We’ve been hearing a lot of it lately, at least from the more gurgly and questionable-smelling corners of the internet – a demand for “objective reviews.” Reviews that leave politics at the door, and simply give audiences an untainted appraisal of some media property. If you read my stuff at all regularly, I’m sure you can take a guess as to my thoughts on the validity of this request – given how often I stress the variability of personal experience, art experience, and critical evaluation, it should come as no surprise that I find this demand pretty misguided. But it keeps coming up, and it actually reflects on a number of more interesting elements of both how we parse media and how media is constructed, and so I figured I’d take my own shot at the topic. So let’s get down and dirty with objectivity in criticism!
“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.