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I recently saw a video online taking pot-shots at an academic whose studies included deconstructing the representation factors in older roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. The video by Michelle Malkin is a screed against the supposed politically correct ‘party poopers’ intent on ruining games like D&D by bringing ‘social justice warrior’ politics into the picture. I won’t link the video itself (because it’s from a Facebook channel that’s pretty horrendously conservative) but I think the tag below it on Facebook…

Social Justice Warriors are the biggest party-poopers on the planet!

Is there no realm safe from the diversity police?!

… that really says it all.

It’s no secret the last few years have seen an ongoing march towards progressive creation in the creative arts. The fight for better representation in comics, film, television, toys, and games have sparked debates that have reached from the smallest communities to the largest stages of media coverage. You can tell how big the discussion is when films not yet released are dissected for their representation of minority groups and feedback is received by companies immediately from consumers. And whether you like this immediate feedback loop or not, it’s clear the days of companies simply producing material without considering the economic ramifications of a growing progressive demographic are over.

Still, in the face of such creative evolution and representational progress, there has been a significant backlash by those who believe progressives are trying to ‘ruin fun.’ People calling for better representation in creative fields are labeled ‘liberals’ and ‘social justice warriors’ and far worse terms. They’re called crybabies, party poopers, people out to turn everything into a political debate rather than just letting others have a little harmless fun. (Clearly, they never ascribed to the idea that everything is inherently political, but that’s a debate for another time). Instead, their response is to decry any discussions about progressive feedback so we can all just sit back and have a good time without interrogating what we’re enjoying.

The funny part is by making this very discussion, they’re doing exactly what they rail against: they’re looking critically at the material they’re being presented with and making an opinion on its content. They ARE questioning the politics of their media. They’re just choosing a different response than progressives. They’re choosing a different view, an opposition to growth, which I’m calling protective nostalgia. They put down ‘liberals’ for being social justice warriors when they’re taking up their own warrior mantle themselves. These ‘traditionalists’, these ‘conservatives’, are what I like to call Nostalgia Warriors.

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Picture it with me: a new game hits shelves, and the hordes are attacking. They come with their banners of ‘Better Representation Now!’ and chants of ‘What About Us?’ They bury fun new products in political discussions, drowning out the chance of escapism with constant reminders of blah blah representation and blah blah stereotyping and blah blah blah. The noise distracts from the chance to just sit back and have fun, like in the days of yore, when no one assaulted the fun! When it was just about basements and friends, sitting together and enjoying without complications or political rhetoric! Yes, these fun times and beautiful memories are under assault by the SJWs and are in need of defending!

And lo, the defenders arive, with their cries of ‘Party Pooper!’ and ‘Can’t It Just Be Like It Was?’ Their shields are the memories of times gone by, when things were simpler, and media was just fun. They are the Nostalgia Warriors! Ready to tell you you’re wrong for having progressive opinions! Ready to insult, degrade, and dismiss any idea challenging the status quo! And all armed with the greatest cry of all…

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These Nostalgia Warriors stand on their ramparts, zealously protecting new media in the name of what’s come before. They use the happy memories they have of simpler times, when people didn’t talk about the politics of media creation so actively, as proof that such conversations are ruining fun now. After all, they had fun in the past with their TV shows and comic books without these silly discussions about race and gender representation, why would it be needed now? In fact, looking back at the media before and criticizing it only defiles the memory of their beloved favorites. And how dare those pesky Social Justice Warriors go after their favorites, entwined so deeply with the sugar-coated memories of the past.

To take a step back for a second, I don’t want people to think all nostalgia is bad. Nostalgia can be a good thing! It gives us a chance to look back over our lives and see the good things amid the bad, the positive experiences we had cleaned up so they provide bright spots in otherwise complicated lifetimes. It lets us hold up things we find beautiful, things we find important to our identity, and present them with all the love we had for them when we were younger. Nostalgia can be beautiful, our memories can be beautiful, and the way they formed our fundamental years is a testament to experience building the people we are today.

To my people, those who hold fondly to the television shows and comics and films of the past with love and true nostalgia, I embrace you as brothers and sisters! The past gave us amazing, wonderful, fantastic things that should be cherished. This argument isn’t here to dismiss or attack all Nostalgia, or all media in the past that is important to people or beloved.

But.

But.

It’s hard to accept that our pasts are as fraught as our presents and that our futures are going to be just as hard. So we shine up our best experiences and hold them up as examples that in the past, everything was better. Everything was easier then and our precious favorites had no problems, or else those problems didn’t matter, because we loved them. And they gave us joy. And no one can assault our joy without assaulting a fundamental part of ourselves.

This progression into nostalgia defense is when nostalgia slips into toxic territory. When defending our sacred cows becomes a roadblock towards creative evolution.

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It’s no secret to anyone paying attention that our society is evolving away from shitty behaviors we once found acceptable in the past. I think most middle-road Nostalgiacs (new word again!) would recognize things like systematic slavery, for example, is an institution we thank god destroyed over a hundred years ago. Most would even say things like the civil rights movement, the evolution of the rights of women, all these things were great. Heck, most would say going across the ocean to punch Nazis and stop their genocidal reign of terror was a good thing! These were all examples of Good Progress.

So why is it when talking about the continued progress of our society in media, we see such a vicious backlash, even from people who would otherwise say Big Issue Progress (like those listed above) is a good thing?

This is where Toxic Nostalgia comes in.

(Sure, there are people who would question whether these were good events. They’re called Ultra Conservatives, Neo-Nazis, Misogynists, Racists, Bigots, and all around Backwards Problem Children. And this article isn’t going to find a solution for them, so we’re just going to move the heck on from THAT giant problem. Instead, to them I say this).

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Look, change is difficult. Change makes people look at themselves and the world around them with a critical eye and makes them question what they really believe. It makes them wonder if they’re complicit in big bad things like racism and intolerance, in systematic oppression and institutions of privilege. It makes people feel like they might be the bad guy, or part of a bad group, make them feel vilified and ashamed and attacked.

And when the whole world seems to be talking about rectifying centuries-old systems of oppression, people start taking a good long look at where they are on the power pyramid and all these complicated feelings start coming up. They have to ask ‘am I really profiting from oppression?’ They get defensive, responding: ‘But I can’t be privileged! My life is hard, I suffer too!’ They bring out words like reverse racism and tout the suffering of the white lower classes, of the nice guys being ignored by ‘militant feminists’ and cry about how ‘All Lives Matter.’ And this is in response to the Big Issues being brought up across the media, across the internet. It’s everywhere they live. They can’t get away from it. They have to consider it.

And then, just when they’re sure they’ve had enough attacks on their identity and their status quo, the progressives come for their fun.

And so they cling to the last shreds of safety, the last places where they felt they were comfortable and could forget the politics of progress for a little while. When they watch TV or a movie, when reading a comic, they don’t want to think about the Big Issues. They want to escape for a little while. But unbeknownst to them, the progressives are looking at these media and questioning loudly whether the status quo was representing them well or at all. Whether the people whose representation was always there have taken a look at their privilege lately. Progressives are asking for equality, and to the Nostalgia Warrior, that is a challenge to the last bastion of escapism they’ve got.

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And so, the backlash begins. The outright dismissal and attacks against those calling for critical analysis of media has been unbelievably harsh. But what’s worse is it’s often without substance too. Instead of engaging with the Big Issues being presented in the context of media critique, Nostalgia Warriors deny the need for discussion outright and banish anyone trying to have a dialogue with labels like ‘party poopers.’ And to those who agree with them, it’s the best defense, because who wants to have party poopers around? No one! So get rid of these SJWs and their party pooper ways, ignore them! There’s no need to have an actual conversation about issues! We can just label them with names you’d throw at kids on a playground and call it a day.

Because that’s all the conversation is to the Nostalgia Warrior: a throwback to days gone by, when you could talk about fun things with the simplicity of school age name-calling and maturity. Why be an adult when talking about play? Simply regress to those childhood feelings and defend your stance with the same playground mentality. Hold tight to your play as the last vestiges of childhood you’re allowed and don’t let anyone damage that with talk about Big Issues. Because that would require the adult in the Nostalgia Warrior to have to face change and its complexity.

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Some of the worst offenders in this progressive backlash in entertainment have unfortunately been creators whose work is being critiqued. Whereas these creators, still relevant and important to the evolution of their mediums, could join the new generations of artists and contribute in new and fun ways, they often doggedly cling to the work of the past, defending their creative choices against critique and driving away new thinkers with their derision. What they fail to realize is their defensiveness about their nostalgia, fed by fear of being vilified and becoming irrelevant, is driving them TOWARDS irrelevancy as their mediums march on towards a progressive future. Simply put, the harder they cling to the past, the easier the future and their part in it slips through their fingers.

The sad part about the backlash against progressive thinking by Nostalgia Warriors and conservative thinkers is the ultimate damage it does to creative evolution. Creative mediums have come a long way since the days of cave paintings, Shakespeare, the Rennaissance and even the beatnik generation. Every wave of creation builds upon what came before, informed by the politics and social movements all around them. The fact that each generation has also participated in the see-saw of progress towards greater equality has informed said artistic creation, and to ignore those influences in favor of nostalgia only stunts the growth of new ideas and new forms of art.

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They say there are no new ideas under the sun, only new ways to express them. Yet if we’re only ever looking back to those so-called ‘better days’ thru the lens of willfully ignorant nostalgia, we’re cutting new creative expressions off at the knees. People yawn at remakes and rehashes of the old, asking for new movies, new television, innovative creations, and then complain when those new expressions involve evolving social thematics.

You can’t have it both ways, Nostalgia Warriors. Either you want new ideas or you want things to stay the same. And I have some bad news: things won’t stay the same, no matter how much you shout about it. Progress happens. The world moves on. And your sacred cows lose their shine under the scrutiny of the future. The only question is: will you put aside your blinders and accept the complexity of media and the critical analysis around you, or hold on stubbornly to the past?

The battle for progress continues across all mediums. And wherever people believe fun is under assault, the Nostalgia Warriors will be there, ready to refute every claim with childish rhetoric and nay-saying. And all the while, they don’t even realize they’re already involved in the political conversation: they’re just not doing a very good job at it.

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I unfriended someone on Facebook the other day. That might not sound like such a big deal to some, but to others you might be going “oooooooooh” right now, because it takes a lot to get defriended from my Facebook. Something fairly monumental. And this wasn’t a stealth defriending either, a “I knew you in grade school but now you’ve become a Trump supporter so bye Felicia” kind of defriending. This was a digital face-to-face over a thread, telling the other person “It’s been fun, but goodbye.”

And it was over, of all things, Twin Peaks.

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“I’ll see you again in 25 years.”

Folks might not know, but I’m a huge fan of Twin Peaks. Been watching for years. I must have seen the original show three or four times over, plus read the books, and absorbed so much of the lore around the show I’ve got theories that have already proven true. I’m such a big fan, I’m planning a tattoo for the next time I get the chance saying “Fire Walk With Me.” I’m THAT big a fan.

But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the criticisms I’ve got of the show, particularly about women characters on Twin Peaks. And while the show is meant in many ways as a parody of both itself and melodramatic television and 1950’s small town culture, therefore offering it a strange and unique space for characters to be archetypes rather than entirely characters all their own, there are issues with the treatment of women in my eyes and always have been. And I’m not the only one. Reviews and articles coming in about the new Twin Peaks have echoed a lot of my feelings, from The Wrap, Refinery29, Bustle and, of all places, Haaretz. They all say what I’ve been saying too: David Lynch has a woman problem in his work, and in Twin Peaks it is glaringly obvious and very, very sad.

So after one particularly egregious episode in Twin Peaks: The Return (Episode 10), I put up a single line text about how much I love the show, but how it had a serious sexism problem. And within a few minutes, I was under attack. Not a “I disagree with you” friendly debate. I love those. But a full knock-down gaslighting, insulting, mansplaining, nightmare, complete with “you just don’t understand the series” and “do you even watch the show?” nerd checking. The person in question was clearly agitated, posting rapidly and pointing out how Twin Peaks was full of archetypes (yes, it is), how it is part parody (yes, it is), and if you think that David Lynch is sexist, he can’t be, because he included one of the first trans characters (thank you, yes, not the point) and is asexual himself (um, okay, sure… what?).

It turned out over the course of this bizarre conversation that the truth came out: this show had deep sentimental value to this person, who felt because of that it needed defending. And when I pointed out that their attachment didn’t make it immune from criticism, the comments got nasty. So I said goodnight to a person I’d known for seven years, and unfriended them. Simply put, I don’t need that negativity in my life.

But it brought up an interesting series of thoughts from me, which culminated last night after seeing The Dark Tower. Because boy, do I have a lot of feelings about that movie.

(And here is where I post about a new film in a spoiler-free way. If you don’t want to read about The Dark Tower movie at all and want to see it cold, you might want to stop reading.)

There are few things I’m a bigger fan of than Twin Peaks. X-Men. American Gods. Buffy. The Dresden Files. And then, there’s The Dark Tower. I’ve read the entire book series three times, along with nearly every Stephen King book out there. I’ve seen almost every Stephen King TV show and movie, even the bad ones, multiple times. I’ve tracked the connections between King’s other works and The Dark Tower series and waxed on for HOURS about theories and possible other connections. I’m planning another tattoo, and yes, it’s of the Dark Tower and the words “There are Other Worlds Than These.” Every time someone would talk online about rumors that The Dark Tower was becoming a movie, I’d flip out and wait. And wait. It took years to get the series to film, so when they announced it, I bought tickets the day they went on sale. I was ready.

the-dark-tower_0I watched everyone flip about Idris Elba being cast as Roland because of the color of his skin and rolled my eyes. They made a great choice there, I thought, choosing a man of color for such a traditionally Clint Eastwood, square jaw white guy role. He would rip a hole in the scenery with Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black. He would be the iconic man on his way to the Tower. He had the perfect gravitas. I would recite the Gunslinger Creed over my popcorn bucket and watch him do the reloading trick and be so happy. I got my friends together, those who were big fans and who weren’t, and I made a day of it. As I said to my friends, to a fan like me, it was like going to church.

And then. I went to the movie. And I walked out so mad. So. So mad.

The Dark Tower movie is bad, y’all. It’s really, really is.

I won’t go into specifics, but other than a few pieces of nerd-dom tossed in that made me satisfied, the film was a run of the mill, fun urban scifi-fantasy film that could have been original if it was anything but named The Dark Tower. It harkened back to the comic book adaptations of the 80’s and 90’s in its surface-level-only understanding of the material, a slick transmogrification of a complicated, gritty, compelling series into a shiny action film full of hackneyed dialogue and atonal characters. Idris Elba, the man who brought you such nuanced, intense performances as Luther was wasted on this movie, and scenes where he and the powerful McConaughey, seemingly ready to flex his muscles but tragically held back by the weak writing, fall positively flat. The two, along with the rest of the cast, are given no room to move in the too-quick, badly edited rush to cram a huge amount of material into a tragically short hour and a half film. An hour and a half for a seven book series ‘sequel’ which reads like a comic book spin-off one shot gone horribly wrong.

I walked out of the film, furious. I sat down with friends afterwards and listed the myriad ways the movie had failed not only Dark Tower fans, but folks in general. My friends who didn’t know the books said it came in as a solid ‘okay’ action movie without the context of the original material, which I suppose gives it some salvation. But for a fan like me, it was like watching someone piss away the opportunity to make a new Lord of the Rings. Give me a Peter Jackson three movie trilogy, each three hours long, where you have to race to the bathroom in between scenes because you’re sitting so long watching it. Give me the depth of Mid-World, the Tet Corporation, the Gunslingers of Eld. Give me the epic battle between titanic forces I’d been waiting for. Instead, I got a cartoon.

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She looks awesome and people were complaining about her hair. That’s some coded racist BS there folks.

I went online to put up a single lined comment on my Facebook: “This movie has forgotten the face of its father.” A lament to what could have been. And I got the most curious response to a friend in private messenger. It said I shouldn’t complain, because at least the movie cast a man of color as the lead. That made it important. To which I agreed yes, it did make it important. Actually, in the age of white washing roles, just days after the internet flipped its collective trolling shit over the awesome Zazie Beetz, a woman of color, being cast as the traditionally comic book pasty Domino in the upcoming Deadpool 2, seeing a man of color playing this iconically white as heck role was powerful. I mean, Roland Dechain is meant effectively to be the descendent of Arthur Eld, the King Arthur of his land. He carries guns made of Excalibur. He is THE iconic hero. Choosing a man of color for the role was a great, progressive move.

It didn’t save the film, however, from a) just being bad and b) from sucking in other ways regarding progressive representation. For example, towards women. It’s not like the original material was super amazing towards women to begin with. I’ll tell you there’s some shit about fridging women in it that could make your hair stand on end, and some sexual violence that’s way, way unnecessary in my eyes. The film flinches away from a lot of the worse stuff because of its shiny, not-too-violent-but-cartoon-violence veneer, but it fails the Bechdel Test and the Fridging Tests like a kid who didn’t study for finals. It found its way to progressiveness in one way, and flunked it so epically in others.

And you know what? That’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay that it failed. It’s not okay that the movie overall was a colossal disappointment.

It’s okay to look at a film like The Dark Tower and point out that while it was progressive in one way, it failed epically in others in terms of representation.

Because just because a piece of media is progressive does not make it immune to criticism. Even, and especially, if it’s your favorite.

I had my own run-in with what I call Favorite Bias when reviews for Wonder Woman came in. On the list of things I’m more of a fan of than Twin Peaks is Wonder Woman. I’ve read almost every Wonder Woman comic up until the New 52 run (which I forgoed because I felt it betrayed the character on pretty much every level). I was planning, you guessed it, a Wonder Woman tattoo (you see a pattern here). I have Wonder Woman t-shirts. I have every graphic novel I could get my hands on. I think I remember more about Wonder Woman comics than pieces of my childhood because, hey, that’s how the human mind works. So when the movie was announced, I was ready to be disappointed. I was nervous, ya’ll, that we’d have another Catwoman on our hands, another Elektra, and that movie execs would use its flop as an excuse to say “Women led comic book movies will fail!” even when women-led movies with kickass protagonists were doing work at the box office (say hey, Furiosa and Katniss).

And then Wonder Woman came out. And it was a joy.

Sure, it had its problems. Heck, I went over its problems in a long, long article. I laid out all the issues it had and why, in many ways, it had come short of true greatness. But all in all, I sat in the dark opening night with tons of my friends and bounced with joy when I saw Themyscira. Once again, take me to church, silver screen. I was home.

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They couldn’t give Artemis any lines? Really?

And then I got home, and started talking to other folks, looking at Facebook, reading reviews. And the one thing I noticed over and over were comments about the representation of people of color in the film. Specifically, how nearly all of the non-white Amazons had non-speaking or servile roles. The film, it seemed, had managed to pass the Bechdel test with some flying-ass colors while leaving its representation of POC way, way in the dirt. (And for more on this, check out Harper’s Bazaar’s piece as an example of the conversation out there). A lot of people were lauding the film while commentators, especially POC, were citing the problems the film had. And they were getting a lot of responses saying what I said about The Dark Tower: while the film achieved progressive aims in some ways by being a hella strong representation of a powerful woman on the big screen (and at the box office), it was a massive problem for its intersectional representation.

When I first heard those criticisms, something kicked in my stomach. A nagging rationalization crawled up out of me, saying, “But look! It’s Wonder Woman! It’s a hell of a progressive film! Look at Themyscira! Look at it! That’s woman paradise! The warriors, the culture, just look!” And then I did look. Harder. And I saw the way women of color were being represented. I listened to what people were saying, what women of color were saying. It wasn’t a woman’s paradise. Not for all women. Pretty much just for the white ones.

I shut up. I listened. And (I think) I got it.

These experiences echoed an old fight I had with a friend over Star Wars years ago on my birthday. Star Wars, to him, is his Take Me To Church, a deep abiding nerdy kind of love that nigh transcends understanding. So when I made the mistake of pointing out the shortage of women in the original Star Wars universe during my birthday party one year, I nearly ended a friendship. Because that was his Sacred Bunny, just like Twin Peaks had been my ex-friend’s Sacred Bunny, and Wonder Woman was mine. And though each one of these pieces of media expounded on some serious progressive ideals, it didn’t make it less regressive in other ways.

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We forget this was mind-controlled, y’all.

Did the original Star Trek‘s progressive moments, such as the famous interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk, erase the fact that it happened on an episode where they were basically mind controlled into having the kiss, making it a product of unwanted sexual attention? Nope. Did the great trajectory of Mako Mori in the plot of Pacific Rim take away from the stereotyping she received as both a woman of Asian descent and as a woman in general? Nope. Did the great representation of queer characters on The 100 let us ignore the tragedy that was the destruction of its most stable queer relationship in the tradition of the Killing Queers trope, ala Buffy‘s Tara? Nope. Did the unbelievable awesomeness of the John Wick series ignore that the protagonist’s wife is (spoiler alert) Fridged for his story to have emotional trajectory (and y’all, it’s not all about the dog)? Nope. And don’t get me started on the Orthodox Jewish banker stereotype from John Wick 2, just don’t.

It is okay to like something and find it problematic. But moreover, it’s okay to recognize that a piece of media can be progressive in some ways and deeply problematic in others.

In fact, I’ll go one further. Progressive media should not and cannot be immune to criticism. By allowing ourselves to be caught up in a piece of media’s progressive moves in some areas, while blatantly ignoring or downplaying the places where it fails in intersectional representation, we let ourselves be lulled into the false ideology that progression can only occur slowly and that representation is a battle fought for in drips and drabs, as individual causes whose battlefronts often cannot intersect for fear of scaring the conservative whole.

We look at a film which supports a single minority group or underserved population and laud its achievements and sweep under the rug its failures, afraid to rip apart a one-step-forward kind of progression that has clawed our media representations to where they are now. “What, you want it to be everything?” we say, not realizing it echoes the snide comments by alt-right conservatives, who sneer about how the next big movie will replace their tried and true white male protagonist with a queer disabled woman of color just so it can be politically correct. (And yes, that’s some of the bullshit the conserva-trolls online say). We say things like, “We’ve got this far, what else do you want?”

I guess the answer is: more. I want more.

I don’t see why we can’t shoot for the moon, for a movie that not only excels in a single area but serves a better view of the world by being progressive in all intersectional ways. I want movies that have people of color in positions of power, forget just speaking rolls. I want queer representation presented as normalized, for trans characters to have visibility and recognition as part of the world as it is without qualifiers. I want women to have power and agency and representation and for disabled characters to comfortably exist. I want religious diversity and body diversity. Yeah, I want it all. Maybe that makes me a greedy liberal media nerd, but that’s what I want.

But when a piece of media fails us in those ways, when it only comes in second or third in its representation, when it soars to the moon and only lands among the stars, giving us one or two of those representations and lacks the others, I want us to be able to look at it and recognize that fact. I want us to say, “yes, but” rather than “yes, and let’s take what we can get.” It might be infuriating, and to conservatives outside it might look like liberals being divisive within their own camp. But if progressive action in media is not intersectional, just like in other forms of progressive action, then it has not truly achieved its aims. And we can only learn how to improve by recognizing those places where pieces of media, and indeed those places where we creators have failed in our own media, have fallen short of a better, more ideal form of representation.

Despite all this, I’m still going to be a giant nerd for Wonder Woman. I’ve come to embrace Star Wars as a huge part of my geek life thanks to better representation in the new era of films, books, and toys. I watch John Wick with my friends, and love the shit out of The Dark Tower books. I’ve lauded the movements of comic books and comic book films and television to be forward thinking on its representation, loving on my Kamala Khan and Captain Marvel and new, better Wonder Woman storylines while still criticizing the places where things fall through the cracks. I put forward my own work to others and take criticism too, because if I don’t practice what I preach as a creator of media, I’m just a hypocrite. I like my problematic favorites, like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. I still turn on Twin Peaks every Sunday night, even though I groan into a pillow over some of the choices David Lynch makes.

I’m still a fan. But these days, I expect more. And I’ll keep saying so, until it’s not necessary anymore.

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It’s getting harder every day to be a creator in the age of the internet.

It’s never been an easy thing to put your work out in public, at least not for most people I know. Sure, maybe there’s some folks out there, funny humans with indomitable wills and stomachs of iron, who aren’t petrified by the notion of getting their work in front of an audience. Maybe there are some folks who don’t publish a piece of work, or a blog post, and get that tightness in their tummies, that shortness of breath, that little flop sweat that says, “Please, this is my work, don’t judge it too harshly.” Most people I’ve ever spoken to have some degree of anxiety sharing what they’ve created though, and never has it been harder than in the age of the internet.

Over the last few years, however, it seems like more than ever sharing your work with the world has become a minefield. Put something out for public consumption and be prepared for a tidal wave of backlash, ranging from cutting comments and blog posts to threats of violence and rape. Take a moment to process that. A person creating something today needs to be worried about threats of violence ranging from beatings to home invasion, rape to swatting. They can be doxxed and have bomb threats sent against them. We’re a hell of a distance away from someone throwing a rotten tomato.

082c950c-8ef0-436a-8659-6a23913a3aedTake this week’s latest controversy. Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted this past weekend to stellar numbers in the box office. The movie was a huge success financially, but received some critical responses regarding its pacing and the coherence of some parts of the plot. Overwhelmingly, however, the biggest noise about the film has been regarding the treatment of its heroine, Black Widow.

Critics and fans of the film were vocal about the way the MCU’s biggest heroine at the moment was relegated to the role of love interest opposite Bruce Banner in the film as part of her personal subplot. While other members of the Avengers explored complex issues of guilt and past mistakes through flashbacks and interactions with one another, Natasha was given the love plot as her major character development throughout the film and issues with mommyhood instead. When she was also kidnapped by the villain halfway through the film and turned into a damsel in distress (albeit briefly), this raised the eyebrow of some fans. Those criticisms, along with Marvel’s unwillingness to support the women of Marvel with any action figures or merchandise of the women characters in the film, build a solid backbone for a conversation about Marvel’s difficulty understanding or serving its women characters and therefore their fans.

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Correct face, Chris Evans. Not funny.

All of these, in my opinion, are valid criticisms. A discussion in my eyes ought to be had about the necessity of these plot points included in the film, and the inherent issue that comes from every film pigeon-holing their main woman character as a love interest or sex object. I think there’s validity to fans getting angry over casual comments by actor Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans when, during an interview about the film, they called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore.” (Renner later doubled down on the mess after Evans apologized, which was even worse). I think its all indicative of a way that women characters are seen in Hollywood and within comic book films, and that there is a real discussion to be had about how to tackle diversification of roles for women in the action film genre. All of these are thoughts I’ve had, that I support, and I’d love to explore further.

What I do not support is threats. Which is not something I should have to say, it’s kind of obvious.

OUu.1280x720Joss Whedon, director of Age of Ultron, faced a firestorm on Twitter that included threats of beatings and murder for the way he portrayed Black Widow in the film. Though the fact is the film went through revisions based on input from Hollywood execs and worked around Black Widow’s pregnancy, despite the fact that Whedon doesn’t control all the aspects of the film, Whedon became the face of the anger many fans felt over Black Widow’s portrayal, and they got aggressive. Articles published streams of Tweets (many since deleted) aimed at Whedon threatening to “beat his ass” for the direction of the film.

It’s not like this is anything new. We live in a world today when creators can be the targets of the worst kind of hate when consumers disagree with their work. This has become especially true when issues of social justice are involved, or when those creators or speakers are people from marginalized backgrounds. Anita Sarkeesian has received years now of the worst kind of hatred because of her work on Feminist Frequency and her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series. Women game developers like Brianna Wu have been targeted by this kind of harassment for the inclusion of more diverse content in their material at the hands of the Gamergate movement. This hate movement has spread to other parts of the geek media world where fiction authors, comic creators, and television creators have received harassment for their work as well.

The list of those affected include those on both sides of issues, from progressives to conservatives. The stances may be different but the tactics are the same. And while I do not believe in the equivalency of ideas (meaning, I do believe that in some arguments one side is more right than the other), I believe that the kind of harassment and bullying creators now face online has got to stop.

Why should it stop? We can start from the top by saying because it’s just wrong!

obvious

There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Harassment of another person, on the internet or otherwise, is just wrong. You can have differences of opinions all you like, but the moment you threaten another person with violence, the moment that you step over the line into belligerent bullying behavior, you are now at best a vulgar nuisance and at worst a criminal. You become part of the screaming mass of people on the internet who believe that anonymity behind a keyboard makes them powerful and drives them to say anything they wish, believing there are no repercussions. Let me say it one more time: Harassment on the internet for any reason is wrongEnd of line, no further discussion needed, period.

But okay, maybe there’s one more reason why this needs to stop. And that’s because of the state of criticism itself in the world.

Quote_Elbert-Hubbard-on-escaping-criticizm_wwwalexlaughlincom_-p1676_US-1The arts and criticism have always had a tense, contentious relationship to begin with. Artists would live in mortal fear of waking up to read bad reviews of their plays or art shows or books. People would sniff and make snide comments about how “those who can’t create become critics.” As someone who is both an artist and a critic, I’ll tell you that’s bullshit. Sure, anyone can sit down behind a computer screen and type out a screed about how they hated a piece of television. But there are people who actively study media, the history and execution and presentation and social context, and who are capable of presenting valid media criticism from a place of education and experience.

I went to school and got my degree in film studies so that I could produce not only better works of art in the future based on knowledge I gleaned from studying film as a medium, but also so I would have context for criticism I provided. True criticism isn’t about simply emotional response but contextual understanding of an art form, of the society in which it is created and the manner by which it is executed. It takes understanding and in depth consideration. It does not, however, require high-brow consumption and snooty reviews. And it certainly doesn’t require threats.

The era of mass threats to creators, however, has begun to drown out real criticism in the field. Creators can’t hear legitimate conversation when inundated with a barrage of hate-filled noise, and that kind of ratio of good critical content to nightmarish abuse can make a person shut down to any input. Criticism serves a purpose, folks: to respond to media, discuss ideas put forward, and help creators learn from their work and perhaps improve or choose differently in the future. It is not meant as an opportunity to abuse those who have put their hearts into their work, no matter how much you dislike or disagree with them. Hate filled terrorizing of creators is counterproductive and shows no respect for them as a producer of content or as human beings. It also defeats the purpose of trying to get yourself heard, because you won’t be. And neither will anyone else.

What suffers alongside our creators at the hands of these hate mobs is our ability to have discourse about anything relevant. Issues of representation, content, or execution are pushed to the wayside, drowned out by the threats of beatings, the instances of doxxings and swattings, and the bomb and death threats. You have creators afraid to put their work forward, for fear of what might happen to them or their loved ones. Their creative cycles are eaten up by the stress of dealing with such hate-filled sound, and their inability to engage with their fans is damaged. And our world becomes just a little less capable of learning from one another in an age when we are so much more capable of reaching one another then ever before.

120893bfb25c634d7aa87123f62826e65d300e4ea6c69f01a7c75e10f3b663beWe are not bystanders in this issue. Everyone who is a fan, who reads or posts commentary online, who engages in social media, is complicit in this ecology of hatefulness, if not as contributors then as witnesses. We say “don’t feed the trolls” or “don’t read the comments,” telling us to keep our heads down, don’t encourage them, and maybe they’ll go away. But the fact is, they don’t, and the silence only encourages a lack of repercussions and an allowance for bad behavior to continue. By staying silent when we see such behavior, we are allowing ourselves to stay safe while our creators twist in the wind and endure these hate-filled tidal waves alone. We don’t want to attract the attention of the mob, so we hope if we ignore it, it’ll go away. It won’t. They won’t.

You may not have the bandwidth in your life to always engage. I’m not saying you should all the time. That’s how burnout occurs, how you get consumed by the hatefulness and negativity that surges around the internet these days. What I’m suggesting is that we must all take little steps, as we see fit, to combat this environment of hatred. We may not agree with the ideas or creations we fight over, but we can at least agree that threats of violence and hate-mobs against someone are wrong. Right folks? Right? I sincerely hope so.