On criticism and representation

Criticism!!!! What a word everyone is afraid of. And you know what they say: people who can’t do, critique. I don’t think that notion is true (or useful) at all, and I think that it is everyone’s responsibility to critique the things around us every day. What I’m saying in this post are not new ideas at all, of course, but just some things I’ve been thinking about as I consume a crazy amount of media and engage in the community that loves the same fictional worlds I do. (And also as I participate in my Media and Representation class.)

For the uninitiated, I don’t mean “criticism” as in to point out the negative flaws of somebody or something in the aim to put the person/work down, but to be critical with what we consume/see/perceive in terms of breaking things down into parts and analysing them for what they are, plot holes, misrepresentations, caricature, and everything. And this idea is so so so important in today’s world because we are such a fiction-heavy society, and so much of our reality is shaped by our culture, but so many of us don’t realise it because the ideologies ingrained in us are just hiding in plain sight. 

A common argument against the critic is always this: “What’s wrong with this? We see it all the time!” and that is terribly problematic. Just because something is common or what society deems as “normal” doesn’t mean it is ok, and even more importantly, it doesn’t mean that these portrayals have no real consequences for groups of people. 

During my Latinas and Media class, I actually had a conversation with a friend once (sorry if you recognise that this is you) about Jennifer Lopez. 

Friend: I never realised she was Latino.
Me: Really?? Then what did you think she was?
Friend: Just, like, normal.

This is a completely off-hand comment, and I myself am prone to subjecting what I feel is “normal” to various things/people, but, just wow. This conversation shocked me to my core. What was the implication? That Latinos were not “normal” because they were somehow different, and not the default? And that is so crazy, but gosh, such a real implication. 

It is important that we see people like us in the television/films/other media we consume. It is important, because we need to know that the world isn’t just concerned with the stories and concerns of heterosexual white males or other dominant groups of people. We need to stop limiting people or groups of people by our preconceived notions of their characteristics or lifestyle. 

And before anyone brings up the argument that entertainment is simply entertainment, and it does no harm to anyone, and we just need to lighten up, we need to realise that this is harmful stuff. The perpetuation of stereotypes and misguided narratives are detrimental not only because they limit the identity and social mobility of people, but also because it can actually physically kill or hurt people. 

The argument isn’t as simple as violent video games are causing their players to become violent and shoot people in real life. Mass media doesn’t have a direct, unmediated, immediate and uniform effect on everyone. But there is poison in our culture that is such an essential part of us because we are all socially constructed and have been living in this shared cultural space with problematic cultural codes. It’s automatic, and the process of interpretation comes naturally to us, because stereotypes/representations in the media become like anchors to us – Latinas are hot and fiesty, Asian women are submissive, etc. These are easy references for our brain to hook on to, and it makes for lazy reading of texts, but it’s so so easy to transfer these characteristics to people we know in real life. 

You know how the every day violence comes about? It’s when our expectations are not met. So when the guy doesn’t get the girl after he’s “nice” to her and goes through all sorts of obstacles and does all the “right things” in the dating routine? Suddenly she’s a “bitch”, a “whore”, someone deserving of being raped just because of this sense of entitlement the media has taught men to have of women when he “saves the day.”

I, too, am extremely guilty of reducing people I know and people I see on the streets to the stereotypes I’ve seen on television. I, too, am guilty of holding women to a higher standard of morality just because “boys will be boys” and are so easily forgiven for transgressions but “girls should know better.” And I have had such trouble reconciling my judgments/reactions with what I undeniably know my intellectual stance to be. I feel ashamed for judging someone for not living up to the standards our culture has deemed to be normative when I so often call upon other people not to do it. 

But I think it is important for me, and for us, to remember that all of us are a product of the society we live in, and we have all grown up with certain ideologies that we have taken for granted to be true, and it takes an extraordinary effort to unravel these power relations, especially if they are problematic, and rewards the dominance of one group over another for no reason at all. 

So, please, always remember when you are watching/reading/listening to anything at all, that you should question and think and reflect and learn, and not just be a sponge. 

But, I mean, be a sponge too, if you want to, sometimes (or all the time, whichever; don’t let me tell you what to do!)

PS. Here’s a more articulate and specific post that also affirms the points I wish to convey.