“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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.