I made a lot of people mad a little while ago. Angry forum threads, capslock responses filling up my ask.fm inbox, the whole nine yards. I even heard people were planning on emailing my editor! It was an exciting time for everyone, but I can’t say I didn’t deserve it. I did something that, if you’re truly, deeply attached to your experience of a media object, can be absolutely unforgivable.
I watched a show wrong.
The show in question was Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works. In my ANN review of the first half, I mentioned that while starting the franchise with UBW was fine, I personally recommended watching Fate/Zero first, since it enriched your understanding of UBW’s character dynamics. Certain fans did not take kindly to this suggestion – apparently, watching Fate/Zero first ruins the entire experience, and it’s just not objectively possible for starting with Fate/Zero to provide a better experience than the correct viewing order. Who knew?
This all seemed mainly funny to me at the time, and offered a good opportunity to win some heated debates through careful gif deployment, but it was also deeply reflective of a general viewer instinct, something closely related to the stuff I discussed in my No Politics post a little while ago. As I said in that piece, the idea of removing politics from reviews indicates a misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of our relationship with media, and with the world itself. Talking about some “objective” style of criticism denies the multiplicity of perspectives that always informs how we engage with media, what we get out of the shows we watch, and the very world we see. But the desires that underpin this frustration at critics for “watching shows wrong” comes from a very human place – the desire to connect with others, and to share and celebrate what is meaningful to you.
Fate/stay night offers a uniquely clear illustration of this because the work itself has such a fractured genealogy. It began as a visual novel, and has since then had its first route adapted by Deen, its second route adapted into a movie, and its prequel adapted into Fate/Zero. Now we’re coming back to it with Unlimited Blade Works, but the question of a “correct viewing order” remains. Unlimited Blade Works is the second route, so should you begin with the Deen adaptation? Well, apparently that adaptation both incorporates elements of the visual novel’s other two routes and also just isn’t very good. So should you start with Fate/Zero? Apparently that gives away lots of big twists from the later Fate material, so perhaps not. How about just starting with the new series, then? Well, apparently then you miss the interplay of character development present across the three routes of the original.
The final answer, at least among the Fate megafans, pretty much always comes down to “read the visual novel first.” Which would all be well and good, if the original didn’t come with its own “quirks” (which are debatable and not the topic of this article, but for me personally include very bad pacing and very purple prose), as well as exist in a medium that many people just aren’t that interested in. But, the fans say, that’s the only way to get the correct experience! Which implies there is a correct experience, and that anyone else would be capable of attaining that correct experience if they simply engaged with the media in the same way you did. Which pretty much underlines the understandable psychology of “the original is always better.”
You hear it when it comes to TV shows, when it comes to movies, when it comes to anime – “the adaptation ruins everything, just check out the original instead.” Sometimes this is true – adaptations don’t always have noble priorities in mind, sometimes they’re just envisioned as glorified commercials or ways of capitalizing on current trends (people liked Hunger Games? Jeez, what other dystopian fiction can we adapt?). But beyond that, the personal truth of adaptations is that if you’re an existing fan, the original will always be the one you emotionally connected with, and thus want to share with others. When an adaptation doesn’t prioritize the things that gave you your emotional experience of the original (and they almost never do, both because different mediums have different strengths and because your personal experience of the original isn’t the universal experience people will draw from it), you feel frustrated, because it feels like the adaptation is squandering an opportunity to both validate your existing experience and give more people the opportunity to share that experience. And so the original is always “better,” because your personal experience of the original encapsulates what you wanted others to experience, what you hoped an adaptation would bring to more people.
Fans (and by this I mean “people invested in a particular media object” – I’m not highlighting a specific group, everyone does this) want others to share their experience of media. They want to be validated, sure, but they also just want others to share their happiness. Media tells us things about ourselves, and we want to celebrate these connections, and find them in others. This is part of why we get hopeful about adaptations, and disappointed when they fail to capture what we loved. If ten fans of a particular property were given infinite resources to adapt it into a blockbuster movie, you’d end up with ten very different movies – but when you’re united in general love of some property, the distinctions between what we individually draw from our media are less important than our communal celebration of the thing that is meaningful to all of us.
And then this goes bad. The desire to have others share your experience of media is a natural thing, but when it moves into getting angry at critics for sharing their experience of media, the “wrong” experience, you get complaints about “objective criticism.” People get mad at reviews for focusing on the “wrong things” because they’re “misleading” audiences, tricking people into enjoying or avoiding stuff that should be respectively avoided or enjoyed. An underlying belief in the primacy of your media experience can ultimately foster a sense of entitlement, as fans get angry at seeing people who have platforms “misusing” them to spread lies about media. This righteous anger is part of what makes commenters feel that writers are “obligated” to respond to them, and give them their own counter-platform to address the injustices the critic is perpetrating. It’s part of what makes people furious when someone turns off comments on Youtube, or blocks people on twitter. “How dare you not voice my personal truth!”
This doesn’t just go in a “stop critiquing wrong” direction, either. The belief in the primacy of your media experience is what makes people say that others are “lying” about their experience of media. “I didn’t get much out of Revolutionary Girl Utena, therefore there’s nothing there – you’re just lying to look smart, your experience wasn’t actually different from mine.” Ditto for “Monogatari is just smut that people lie about to look smart,” or any one of a thousand other “your experience wasn’t mine, so it can’t be valid” arguments. And this gets even worse when it comes to stuff like charges of sexism in media, since inherent in that charge is the idea that fans who see nothing wrong with it are missing the sexism, and thus might themselves harbor sexist assumptions. It’s no wonder that talking about media online very often just reduces to people screaming past each other.
Which is a shame. I’m not sure what the solution here is, beyond just “constantly reiterating that our experiences of media are tremendously complex and based in an interlocking web of the personal, cultural, and aesthetic.” Or by hammering in that positivity and mutual respect in these conversations is the only way people with wholly different realities might come to some kind of understanding. Or by offering the easy truism that we’re all here because media means something important to us, and we should at least be able to celebrate that together, if nothing else.
Or maybe I should just stop watching shows wrong.