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Hot takes and “problematic faves”: the rise of socially conscious criticism

Modern criticism’s affinity for discussing social issues has changed pop culture, for creators and audiences alike.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Get Out
Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures

Get Out is a message movie. That's not a bad thing or a good thing, just a description: Jordan Peele's hit movie uses horror and comedy to make deliberately unsubtle points about the dangers of being black in America and the hypocrisy of white liberals. And critics loved it for having a lesson to teach.

From Slate's Aisha Harris, who praised Peele for "laying bare the many layers of America’s historic treatment of the black body," to Vulture's David Edelstein, who called the film "a mash-up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Stepford Wives that’s more fun than either and more illuminating, too," almost every writer who reviewed Get Out saw it as a plus that the film wasn't just mindless genre entertainment, that it had a sociopolitical point to make.

But if you look at the older movies that helped inspire Get Out — satirical, unsubtle horror-comedies like The Stepford Wives and They Live — you'll find their critics had much less enthusiasm for social commentary.

When John Carpenter released They Live in 1988, his attack on the selfishness and commercialism of 1980s America (the white family in Get Out has the same name, Armitage, as one of the characters in They Live), the Washington Post sneered that "the heavy artillery of sociological context and political implication" was just a distraction from a silly plot. The People Under the Stairs, Wes Craven's 1991 horror-satire about a black child who discovers that his white landlord is a murderous monster, was dismissed by Variety as having "a pretense of social responsibility."

Back then, mainstream, non-academic pop culture critics often saw a work's political message as unimportant at best, a liability at worst.

Something has changed in criticism since then. Critics working today, whether veterans or newcomers, are more likely to praise a work for having a political or social message, and they'll also criticize a work for not confronting its own implications. Today, a nostalgic, lightweight musical like La La Land can inspire discussions of whether the story is what's Ira Madison III called "a white-savior film in tap shoes," because the hero is a white jazz fan whose tastes are portrayed as more authentic than a black character's.

The Oscar race between La La Land and Moonlight earlier this year was treated in openly political terms, even though neither movie was particularly political: "Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture," wrote Amrou Al-Kadhi in the Independent, because a La La Land win would be Hollywood "rejoicing in its own nostalgic — and white — mythology." The conversation got so heated that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins told Esquire that La La Land was becoming a victim of "a very superficial read."

But whether it’s superficial or perceptive, today’s pop cultural criticism can't seem to ignore social issues.

Sometime in the past decade, socially conscious criticism became the norm

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment it became evident we’re in a new era of criticism, but a good candidate for that tipping point might be the 2012 controversy over the all-white principal cast of HBO's Girls.

Some critics had been pointing out for years that TV and movies offered an unrealistically white portrayal of New York City; there was even a song about the inconsequential parts for black characters on Friends. But the idea that there was something wrong with this never got much traction in the wider media; when Friends finally introduced Aisha Tyler as a recurring character near the end of its run in 2003, she said: "I don't think anyone is trying to redress issues of diversity here."

Donald Glover briefly played a black Republican named Sandy on Lena Dunham’s Girls in 2013.

But by 2012, when Girls creator Lena Dunham was criticized for her monochromatic vision of Brooklyn, she felt a need to make it clear that she respected those criticisms by addressing them on the show. She began the show’s second season by giving her character, Hannah, a new love interest played by Donald Glover, and later explained it was intended to demonstrate “that there isn’t a political agenda against having black characters in the show.” You didn't see that happening with Friends in the 1990s, or even How I Met Your Mother in the 2000s.

Creators have discovered, sometimes painfully, that what critics might have overlooked not that long ago can be central issues today. That's what happened in 2016 to the film Passengers, in which Chris Pratt’s hero more or less tricks Jennifer Lawrence’s character into falling in love with him. It was written in 2007, when critics might not have made much of that plot point; back then, a movie like Wedding Crashers was generally accepted as the charming comedy it intended to be, even though it’s about two men who lie and deceive to pick up women, and one of them in turn falls in love with his own rapist. But when Passengers finally came out, nearly all critics — including Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, who called it “a fantasy of Stockholm syndrome” — saw these ethical questions as one of the most important things about the movie.

The reaction to Passengers was a sign that critics were fed up with what the Guardian's Andrew Pulver described as a long history of "stalking tactics bolstering romantic comedies." It used to be that most critics wouldn't note that kind of behavior in movie heroes, or wouldn't care; it was just a convention of Hollywood storytelling that they accepted, almost unconsciously. But in 2016, it drove the majority of the conversation around Passengers.

In the current decade, outlets like Twitter have helped give a platform to a more diverse range of critical voices, and caused establishment critics and producers to be more aware of the issues they raise. And it helps that these issues tend to draw attention, in an era when arts criticism often struggles to stay relevant.

The last movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism was the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris, who won in 2012, and whose interest in social issues helped him notice things other critics didn’t, like the Fast & Furious franchise’s unusual level of comfort with America’s growing ethnic diversity. And while the social media–enabled culture of the “hot take” is easy to mock, it has revealed how much easier it is to attract readers with something that has a social or political problem in the headline: Writing about the link between Doctor Strange and the election of Donald Trump may seem like a stretch, but it may interest more people than an article about the film’s camerawork or special effects.

The end of Kaelism

Newspaper and magazine critics used to be less interested in these issues, instead embracing a more conventional approach that showed the influence of a critic who was once very unconventional: Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker from the late 1960s through the early ’90s.

Pauline Kael.
Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Most people who don't read film criticism know Kael for her famous admission that she only knew one person who voted for Nixon. But as a critic, she usually disliked movies that pandered to liberals, and she had little interest in calling out movies for racism; she loved Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which even anti-anti-racists usually admit is kind of racist.

Occasionally Kael could be so put off by a film's message that she would denounce it, as she did with the authoritarian cop drama Dirty Harry ("a deeply immoral movie"). But she saved many of her best takedowns for movies whose messages she claimed to agree with. Kael hated makers of liberal message movies, like Stanley Kramer (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), and she loved mocking Hollywood liberals for their attempts to make us better people; she admonished older film critics for valuing “movies that are 'worthwhile,' that make a 'contribution' — 'serious' messagy movies.”

Writers like Kael or Andrew Sarris (who disliked the anti-McCarthyite Western High Noon and preferred its conservative Republican counterpart, Rio Bravo) had a sort of art-for-art's-sake approach to culture. A work of art — serious or popular — isn't supposed to be judged by how much you agree with it, but by how it makes you feel and whether it can convince you of its validity. An artist who tried to score some sort of political point was cheating, using indignation to achieve things their own technique couldn't.

Critics often used to take a similar attitude to issues of representation and diversity in the entertainment industry: That was a business issue, separate from art. This March brought a major revival of the musical Miss Saigon, whose original Broadway mounting in 1990 starred white actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian. When Actors' Equity tried to stop that production over the cross-racial casting, the New York Times's lead theater critic, Frank Rich, called it "hypocritical reverse racism" and argued that a producer's only responsibility is "to present the best show he can." Few critics today, of any political orientation, would be so quick to say that an actor's race doesn't matter.

That's because while not all today's critics have the same beliefs, they generally take representation — in stories and among people who tell the stories — more seriously. An inspiring message movie like Hidden Figures might once have been treated like an updated Stanley Kramer “message film,” but modern critics were more likely to agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who approved of it for conveying "the poisonous normalcy of white supremacy."

This emphasis on representation has undermined some of the older ideas of what counts as a good story, and when people don't know the rules have changed, they can come off as old-fashioned. Joel and Ethan Coen had been making movies about mostly (though not exclusively) white characters for decades when their most recent film, 2016’s Hail, Caesar, ran into trouble over what one writer described as “pervasive whiteness.” Asked for a comment by the Daily Beast, Joel Coen wondered “why they would single out a particular movie and say, ‘Why aren’t there black or Chinese or Martians in this movie?’” while Ethan maintained that “it’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity — or it might not.”

That response would have raised few eyebrows 30, or even 10, years ago. It’s based on the idea that while ethnic diversity may be good as a general principle, all that matters in an individual work is what the artist thinks is best to serve the story; if these choices are effective, then the work is effective.

But in 2016, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy over Hollywood’s collective diversity problems, the Coens’ remarks found few critical defenders outside of explicitly right-wing media, and got the filmmakers denounced as “problematic” and “tone-deaf” in the same article.

The potential pitfalls of socially conscious criticism

The buzzwords of this kind of criticism (like “problematic”) are easy to mock, maybe too easy. Unlike older forms of criticism, which took shape in little-read journals or newsletters, today’s critical style is being constructed right in front of us, at a time when the worst examples can go viral as easily as the best.

One thing most of the bad examples seem to have in common is that they can function like a checklist: The critic praises "good" tropes that are present in the work, and asks whether "bad" tropes are subverted or questioned. If the work conveys messages the critic agrees with, it earns a passing grade.

Much of the discussion around the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast focused on LeFou (Josh Gad) being openly gay in the updated version of the story.

For example, Kate Taylor, longtime critic for Toronto's Globe and Mail, reviewed Disney's new version of Beauty and the Beast by praising the fact that Belle is less of a damsel in distress, calling the film's gay character "a watershed moment for the culture," but concluding that ultimately the message of the story might cause girls to become "shackled to a violent creature in need of reform." Mark Hughes of Forbes spent nine paragraphs of his review discussing whether the remake had done enough to downplay the "more problematic elements of the story," which can't be told straightforwardly because "we’re watching the telling of the story now, today, in the 21st Century."

Reviews like these run the risk of giving the impression that certain tropes are always bad, or that doing the opposite is always good. Entertainment corporations can even benefit from this tendency by adding superficial elements that will score them points with critics, or at least dominate the discussion. By making one of the characters in Beauty and the Beast openly gay, and adding some mildly feminist touches to the old story, Disney guaranteed that a lot of the reviews would spend time on these issues and not on, say, denouncing the company for creating another pointless remake.

The potential pitfalls of socially conscious criticism extend to casting as well. Diverse casting may be a good idea in general, but if you've seen some of the guest characters of color on Friends or Girls, you get an idea of why these shows probably would not have been as effective with a more diverse regular cast: The creators wouldn't have known how to write for them. Glover’s character on Girls, a black Republican introduced solely because there hadn’t been a black or Republican character yet, seemed far less plausible than the characters Dunham had drawn from her life.

The Coen brothers’ premise — that the only thing that matters is what works for the artist — sometimes seems to be stood on its head by socially conscious criticism; when it doesn’t work, it can come off as a plea to artists to make society better by potentially making their work a little worse.

The big upside: socially conscious criticism compels critics, audiences, and creators to take art seriously

But what this type of criticism can do, when it works, is illuminate the lazy, unthinking way stories are often put together. Marvel's latest Netflix show, Iron Fist, has provoked enough arguments over its premise — white Western man becomes the world's greatest Eastern mystic — that star Finn Jones wound up quitting Twitter after engaging them. But that premise was an old cliché even before the original comics were published.

It’s clear there are story points that creators recycle out of pop culture traditions, and their presence can sometimes be a sign that a story hasn't been fully thought out. A socially conscious critic is sometimes more alert to that. While “cultural appropriation” is a much-mocked buzzword, it may have helped provide a clue to why the American remake of Ghost in the Shell felt so inauthentic (and bombed at the box office): The producers tried to keep elements of the original Japanese version while casting a white American lead, and the result lacked the cultural specificity of the original, something socially conscious critics were able to talk about authoritatively.

It's not helpful to criticize a story for being told at all, but it's more than fair to criticize artists for telling the same old story the same old way, or for changing a story in a way that doesn’t make any sense.

Ghost in the shell
This year’s Ghost in the Shell remake was accompanied by outcry surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese character.

And the Kaelian approach, focusing mostly on how effective an individual work is, can sometimes seem cut off from questions about broader problems with art. To the point about shows being better off without a poorly written character of color, a newer critic might reply that it's the show's responsibility to hire more writers of color to avoid that kind of poor writing.

In this view, what's good for one story might not be what's good for the art or business of storytelling as a whole. The Girls controversy didn't improve Girls, but it might conceivably have improved the TV business in general: Today’s television executives are routinely questioned about the issue of diversity in their casts and crews, and feel a need to claim they’re avoiding the all-white ensembles that were more common on mainstream TV not that long ago. Calling out individual works for being “problematic” may be the only way to improve collective problems.

Not that critics should focus solely on those collective problems. A review that only discusses a work’s transgressions is a bore, but BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore was one of a number of critics to discuss race and La La Land without making it sound like these issues invalidated the film. This kind of criticism may come to embrace one of the more benign Tumblr concepts: the "problematic fave," the idea that if we like a particular work or artist, we won't like them less for thinking about and discussing problems with their art.

And any good critic knows enough to demand that a work will, first of all, be entertaining. Slate's TV critic, Willa Paskin, often praises socially conscious shows like Transparent, but she also ripped Ryan Murphy's Feud: Bette and Joan for letting its message overwhelm its story, "turning bitchy shenanigans into a repetitive (if true!) object lesson" about Hollywood sexism.

And in a strange way, this new turn of criticism, this emphasis on the politics behind art, may be better for a work's reputation than criticism that ignores politics. La La Land could have been dismissed as a featherweight soufflé of a movie, with no real substance, the way many classic movie musicals were dismissed in their time. Get Out could have been mostly ignored by film critics, as other satirical horror movies were in their time. Instead, critics have been arguing about them, praising them as socially beneficial or disparaging them as socially harmful. If critics hate your favorite movie enough to call it a menace to society — well, at least they're taking it seriously.

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