Let People Dislike Things

on media discourse, personal taste, and defensiveness.

A Question of Taste

For all its meanings, the word “taste” is, perhaps rightly, connotative of classist, elitist, and more accurately anti-populist sentiment.

It is often used to distinguish between high art and low art, which is most often a separation of class, money, and access that most of us do not have. The upholding of this binary has long been the domain of bloviating intellectuals who want to distinguish themselves from the provincial masses and/or genuinely enlightening artists and thinkers who can appreciate the beauty in high art but are rightfully skeptical of the money, hegemony, and the emulation of wealth in high art worlds.

But personal taste is another matter. Lately, the ~ DiScOuRsE ~ around personal taste has become more contentious than any conversation about high art, low art, the literary canon, or any other academic skirmishes I’ve only read about in cursory Wikipedia articles. (I refuse to read any Harold Bloom. You can’t make me.)

Movies and television were in a precarious period long before the pandemic began. We’re shifting down from the Second Golden Age of Television now and entering a bust period. The problem used to be that there was too much “good content.” Now there’s just too much content. The shutting down of movie theaters, while necessary for public safety, already put a struggling business deeper in the hole. Most of these businesses, particularly the multiplexes, put themselves in this hole with exorbitant prices, but it’s the independent movie theaters I worry about. I could give a shit if the multiplexes survive. I mean, I’d rather they did survive because more culture is good for the culture, but it’s hard to argue that they made much of a case for their survival — their unwillingness to compete with the streaming services that were quickly outmoding them is a curious strategy. But the indie movie theaters, whose programming is often more challenging, more diverse, and available for cheaper prices, were already dying before the age of the tentpole movie. How big is this fucking tent that it needs so many poles?

I love a blockbuster. I love Spielberg. Titanic still knocks me out. I enjoyed the Star Wars movies when I was a kid, although I’m hesitant to revisit them as an adult. But when every movie is marketed as or expected to be a blockbusting tentpole movie and when every property is tapped for franchise potential, it robs the culture of diverse storytelling. When all the talents — in front of or behind the camera — who show themselves to be a singular, distinctive voice are inhaled into the franchise vacuum, it’s a similar loss. Franchises are big business, and big businesses are behind them. All progress made within these institutions is siphoned and mediated through a particular “corporate vision.” That doesn’t make it a worthless effort, that just makes it completely ordinary. But it’s worthy of skepticism, no matter the media product.

Media that’s popular, familiar, and backed by a media empire is not necessarily the problem. Popular doesn’t mean bad just as obscure or independent financing doesn’t mean good.

What is troubling, though, is the social tribalism that surrounds franchise explosions like Marvel (although this behavior seems to have poisoned all arenas of media consumption). There is a sense that to be ambivalent about this content, let alone dislike it, is behavior worthy of public censure, cheap potshots, and at worst, a complete ideological shakedown — accusations of being against anything that particular fan or fan community generally attributes to their enjoyment of the franchise in question.

Maybe this is the logical progression of fan culture. If that’s true, it’s sad. I always saw fan culture, to a point, as a community based around the shared enjoyment of a cultural object. Sure, there were fringe groups within these communities who took their love way too far. By and large, they didn’t corrupt the whole. These fringe people, largely, wished to be a community of one. Their entire identities and online personas were based around this cultural object. These were people who were often young, socially awkward, and emotionally vulnerable. They needed to cling to the idea that they were not only the gatekeepers of their particular fan communities but also that they were somehow oppressed or victimized for their obsessive love of the cultural object in question. To dislike the object of their pleasure was a personal attack to be countered in a personal way.

An example: Person A says they dislike The Golden Girls. Person B is a fan of The Golden Girls. They LOVE The Golden Girls because it shows women of a certain age regularly engaging in romantic and sexual relationships, so Person A must be an ageist or a misogynist. It isn’t enough that Person A just isn’t a fan of the writing, the laugh track puts them off, or they aren’t a fan of the clever, but predictable joke set-ups and punchlines. Person B must leap to the worst possible reason for Person A not liking the thing they like. Person B can’t or, more accurately, won’t see Person A’s point of view because they’re too beholden to this cultural object as a part of their identity.

The fan of The Golden Girls in this scenario will take a person’s dislike as a personal attack: “You don’t like The Golden Girls, which I see as an important part of my identity, so you must not like ME.”

In the social media sphere, this gives them the ammunition they need to launch a countermeasure, usually in the form of a sarcastic diatribe or a snide generalization (i.e. “Isn’t it funny how most of the people who feel this way seem to be x?” which has become a meaningless placeholder phrase because no matter what you fill in for x, it’s rarely true), that is not as much a response to the original opinion as it is a performance for other fans of the cultural object to enjoy and partake in.

Thus, the public shaming begins — under the guise of victimhood.

It wasn’t until recently (maybe the last five to ten years or so) that it seemed the extreme defensiveness that marked these fringe factions of fandom made it into mainstream discourse. What used to be considered adolescent nerd culture — science fiction, fantasy, superheroes — has become mainstream. Nerddom is no longer the domain of social pariahs, but a lot of these fans didn’t get the message. I’m sure there’s some salient political point to be made here about how polarized we’ve become that even genre movies have become the site of ideological skirmishes, but I don’t have the energy to make it.

At the beginning of the last decade, there was even a growing sense that Internet conversations about art had become too negative. Too many lists of “overrated” movies. Too much anti-populist sentiment. What goes on now feels like an overcorrection, and one that doesn’t even solve the problem.

I say all this as a former (hopefully, anyway) geyser of negative and often pithy, totalizing opinions about the media I disliked and the people who liked it. I’m aware that people spout off uninformed, shitty opinions on social media, in entertainment journalism, and art criticism all the time — lumped together because the lines between all three of these are very blurry now. Person A in the scenario above could go so far as to say, “I hate The Golden Girls and if you like The Golden Girls, you’re stupid.” Which, yes, is (a somewhat lazy) personal attack, but really does nothing to impair Person B’s enjoyment of The Golden Girls. Something as general and nondirectional as a person expressing their own personal dislike of media you enjoy should do even less to affect your enjoyment.

“LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS!”

I constantly see the plea to ‘LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS.’

Is there a concerted attack on enjoyment that I am not aware of? It has the faint whiff of bullshit that wafts from the WAR ON CHRISTMAS crowd every year when they get up in arms over Starbucks to-go cups.

What really alarms me about “LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS” is the unquestioned positivity of it — which I think is often a buzzword stand-in for “permissiveness.”

This resounding cry to “LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS” largely comes from people who just can’t deal with the fact that people don’t enjoy the same art and media they do. Any negative opinion about the thing they love, no matter how informed or reasoned or impassioned or relatively harmless, becomes a personal attack. Therefore, it’s fair game for them to attack other people who don’t agree because they have the advantage of liking the subject of conversation. Because they like the thing they are fiercely defending, it avails them of the delusion that they are operating under the cloak of Positivity.

I am not saying that there isn’t an entire swath of the population who consistently link a person’s choice of pop culture sustenance to their worth as human beings. Listen, I’ve been there. We all have. I know you have. Don’t lie to me. You’ve judged someone based on the shit they like. I know you have, stop arguing with me.

Still, I don’t think public shaming under the guise of bullshit positivity language is the answer.

I once wrote an inane, but sincere Facebook status in response to the phrase that simply read: “Let people dislike things.”

Amid the comments was one from an acquaintance I know from art circles who said, “Things, but not people!”

I assume that (1) this came from the idea I’ve expressed above that disliking media means also disliking the people who like it; and (2) I assume it came from the overwhelming and common belief that disliking things is wrong, even elitist. I think it’s okay to dislike things. Moreover, I think realizing that other people are going to dislike the things you like is an important component of identity formation.

But ~ iN a CuLtuRe ~ obsessed with literal likes — where some of our most substantive social interactions are based around liking someone’s emotions and thoughts, no matter how half-baked or embarrassingly earnest — the simple act of disliking has become the height of impropriety.

It’s not in vogue to dislike things anymore — if it ever was. I mean, the iconoclastic people I sometimes have an affinity for — not because I’m an acolyte but because they entertain me — were never exactly popular. That’s what made them iconoclasts. But there was big business in the act of disliking. Professional curmudgeons were once humored, even revered for their opinions.

Even people whose entire persona is practically based around disliking things seem to feel the pressure to have an undergirding of RIGHTEOUSNESS to their complaints. Nothing is a matter of personal taste. There must be SOME sociological or political thrust to the dislike that can be mined for an overly long Facebook status or Medium article. No, I cannot just dislike something. The things I dislike MUST SOMEHOW be all that is wrong with the culture. And therefore, everything I like is either progressive to the point of perfection or I have decided its flaws are something I can live with.

But if you dislike the thing I like, you’re wrong. Because as a fan, I can speak to these flaws way more eloquently than you can.

Disliking is a wholly disreputable enterprise now. The Internet ruined it. The information superhighway became the site of a constant gushing of uninformed opinions. If you dislike a thing now, it seems you must either write an eloquent polemic against it (stopping just shy of arguing for its removal from circulation… hopefully), find a way to account for every single human experience related to the subject, or shut up about it completely because your disliking it is somehow robbing someone else of their enjoyment of it.

Let People Dislike Things

Let’s just bring Marvel into the conversation now. It’s been hovering outside the door, might as well drag it in.

I am not a Marvel fan. I liked Black Panther and Captain America: Winter Soldier, but that was about it. I have my beefs with the Marvel franchise, but largely, it’s just not for me. I preferred my superhero movies campy if I preferred them at all. I won’t go too deeply into my political or ideological problems with Marvel programming. These problems are only amplified because of my personal distaste for them — something I find to be common, but unconfessed by a lot of people when they make totalizing claims about the harm media is doing. It’s so much easier to point out the flaws and impurities of a piece of mass media when you have no emotional investment and you’re only interested in one-upping people. Like I said before, it should be okay to say “You know, it’s just not for me,” without providing a politically-charged manifesto about it.

There are plenty of movies and TV shows that I love that I also have ideological beefs with, but I also have a personal taste and a critical mind (skills we all have and are practicing more than ever) and can juggle multiple thoughts about them at once. The purity games we play with media are ridiculous, not to mention hopeless, because only those with the loudest mouths and biggest egos can win those games by drowning out the opposing voices.

Whatever I think about Marvel politically, and I have thoughts, I don’t think you’re an idiot for liking it. But if I were to express my annoyance with it, my personal distaste, my opinions about the problems it’s calcified in the media landscape in this country, or even my skepticism about the overwhelming response to the Wandavision “What is grief” line, that would be fair game to hordes of Internet denizens to attack me. I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.

To a Marvel fan, disliking Marvel means you are an enemy of progress, an elitist, a cultural gatekeeper. I give Marvel credit for its current commitment to diversity and its business strategies, but it’s not the only media franchise doing this, and it is also only able to do this because Disney sees this mission as economically viable. What happens if and when that is no longer the case? These things can and will change. Popularity ebbs. Pop culture transforms.

Besides: Patty Jenkins’ direction of Wonder Woman 2 doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain the shades of militaristic propaganda imprinted on the current crop of superhero movies. To bring another franchise into the mix, Rian Johnson’s bold choices in Star Wars VIII — to veer the series away from traditional masculine hero’s narratives and to introduce the character of Rose Tico — were essentially rewritten to maintain viability by the time Episode IX came around. Corporate media has always bent toward what is financially advantageous, and progress is never a straight line.

The great and understandable thing about the cultural objects that constituted nerd culture was that they were against the grain. It did exist outside of the mainstream. But that is not the case anymore. Zealous fans’ defensive tactics being brought into mainstream discourse is dangerous and promotes cultural hegemony. Media conglomerates are gaining more power every day. Marvel’s ownership under Disney may not be reason enough to dislike it, but it is reason enough to be skeptical of it. The same goes for any franchise or cultural object that is owned by a mega-corporation, which includes…

*checks notes* uh, almost all of them.

If diversity is what we want, we need to see it not just in on-and-behind-camera representation, but in the diversity of constructive conversations we have about media. Because the great thing about culture is it is up to interpretation, and the idea of taste, personal or cultural, doesn’t have to be the site of personal and vicious attack. These can be launch pads for conversation, community-building, and understanding.

I’m not saying you should validate every opinion, including those made in very obvious bad faith. Once I decide I don’t like something, I’m usually a little annoyed when someone tries to talk me out of it.

There’s also always the option not to respond. Seriously. You could just not respond. Especially if the comment or opinion was not directly addressed to you.

But when scores of people, common and celebrity alike, coagulate around this idea to “LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS” and that thing is a heavily-mediated, corporately-owned, mega-million-dollar business that will make changes depending on what ideas are economically viable at the moment, forgive me for being less than thrilled about attempts to shut down conversations about individual taste.

As someone who makes art, knows artists, and knows how hard and vulnerable it is to share art with the world, I’m not suggesting we just trash every artistic enterprise and go off, half-cocked. I think we should always go off full-cocked. Disliking things for the sake of disliking them is not the way to go. Even if you only ever talk about the culture and media you like, I think that’s a worthwhile effort. I just think it’s okay to say, “You know, this isn’t for me.” And I think we need to be more okay with people saying it.

More than that, we should be able to talk about our contrasting tastes in a meaningful way. We might learn something from each other. I don’t think most of these people who engage with negative opinions about the media they love would disagree, but we’re in a place where we so quickly make bad faith assumptions about people and what they mean and what they believe that it makes conversations from two different perspectives near-impossible.

We’re talking about movies here, not climate change.

We shouldn’t be so precious about protecting the things we like. They are, by nature, imperfect. They will, most likely, still be there for our enjoyment even if people dislike it. But if you find that engaging with differing opinions about media is too frustrating to handle, you can always say, “You know, this isn’t for me.”

They/he. Writer of fiction, screenplays, plays, reviews, essays, and poetry. Chicago. https://linktr.ee/jshetina

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