Time to embrace criticism and call outs. We owe it to the franchises we love.
If it feels like nothing can be released these days without someone pointing out a problematic element then good; that’s exactly how it should be. We live in an age where with the rise of social media, fanfiction and fanart, franchises often end up with huge communities around them. These communities can be wonderfully passionate, but risk shutting down any and all criticism. Yet, it is criticism that makes stories strong.
It’s rare for boycotts to ever be called for stories, unless they’re an absolute trash-fire, like the whole 50 Shades franchise. Any calls that people are trying to shut down free speech is ludicrous. We get new films, TVs, songs and books out every single week and almost all of them will draw some sort of criticism. The ‘story industry’ isn’t slowing down, but while its products grow, so should the quality of these creations.
Creators are going to mess up. Sometimes it won’t even be a huge problem plot-line, it’ll be more subtle such as the erasure of marginalised people or appropriation of different cultures. It might be using rape as a plot device (Runaways and Game of Thrones). It could be straight-washing a major character (Riverdale). It might be the erasure of people of colour while using different oppressions – usually racist – as a basis for a plot-line (Harry Potter). Or it could be tedious fat jokes or gay jokes (hello Friends, welcome to Netflix). The point is, it’s absolutely everywhere.
“Creators are going to mess up”
Franchises deserve love and celebration for making us feel captivated, and often even making us feel empowered. That doesn’t mean they get a pass on everything though. Audience reactions determine consumer content. The louder we are, the more likely the film, TV and publishing industries are to make adjustments and develop better content. Too often though, fans get defensive. It becomes a war between those who hate a franchise, and those who love it. All room for discourse is blown to bits. When The Last Jedi was attacked by MRAs, it made it difficult to actually critique certain elements of the story that deserved it (such as Finn and Rose being thrown together) because racists and misogynists might jump upon it.
We’ve got to step outside of these ridiculous factions. We can support stories but still criticise them. We can love something problematic but criticise its creator when they mess up, and demand better than the products we’re given. We don’t have to settle, and calling something out isn’t a betrayal. Somewhere along the lines, the personal became political in the one realm where it arguably shouldn’t – popular criticism. This has even seeped into how we react to characters. Hating a character started to mean they were a bad character, rather than us acknowledging how they were awful but good for the story. It’s totally transformed how we can debate stories, and so absolutely diabolical human beings such as Draco Malfoy, the Joker and even Kylo Ren end up getting huge sympathy because they are often engaging, and this is mistaken for being redeemable. In fiction, we’re allowed to like awful people and watch their stories play out because it’s a safe space to explore badness. What we shouldn’t do is brush aside their actions, limit what they do and somehow romanticise them.
Yet, everything is a binary. You either love the story and the creator(s) or you’re somehow against them. Stories, however, exist for robust criticism. They’re supposed to do better. The next story created should be better than the one that came before it. To achieve that we have to engage, with the good, the bad, the implausible and the downright problematic. This absolutely includes calling out creators when they mess up. They should never be above reproach. Creators have a duty to listen to their audience. We must call out, and we must get better at calling out and having open discussions. Fandoms are becoming stifling because they’re evolving into cults – and that only benefits those publishers to make vast profits, and certainly not the audience or the stories themselves.
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