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Episodes: "I miss when this site wasn't about politics"


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 29 2016

9 min read



(I love stock photography!)

Let's talk about something tough, something I've been trying to write about for a year and a half now and mostly failing, because I keep pulling the rug out from under myself: the growing prominence of sociopolitical commentary in cultural reviews (or, more accurately, in the packaging of cultural reviews).

I'm going to start by talking about an example from my own recent work. This summer, Vox has run a number of pieces on HBO's Vice Principals, nearly all of which were among our worst performing articles of that week. People weren't watching this show and, as such, they were unlikely to randomly click about an article on it. And because of how Google, Facebook, etc., work, it's really unlikely that somebody catching up with the show next year finds, say, my interview with Danny McBride or something. (At least Caroline's initial review is cataloged on Metacritic.)

So when I wrote about the show's finale for our Episode of the Week feature (which you should really check out, because it's some of the best TV writing we do), I suspected that playing up something I talked about deep in the review -- how the show gained accidental resonance for airing in the summer of Donald Trump -- in the headline might result in a better number. People aren't watching Vice Principals, but they're sure as hell following Donald Trump.

I was right! The piece blew up. It wasn't my biggest piece of the week or anything, but it was up there, and it was read by a bunch of people who've never seen the show or might want to see the show, but now might check it out (we can hope! it's a good show!). I saw a lot of grousing about the headline (which, again, I wrote) from Vice Principals fans, but that headline was precisely what made the piece spread further than the past ones we'd written.

Which, in a nutshell, is why weaving political material into cultural commentary is so seductive for people who do this for a living -- and, yes, so easy to get wrong.

My friend Jaime Weinman has a theory that Chuck Lorre's sitcoms do so well because they traffic in crude sex jokes. But that's not because people necessarily prefer crude sex jokes; it's because in a world where the monoculture has mostly fractured, we don't really have a lot of shared cultural references like we would have even 20 years ago.

You can very easily get through life without reading the year's biggest bestseller, hearing the year's biggest song, seeing the year's biggest movie, and watching the year's biggest show. You have so many more options. But sex is something that affects us all in some way or another. (I'm told it's why the vast majority of us are here.)

And what you'll hopefully spark to in this is that politics is the same way. We might not all want to engage with politics on a minute-by-minute basis -- and we might resent the increasing encroachment of politics into every space of our lives -- but politics is another omnipresent force that is everywhere in our lives, and it's easier to get someone to read "How Vice Principals explains Donald Trump" than "Vice Principals is good." In a cluttered media landscape, the former stands out more than a good review -- because good reviews are a dime a dozen.

What makes me a little wary about all of this is that I think art is bigger than politics. I think that a truly tremendous work of art whose politics I violently disagree with is still something you should see, and I think that we too often rank and rate art in terms of how closely it adheres to our own political philosophies. (And we're all guilty of this at one time or another.)

This is especially true of pieces about art from the past, which is, obviously, not in tune with our modern political mores. See also: Why The Shallows is better than The Birds. (That piece is risible, but, weirdly, not as risible as its headline promises, which is ultimately a little disappointing!)

And let's couple that with something else, which is that we've recently learned that the film and TV industries, especially, are built atop deeply rooted systemic racism and sexism, which nobody involved knows quite how to deal with, and that deeply rooted sexism and racism manifests itself in all sorts of crazy ways throughout the industry. This is, I think, one of the two or three most important entertainment journalism stories of our time, but once you start to see it, you start to see it everywhere, and you can very easily take it out on works that don't really deserve it.

Think, for instance, of a terrific film like Hell or High Water, which is about two brothers trying to save their farm by robbing banks and is basically a modern Western. (I have not seen any thinkpieces against this movie, which is why I've selected it.) Does the fact that it appears to have been far easier to get the money to make this mid-budget picture than it is to make, say, a romantic comedy mean anything in terms of Hollywood sexism? Sure, probably, but the second I introduce this one specific film, I've made it much more dangerous that you will read this paragraph and come away with the idea that Hell or High Water is sexist, simply because its protagonists are all men. (It has some lovely supporting roles for women.)

And that, obviously, is not what I'm trying to say. I don't really think Hell or High Water is sexist; I think the industry that made it is. But because the latter problem is so massive and hard to comprehend, the former issue becomes easier to talk about. And when you don't write with care about how, say, it's easier to made a mid-budget crime picture than a mid-budget romance (which ignores how hard it is to make any mid-budget picture, period, but bear with me), you end up with articles that more or less imply Hell or High Water should have been about women. Would I watch a version of that story with two sisters? Undoubtedly. Should that movie be made? Yeah, for sure. Is it a problem that it's not? Might be. But none of that means Hell or High Water should have been about women when the movie we actually have is really good.

(Corollary: literally any piece ever written about a work of art made by an artist who has done terrible things, which has become even more of a minefield in this era, mostly for good reason, but also in ways that occasionally frustrate me.)

You can see why I have such trouble writing about this. I think it's necessary for critics to engage with these sociopolitical aspects of the art they write about, and to do so frequently. But it's also a minefield that invites bad writing -- especially because the traffic rewards I mentioned above essentially apply across the board to pretty much any article that uses a work of art to make larger political points (assuming the points are of interest), no matter how well executed. You can write this sort of stuff really well -- and I think we generally do at Vox (even if we write something that pisses you off, I hope you understand where it's coming from) -- but it requires rigorous editorial processes, and, uh, the internet doesn't exactly have those en masse.

I read stuff all the time that makes me really angry about how the person writing seems to barely care about the artwork in question, beyond political buzzwords -- but then I'll remember that if your life and story aren't particularly well represented onscreen, maybe all you care about from your art is representation.

And there's nothing wrong with that, either. We're at an exciting moment when it seems like the floodgates are opening very quickly to those of us who have traditionally been represented well in media, but it feels like a barely dripping faucet to those who haven't. And it's important to listen to the people who are sitting at the bottom of the sink, waiting for a few drops of water on their tongues and acknowledge that even if we don't always agree with them, it's certainly not wrong for them to want art that speaks to them.

I was telling some friends the other day that I was born at just the right moment in time to be caught exactly between Gen X and the Millennials. And for as bullshit as I think generational theory is, I seem to consistently find myself caught in the middle of squabbles from critics younger than me, who push criticism, faster and faster, toward more and more sociopolitical critical writing, and critics older than me, who are horrified by this trend, because it often doesn't seem to care about aesthetics or formal qualities or what have you.

If I were going to craft a constitution, then, it would say that it's important not to write this kind of criticism off simply because of how it weds sociopolitical commentary to more traditional critical writing. On the one hand, critics need to be engaged with their societies as well as their art; on the other (more cynical) hand, this kind of writing is keeping a lot of criticism-oriented sites alive. (It's that or superhero movie news aggregation!)

But we also shouldn't presume all our cultural writing should do is nod toward whether an artwork has the right politics or not. There still are aesthetics and formal qualities, and we should still be talking about those -- and when we do so, our writing about the political aspects of these works will be all the stronger.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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