of our preferences, the ignoble nature of our quirks, should not be cause to shut criticism out, shut people out, and refuse to engage with the self-knowledge media can truly inspire. They’re just reflective of the fact that we are all special, and all have something to learn from one another.

71 thoughts on “Your Taste is Bad and So Are You

  1. Funny thing some of my friends who only consume ”silly media” which is fine, often criticise me for preferring things they find pretentious. They say I’m the one trying to feel smart and don’t really enjoy what I consume and in fact no one really do enjoy those kind of works, that everyone is pretending to like deep stuff. They also don’t understand interests in politics and philosophy either. The mere fact that I enjoy different things is an attack to them it seems.

    • Yeah, I’ve run into plenty of that, and I think it’s partially based in the “going too far in making personal assumptions based on media preferences” issue. People can often have a hard time accepting other people just get entirely different things out of media than them, and if the assumption that follows that is that those people are somehow “better” at media or something, then it’s even harder.

  2. While im all for different tastes and opinions, I find that sometimes much of the anime community is a bit shallow and is afraid of challeging itself( other kinds of media have this problem, but this is more evident in anime). I think its important to tell these people that the anime they like isn’t that great actually, or that we all should have some sort of sense that maybe what we like to watch isn’t all that great.
    I like watching crappy movies, but when I watch them, I am fully aware that they are bad, and I will not try to tell other people that they should like those movies at the same level as I do. A friend of mine once spoke to me about Future Diary like it was the best thing ever, and I was forced to tell him that that’s not true, and went on to explain him all it’s flaws and mistakes, because that is what we should do, argue an opinion. Im not gonna sit and accept his opinion that Future Diary is the best anime ever. He has the right to love it, but I don’t have to agree with his feelings.
    The truth is, not everyone understands what makes storytelling good, or what a good character developement is, so it gets very hard to explain to these people why some of the greater animes are great, and they find it confusing that animes like Monster or Mushishi get so much high praise, when they find it “boring” and “unengaging” .
    People who have “good taste” will always be a niche, because unfortunately, the majority doesn’t watch media to be challenged, but to be entertained. Thats not a bad thing, I do that all the time, but I gravitate towards the “pretentious” stuff because I search for different emotions and philosophies in media.
    What we shouldn’t do whoever, is be aggressive towards those opinions, but instead try to question those people on why they love a specific anime, and have a balanced argument on the subject.

    • There’s an exceptionally fine line here, a razor thin gap between thoughts like “its important to tell these people that the anime they like isn’t that great actually” on the one hand, and only engaging people to satisfy your own ego on the other.

      Most people who take this attitude seem to fall on the wrong side of that gap. It becomes about making themselves feel better because they like “the right” shows (even though there is no such thing), not about “enriching” the other person’s life.

      I don’t know you, thus I have no opinion whatsoever about which side you fall on. But please just be aware how dangerous it is to trust too strongly in the inherent superiority of your media choices, at least insofar as it affects your interactions with others (unless they’ve consented to such a discussion).

    • I can’t really recommend what you’re talking about here. My post is more about discussing behavior, and establishing the link between our media and identity is complex and fraught for valid reasons – I do not condone going to people in places they’re expressing love for a show and actively attacking them for it. You say it’s “important to tell people it’s bad,” but doing this will very rarely change minds – it will simply make people upset. Challenging yourself is important, but challenging others on the things they love when they’re not really looking for an argument is just valueless negativity. If people want to discuss relative thoughts on a show, sure, go for it – but I wouldn’t hold your perception of superior taste as justification for attacking the preferences of others.

      • im not saying attacking those people, but if someone comes up to you and says Transformers 4 is one of the best movies of the year, you arent really going to take that person seriously, and I feel its important to tell that person that there are better stuff out there. Im not saying their taste is bad, but an argument is needed.
        as I said, someone once forced me to accept that Future Diary is good, when its clearly not. You cant say that every opinion has its merit, when the show is clearly not a good story. He went on to say I dont know whats good stuff, and at that point, I have to tell him he is the one who is wrong.
        I dont feel i have a superior taste, I just like stuff with some content in it. I watch anime for myself, not to tell others the “great anime” I watch.

      • hattori:

        someone once forced me to accept that Future Diary is good, when its clearly not.

        That’s so ironically ridiculous. Someone forced you to accept a subjective opinion as if it were objective, and that got you up in arms, right? But now you’re presenting in the exact same way, as if your subjective opinion is the one that’s objectively true.

        Also, you sort of answered yourself once more:

        but if someone comes up to you and says Transformers 4 is one of the best movies of the year, you arent really going to take that person seriously

        If someone comes and tells me it’s fine not to take people seriously because their tastes differ than mine, then I’m not going to take them seriously. I also am too old and tired to “correct” them, unlike you. That urge, to correct those oh-so-wrong people? That’s exactly because you’re guilty of what Bob is talking about, of weaponizing your opinion as a morally enforcable truth, and making it part of your personality and belief structure.

        Also, it’s not entirely true Bobduh doesn’t think it’s not important to tell those people, people like you, they’re wrong. He wrote this piece for that exact reason. Just that actually engaging with such opinions and people comment after comment becomes tiresome quickly. Especially when it’s not going to lead anywhere, because as Bob said, those people (people like you) don’t self-reflect.

      • so we just got into a cycle here, ironically. Every opinion is subjective of fucking course. Does that mean im not supposed to take it seriously? Of course not.
        And the truth is, Future Diary is not one of the greatest anime ever. It’s filled with plot holes, bad characters and bad pacing. Its a subjective opinion, but you cannot deny that one opinion will always have more strengh and fact over the other, thats just how things go, thats the reason democracy is a flawed ideology, you can’t expect everyone opinion to be accepted. I also have stopped correcting people, because I konow now that it wont change anyone’s opinion, I have debated with that a long time, im also getting old for this shit.
        I just don’t agree that I should just be complacent about someone saying “Transformers 4 is the best thing ever since sliced bread”.
        But again, as you said comment after comment gets tiresome, and you wont agree with what I have to say, because it won’t lead anywhere, because “people like you don’t self reflect”. Thats probably wrong, buts that’s the thing about opinions, they are like assholes everyone has one, even you apparently.

      • You seem to be completely missing the point both Bobduh and Guy are making here.

        Its not your job to tell people that their taste in anime sucks. You are perfectly allowed to believe it does, but going out of your way to tell people that is just needlessly antagonistic.

      • You all seem to be saying that to me, but what which point did I say I go out of my way to tell that to people? I just tell it like it is, when people ask my opinion, or instead antagonize me for not liking what they like. Im allowed to feel angry for people making Transformers 4 one of the highest grossing films of all time, but of course im not going to their faces and say that their taste is shit. It just so happens that their taste IS shit.

      • hattori:

        But what about works that are less “clear-cut” than Transformers 4, with more nuances that can allow a different set of people think they’re good even if you think they’re shit, because they value aspects you don’t?

        Or, vice versa, people who dislike stuff you think is good, because they feel it lacks in areas that aren’t the ones you care for.

    • Looking at it from another perspective, this friend of yours who loves future diary, if he genuinely enjoys watching this anime, if feels fulfilled watching terrible animes, you should reflect on whether your criticism of his taste is partly motivated by your own subconscious envy (not saying that is the case here). Envy that he can feel fulfilled watching those terrible animes, while you have to trawl the entire ocean to search for your hidden gem.

      They have found their garden of happiness, no reason to drag them out of it. At least, that is how I deal with situations like when your friend told you how great future diary is. Just nod your head and try to feel happy for them.

    • I would have to say that I agree with you. Our motives are slightly different though. When I tell someone that something they liked is rather mediocre, it’s not to put them down either. It’s to either 1) hopefully expose them to better shows so that they receive some sort of enjoyment from them and 2) hopefully raise the general population’s “standard” (although it is kinda great if someone acknowledges your ability to analyze a story. Everyone has some sort of ego :P). I don’t think something like SAO is a problem, but something like SAO being incredibly popular and becoming a symbol itself for anime is a problem. It shows that bad storytelling such as that is acceptable and can be a success. It lowers the bar for future adaptations.

    • I see what you’re saying (I have a friend who thinks Guilty Crown is the best anime of all time), but honestly, I would never just say something is bad. I’ve told this dude I don’t LIKE Guilty Crown, but unless he actively tries to ask me why I don’t, I’m not gonna list my reasons. If they don’t ask, they probably don’t want to know.

  3. I think the most difficult part of internalizing all of this is that a vanishingly small percentage of criticism against a piece of media is actually intended to critically explore its messages. Negative comments encountered regarding your favorite [thing] are overwhelmingly “lol this sucks” or “only dumb fujoshi could like this” or “clearly for manbabies”. Or put another way, “Your favorite anime is SHIT. SHIIIIIIIT”.

    That’s the real world experience of “criticism” most people will encounter. Sometimes it’s worded slightly more eloquently, but often with the exact same message. There’s little to grow from here. Just a blind hatred (or at best, dismissal). And a lot of it is explicitly, even admittedly, meant personally.

    By and large, I don’t care, I’m used to it and will ignore it – but I won’t engage with it. I don’t watch media with the conscious goal of growing as a person, even if it can have that affect. I watch media for personal enjoyment, in my fleeting free time between crushing hours at a frustrating job. I don’t often have the time or desire to treat my media consumption as an intellectual exercise. It’s about satisfying emotional needs (both via the media itself and the communities around it) that aren’t being, or can’t be, satisfied any other way – and the need to avoid thinking about disgruntled clients, or that utterly ridiculous deadline my boss committed us to, or…[whatever]. Is satisfying an emotional need the same as forming an identity? Maybe, I’m not sure. But whatever you call it, it’s pretty important.

    I mean yes, media has indirectly made positive contributions to my outlook on topics such as LGBT and women’s issues. For example, my growing interest in yuri largely preceded serious awareness of real world LGBT equality issues, not the other way around. But that’s a small side bonus, not the point of it for me.

    All this rambling isn’t even to disagree with any points you’ve made per se, but to suggest that they may be very far removed from what most people are engaging with media for most of the time. I don’t have the time to do the things I want to do, so yeah I’m just going to block that person ragging on Show X on twitter, not “explore their underlying feelings” (which they’re not often going to share anyway).

    And I honestly can’t feel bad about that. Unless parsing apart media messages is either your occupation or your burning passion, it’s exceptionally difficult to live these messages to their fullest. Difficult, with a very uncertain (that’s putting it optimistically!) return on investment.

    • Oh, definitely. I’m sure you know, but this isn’t really intended as a rebuke to people using their media however they want to use it (I actually talked about how that’s a ridiculous demand in my “why critics are always wrong” piece) – this is more about exploring the frustrations of people who have actively chosen to talk about “what their media means.” I actually do think many people do this in very small ways frequently, but my main target here is conversations where the media-identity question is already relevant and causing disagreement.

      • It’s definitely relevant for big meta conversations, like the one going on in gaming right now. On an individual level, though, it can be feel very abstract, which is why those big meta-conversations can be so difficult to move beyond basic principles. Because in the end, they’re comprised of millions of very small conversations.

        I think it’s at least possible to get a fair number of people on board with arguments like “games/anime/comic books in the aggregate often suffer from sexism/immaturity/violence/etc.” But when it comes to specific criticisms, agreement very quickly fractures in a thousand different ways (see: the Sarkeesian/Hitman furor).

        That confluence between an individual work in its context and broad, high level debates can be very frustrating to navigate. I often take a general intellectual position on a topic but disagree completely with many of the examples used to support it, for example. This is why I often find myself pulling away from the bigger discussions, even though I know precisely in which direction I support seeing society move.

        I feel like I’m drifting way off into another topic now, though. I guess it’s just very very hard to spot the intersection of the individual and the group/industry/culture. It is, as you noted, exceptionally complex.

  4. You left a little point open up above about being not being “better at enjoying media” because you’re able to enjoy something despite its bad qualities, or ignore certain things that don’t bother you.
    There should be some sort of validity check for media, though; you cannot finish a game if you don’t pay attention to the instructions or don’t complete the objectives, but you can sit through some music or a TV show while messing about on your phone or just not pay attention and claim to have enjoyed it or watched it. It comes down to intellectual engagement: do you pay attention to what you’re watching, or not?
    Then again, some people want to disengage and just watch colors and sounds, and not have to mentally process things. We all enjoy differently.

    • I’m not really sure what you mean by “validity check,” or what its purpose would be. Because yeah, as you say, everyone enjoys stuff differently.

  5. “These generally fall into fairly predictable categories – people who watch a lot of violent movies or harems or whatnot will lean towards “all media is just entertainment, and is not reflective of me the viewer,” whereas people who tend to see themselves as advocates of progressive media will attempt to shoehorn everything they watch into some kind of progressive message. ”

    It’s important to remember in some cases (most of the cases ?), they are the exact same person.
    We don’t like every pieces the same way (unless you always watch the exact same kind of shows). And we can like some pieces despite their mistakes (or even because of them inn some case).

    What is important is to be able to understand why you like a show more than any other, to control your guts reaction (It’s hard not to want to start writing an incoherent raging posts when one of your favourite show is insulted. But trying to understand the other’s point of view helps).

    • Yeah, people often do occupy both of these attitudes. I think the internet makes that a little less clear, because various elements of your personality can often be segregated into separate discourses – so, for example, I see a lot of the “everything I watch is progressive” stuff on tumblr, but that may just be where people congregate to express that element of their identity, and not reflective of a very specific type of person.

  6. I think there’s a distinction to be made here between “content” of a work and how that content is “executed”.

    By “content,” I mean the collection of experiences, feelings, and ideas that a work conveys or attempts to convey: awe from a stunning visual scene, sympathy for a character’s struggle with PTSD, the concept that the real world and a virtual one are both equally reflective of people’s personalities, and so on.

    Criticizing a work for its content, I think, is the thornier subject, as it represents a fundamental disagreement with what the work was trying to convey. One person might criticize the fanservice in an anime on the grounds that fanservice in general bothers him or her, but a fan of the show might enjoy it and feel that to criticize the work on these grounds is to criticize part of the fan’s self-identity.

    How content is executed or delivered to the audience is another matter: a work may attempt to evoke some feeling or convey an idea, but it might do so poorly, and I think criticisms of this nature are less provocative. If a CGI sequence shows obvious flaws in animation and rendering, that says very little about what the sequence actually tried to portray and whether that subject is enjoyable or not.

    But content and execution aren’t cleanly separate concepts. One might criticize the fanservice aspect of an anime because one feels it distracts from other more serious elements, but another viewer might say it complements those elements by providing contrast. When discussion hits this meta level, and method of execution itself becomes a form of “content” for sufficiently advanced viewers and reviewers, it seems like nothing is truly safe to criticize without someone taking offense to it.

    In the context of recent issues in gaming and feminist critique, I think one issue is as simple as this: “This person is saying this work I like is offensive and derogatory to women, but I like this work, so this person is saying that, by liking this work, I’m complicit in being offensive and derogatory to women. I don’t want to feel that way, or I don’t feel am that way, therefore this person must be wrong.” This is a squarely content-based issue, I think: a debate about what the content of a work is, whether that content is good or bad if it’s there, and so on. It explodes disproportionately because people do tightly identify with what they like, but you can like a game’s mechanics and criticize its story. It is not a crime to admire Hitler’s economic achievements in Nazi Germany while demonizing him for his warmongering and annihilation of the Jews.

    Nevertheless, I do think that, keeping in mind the blurry line between content and execution, there is room to criticize a work’s execution in some cases, with minimal collateral criticism of the content. Is it more effective, better suspense-building, to have a character get shot from offscreen, with no warning, and to cut to black right there? Or is it more effective to have a short scene after that in which the wounded heroine is confronted by the enemy, ending on an obvious cliffhanger? Yeah, you do end up having a little debate over abstract writing concepts like whether cliffhangers are good or bad, bu that’s very different from debating whether it’s good for the heroine to get shot at all.

    • Yeah, the distinction between message and execution is definitely an important one. Actually, in regards to the videogames thing, I think “abusing” that distinction has been one of the primary arguments some game enthusiasts have been using – basically saying that only criticism of the execution is acceptable, and no actual engagement with the work’s overt messages and underlying cultural assumptions is acceptable. But as you say, this is a messy issue, and the way you interact with a work’s various underlying assumptions will deeply influence how effectively you think it executes on its priorities.

      • Indeed, that abuse of the distinction is exactly what a lot of people are demanding, isn’t it? Review the mechanics and the gameplay and whatnot, but say nothing whatsoever about any themes or ideas, intended or otherwise, that the game might get across? It’s an arbitrary dividing line meant to shield a work from criticism. And debates about, for example, how much time can be spent in non-interactive cutscenes vs. regular gameplay–they can get just as opinionated as any social commentary debate.

    • “It is not a crime to admire Hitler’s economic achievements in Nazi Germany while demonizing him for his warmongering and annihilation of the Jews.”

      While the former is not a crime, it is a bit silly. The idea that Hitler turned around the German economy is one of the few vestiges of Third Reich propaganda that has survived to this day. The economy did improve in some areas thanks to the policies of Hjalmar Schacht, but Schacht was quickly sidelined by the Nazis after a few years. The Nazis wanted a controlled economy, which went against Schacht’s Keynesian capitalist ideas. The Nazis also wanted to build an economy that would allow them to rapidly build up their armed forces, without going into full war-time mode. To do this, they burnt through the German government’s economic tools to create an economy that necessitated war. Military spending was boosted dramatically, all sorts of labour battalions and government-backed paramilitaries were created (which did bring down unemployment), the government started manipulating imports and exports to a great extent, all sorts of financial schemes, such as borrowing from sham shell corporations to fund spending (the famous Mefo and Öffa bills), etc. All of this immediate action did lead to immediate gains, but it also left Germany low on currency reserves and foreign exchange. Without the gold, currency, and material gains that were brought forth by the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia, it is likely that the German economy would have begun to unravel before the war. So you can’t really admire Hitler’s economic achievements, unless you also admire the plundering of the treasuries of other European nations.

      But that is really, really beyond the point. I definitely agree with you about content and execution, and how criticisms can tread risky ground with fans of a work.

      • That’s fair; I went for a rather quick analogy with a deliberately extreme subject and did not do due diligence on whether the history actually backed up the claim. Thanks for pointing that out.

  7. Was this essay created in response to all the stuff happening with video games at the moment? Because if it was, I would throw in my hat and say that this is the best response to all of it.

    Otherwise, keep on going Bobduh. You’re doing good and I can’t wait to read more from you.

    • Thank you very much! And actually, this is a post I’ve been thinking about and putting pieces together for for a few months now. It just happens to also be relevant to all this videogame stuff.

  8. Very thought provoking as usual, I’m happy you decided to write this.

    I suppose in short it simply goes to show that media shouldn’t be a substitute for your identity, but a building block that’s only a part of your complete identity.

  9. And there’s of course the other side, what we don’t like isn’t necessarily bad, and neither are the people who enjoy it. And sometimes we need to realize whether we don’t like something for its messages, or aesthetic reasons.

    Here’s an example, I don’t like moe slice of life shows. It’s not that I think they’re poor, or stupid, it’s just that I prefer marathoning shows as I watch them, and I just can’t bring myself to marathon plotless shows, or shows without more of a plot/character/setting hook. But under that same logic, I also can’t marathon a show like Aku no Hana, or even Mushishi. For a long time, that meant I didn’t watch them at all, until I began watching them an episode a day. I did marathon Aku no Hana, which had been an excruciatingly hard task, due to how oppressive its atmosphere is.

    That’s fine, but tribalism would have had me decry these shows as poor, and to attack them based on other reasons – to call them “plotless” or “not conflict-driven” would’ve been correct. I could’ve called them “boring” which would have been a value judgment summary of the above, or I could have started talking about how they’re poorly directed, poorly-written, and then as I kept seeing people say good things about them, I’d have felt the need to constantly justify my belief, because people would’ve told me I’m wrong, or even just seeing others state the opposite of what I believe in, I’d have felt the need to jump in and “fight the good fight.”

    Yes, from an opinion on the work, especially as one encounters opposing views, it transforms into a belief. And beliefs become moral beliefs, and you can’t have a moral belief without finding it actionable, that’s exactly what morals mean.

    But that’s what happens when you define your taste as sacrosanct, when you define your taste as not just part of yourself (I can be a male, which is part of myself, while you can be a non-male, right?), but as a moral belief, and thus a moral obligation. Morals are a meme, in the sense that they’re ideas that we feel the need to replicate onto others.

    Media as Identity is a problem, because it leads to tribalism, and to lack of self-reflection. Of course, lack of self-reflection is what leads to Media as Identity, and Tribalism leads to lack of self-reflection, and lack of self-reflection leads us to find more like us.

    Being positive about media in this manner is just as bad as being negative about media in this manner. And they feed off of one another. When we see the dreaded Other we immediately react, rather than self-reflect, and when people keep reacting in this manner to us, we’re put on the defensive.

    It’s almost funny, if our beliefs are never questioned, we may very well not self-reflect, but if they’re questioned too much, we’ll coat them in a teflon-coat and call them sacrosanct, and thus will not only not self-reflect, but reject the call to self-reflect as a morally reprehensible act.

    Being human is suffering.

    • My narrow-minded belief in optimism refuses to let me agree with this, sorry 😛

      But yeah, all true – I guess the way we’re compelled to weaponize positive taste as moral belief is its own post. Like good ol’ Mahouka Dude.

    • Because if you don’t question your own motives, it’s easy to slip into ugly ones. Plus I just think greater self-understanding leads to greater happiness, or at least a greater understanding of what will make you happy. And understanding yourself also helps you understand others.

      • …I’m not really sure what else I was expecting. I guess the way I see you and many other literary critics gush about things like self-reflection or “growing as a person” leaves me thinking that there must be something profound about those concepts that I’m missing. But then the way you describe it (and I certainly agree with your reasons), it just sounds like this useful little skill… in the same way that algebra is useful or maybe literacy itself. Great to have, but not exactly the holy grail of enlightenment. Does that make sense?

        I dunno, it’s not that I think you’re wrong about anything you’ve said in this essay, and I at least think I followed it all just fine, and yet it still leaves me feeling kind of perplexed. Not sure what to do with that feeling.

  10. There’s a Ghost in a Shell episode written by Dai Sato where Motoko goes inside a cyberbrain. Inside was “The greatest movie ever”. The film never end, it was such a fantastic movie that the people who watched it never want to stop watching it. All they wanted to do was talk about the movie and watch it.

    And the message of that story was that entertainment is transitionary. Following your dreams in your own life is what is meaningful. Entertainment should inspire, not become an all encompassing thing. Artifice, dreams, and escapism don’t by itself make you a better person.

    So I really don’t put a whole lot of stock in people’s tastes. There’s a person I know who only watches “happy love stories” in anime. He doesn’t like anything that’s sad. He’s still a intelligent, friendly, and all around decent guy.

    Another person I know watches “Bleach”. I think that show is horrible, but she’s a nurse. She’ll help far more people then I ever will in a position of high stress and responsibility.

    “Morally Awful” entertainment is what makes me a little judgey… But there’s no prize for having the best taste in anime. I try not to be judgmental of what people watch because it feels silly. You are what you do in the world, not the entertainment you consume.

  11. Take in experiences you’re not already predisposed to like and agree with. You’ll
    likely find you can engage with more things than you expected, and through that you ‘
    can follow the trail backwards and connect with new people, new perspectives.

    Oh, hai, Bobduh, I heard there was a new season of No Game No Life coming out :]

    Seriously though, great essay.

  12. My biggest insecurity is probably why I should engage in media at all. It’s absolutely true that my actions define me and not what media I consume, but I always find myself questioning what the value of the action of consuming media is.

    I sort of view it both as a form of communication, either from the author to the audience or from me to whoever I recommend something to, and as something that can easily bring people together. Even so, I’m not sure about this, and I’m even less sure about whether it can be reconciled with the fact that I also hold the belief that a piece of media exists more or less independently from its creator in the sense can have messages and themes not intended.

    • My media definitely enriches my life! I’m certainly not arguing it can’t do that. And I think if you’re imagining it as a conversation, then you’re already ahead of the “identity shield” stuff I’m most worried about.

  13. Love your article! Food for thought that your blog is also a media that I consume and I like. What does that say about me…? mmm….

  14. What an opportune time to be posting on this given the fallout from the gaming community!

    The biggest issue I find in actually trying to operate this way in the real world is that most people simply don’t engage with their media beyond “I liked it because it was good” and “I didn’t like it cause it was bad”. Let’s say someone watches their cartoons just to relax after a killer day at work and so doesn’t put in effort – because it really takes a bunch – to think about why they like it. It’s just not on the agenda and that’s okay! Of course there are reasons the person likes one thing more than the next one, and there’s plenty for them to learn about themselves (and they probably have from their art but just haven’t formally recognized it), but if someone isn’t going to try to get to the heart of their personal preferences, it’s going to be really hard to have a productive conversation about media choices and art.

    Does being this way say something about that person? Absolutely – but usually more along the lines of “wow they sure spend a lot of time at work” than the “wow that person is a subhuman apeman that doesn’t have the capacity to engage with art like me” that you see a lot in some forums. Being aware of this can be as important in avoiding conflict than understanding your own preferences. I appreciate that you address this because there are few conversations on this topic that talk about both how personal preferences are reflected in media choices and how actions are really the way we engage with the world, not your elitist fedora tipping at your MAL.

    Great essay, one of my favorites of yours. Keep up this grueling pace and someday you may turn into ANIMECRITICHULK!

    I also decided to pick up Hocus Pocus after hearing you speaking so highly of it can’t help but think that this whole “creating your identity around assumptions” issue is just yelling at me from all sides… and it’s awesome. So thanks for pointing me towards some works that address it in all sorts of ways.

    • Yeah, I actually talked in my post on critics how what we watch is often just reflective of what media is for us, and a lot of the time, media is how we de-stress at the end of a long, stressful day. Frankly, I’m kind of worried of writing anything that might encourage the opposite view – I don’t want to provide fire for elitest forum types just looking to create some taste hierarchy. But our relationship with media is complex, and requires more than a knee-jerk dismissal of that perspective.

      Glad you enjoyed the piece, and I hope you keep enjoying Hocus Pocus!

  15. My personal preference would have been to connect this essay to specific works of art and to specific conversations that have obviously left an impression on you. That would have connected the essay more directly to experiences that many of your readers would have had themselves.

    • You did mention Monogatari and Lovecraft near the beginning, but I’m more interested in how this applies to specific conversations that you have had about specific works that others have enjoyed.

  16. Oh, good, you didn’t talk about /absolutely/ everything I plan to when I eventually get around to writing something about this issue.
    Not sure I have much to add to what you wrote though, other then that I generally agree. Great essay.

  17. Pingback: Does the anime we like reveal what kind of person we are? — 毎日アニメ夢

  18. I felt like I was watching a Vsauce video, reading this.

    That’s a good thing. It really is.

  19. Great essay. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the issues it brings up, but you’ve discussed all of them much more thoroughly and eloquently than I’ve been able to. It’s a touchy subject and it can be hard to discuss with people. I usually just stick to reductive answers like, “no, you’re not a bad person for liking things I think are bad” and “your actions define you, not your taste,” but for the reasons you elaborate on here it’s really not that simple. If art didn’t matter then it wouldn’t move us like it does, and the parts of it you respond to have very much to do with who you are as a person. I want to be able to talk about the media I consume; one of the big reasons I love it so much is because I get to dissect it, analyze it, and talk about it with other people. People who react defensively to any analysis make that very difficult. Next time I have trouble explaining all that, I’ll just send them a link to this essay.

    • The thing is, there is more than one way to dissect or analyze media, with both positive and negative opinions being influenced by subjective factors and mindsets.

      It is constantly possible to verify how “art” does not move all people in the same exact ways, nor does everyone take the exact same “messages” from it.

      Ergo, if you think that someone liking a film you dislike says something about how they are reacting to the message you find in it, you might well be demonstrably wrong, if they happen to be taking something else entirely from it that’s not what you can see and are able to argue the point. And vice versa.

      • You seem to be arguing against a statement I didn’t make. I didn’t say there weren’t many ways to dissect and analyze media, and I don’t believe I implied it either. The whole point of having any discussion about media at all comes from the fact that there are different viewpoints, and everyone’s exact experience is unique. So I guess I’m not sure what your point is in relation to mine?

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  22. Pingback: re: Your Taste is Bad and So Are You | Fantastic Memes

  23. Pingback: Thoughts on Tastes and Why There is No Such Thing as Good/Bad Taste - Chikorita157's Anime Blog

  24. Damn Fine!! Thank You! I am tempted to rip off entire sections and sub in -something else i am interested in- for the term “media” – Nope, won’t do it, better to engage the original. Love the writing on Mono too.. Awww… c’mon Araragi’s needs to be an annoying flawed proto, otherwise he can’t grow.. One question: when we find something we like, even to the point that we can appreciate its flaws and still glom onto it – How much of that is a product of finding it when we did? As a recovering film snob, I need to know why I now consider Godzilla X Mechagodzilla (2002) as the best movie ever made, of all time. (You might not, but that’s your loss… trust me, you will eventually).I wonder if there is something at work here? Cheers /M

  25. Coming to this shortly after reading through your best of 2014 list, I feel kind embarrassed. I read the list and immediately dismissed you as being tasteless and a trend-follower. I then read this post and immediately thought, “this guy gets it!”. Then I connected the two together and I am humbled. I think having Zankyou no Terror on a top list bothered me because of how I received it. I went in hearing that it was “smart” and found what I deemed to be pretentious and stylish with no actual substance (nothing thought-provoking). I guess what I look for in media is ideas that force me to think or reevaluate something without having characters that grate on my nerves (so no Araragi) . I was also upset because of HxH being on the list. I got into the HxH manga before the looong hiatus and I enjoyed it. However, the manga was strictly formulaic in its approach to shounen manga. It was fun, but time and distance have led me to see it as a poor reconstruction of the genre (which is sad because Yu Yu Hakusho was one of my favorite animes growing up) .

    …and somehow I strayed from my point, but editing is for things with my name on it. Anyway, cheers to a new year of anime (well, mainly manga for me) .

  26. I just discovered your website, and this essay has completely changed my perspective on media, criticism, and the value of what we consume. I doubt you’ll ever see this, but more people need to be exposed to messages like this. I’m probably going to end up binge reading a bunch of what you’ve written here. All I have to say is keep doing what you’re doing. It’s brilliant.

  27. Oh my god, this is so good. SO. GOOD. I love your work but this just fucking blew me away. I’m completely floored. No words.

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