Watch Me If You Can: Context & Nuance in Imperfect Fiction

Meandering through the media maze.

tv punch

A while back I had a Tumblr follower ask me a knotty question about media engagement: They wanted to know where the line between “personal taste” and “hypocrisy” fell, and if it made them a hypocrite to drop one show for doing something they didn’t like, but then continue watching a different show that did something similar.

I shot off a fairly lengthy reply at the time (you can read the full question and my original reply here), but I’ve been wanting to go back, finalize it into a more formal essay, and dig a little deeper into discussing context(s), tastes, and critical engagement with fiction. And since I’m between projects, now seemed like the best time to do that.

Plenty of others have already weighed in with lots of eloquent words (such as here, here, and here), so a part of me wonders if there’s even any value in adding to the chorus. But I also think these topics—particularly when it comes to acknowledging imperfections in ourselves and others, and not just when dealing with our fav stories—are important enough that we should chat about them regularly. So here’s my own imperfect voice joining the canon.

Feel free to sound off in the comments with your own thoughts and questions, and I’ll try to keep you entertained with gifs as we go.

thinking hmm pencil - sailor moon

“Think, think, think…”

First, just to make sure we’re all on the same page: “hypocrisy” refers to the difference between what someone says and what they do, especially when it comes to absolute moral or ethical stances. The key word here is “absolute.” For example, someone who insists that birth control is morally wrong and never acceptable and then uses a condom during sex is being a hypocrite. Someone who says they’re “not that into” sports anime and likes Haikyuu is not.

The easiest way to avoid charges of hypocrisy when enjoying fiction is to simply not take a hard line stance against any particular element, because there are almost certainly exceptions to the rule. There’s a huge difference between “I’m wary of reading/watching something that involves rape because it’s often poorly handled in fiction” and “Rape is always unacceptable in all media.” The latter allows for no exceptions, even ones where the subject is dealt with respectfully.

Now, of course, there are people who refuse to consume any fiction featuring Element X or Plot Point Y. While I generally encourage others not to have hard line stances because it limits experiences and exposure to other worldviews, I also know people are complicated and there are multiple outside factors that can come into play, and I get that and I understand it. My point here is just that, unless you truly mean “ALL” or “NEVER,” it’s a good idea not to use those words.

nope - cowboy bebop

Even corgis have their limits.

Beyond that, it all comes down to specifics. Fiction and our relationship with it is a vast, complicated, ever-changing ball of topic, degree, tone, personal interests and experiences, and other contextual elements that all come together to place that piece of fiction somewhere on the spectrum between “adore it” and “despise it.”

Just because two stories have some similar(ish) elements doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll both work for you. That’s like saying I have to like ALL stories with dragons in them just because I watch Game of Thrones. The dragons are part of it, sure, and they might even be a part of why I like it, but there’s more to it than that (characters, plotting, etc.), and to assume it’s all about the dragons is to vastly oversimplify my relationship with the story.

Speaking of stories about dragons that I like...

Dragons are cool, though. I mean. That’s just science.

This is true of difficult or potentially troubling elements in media, too. Let’s go ahead and use “fanservice” as the example here, which we’ll define as “gratuitous T&A primarily used for titillation” (remember, not all nudity/sexuality counts as fanservice). Again, this is going to vary by person, but I personally don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with fanservice. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s not an automatic deal-breaker, and I tend to handle it on a case-by-case basis that has a lot to do with tone, degree, and purpose.

Is it occasional and subtle? Frequent and distracting? Is it playful and tongue-in-cheek? Voyeuristic and creepy? Is it equal-opportunity? Male-gazey? Female-gazey? Does the sexualized character have a personality, agency, and power, or are they flat objects portrayed as nothing but walking, talking boobs/abs and butts?

Afternoon, gents.

“Afternoon, gents.”

There is, especially when people first begin to actively engage with and critique their media, a tendency to oversimplify, to see something like female nudity in a story and assume it’s always objectification because it so often is. But part of recognizing destructive elements or just plain ol’ lame stereotypes is also being able to recognize when those elements are being subverted or handled in a thoughtful or tasteful manner. There’s a huge gap between the way, say, Love Stage and Maria the Virgin Witch handled sexual assault, and understanding those differences allows you to point to both negative and positive depictions of difficult topics.

Context matters. Context matters. Once again, in bold, because it’s a big deal: Context really matters.

This makes...well, slightly more sense in context, at least..

This makes…well, a little more sense in context, anyway…

Actually, because it is such a big deal, let’s take some time to talk about context—or rather contexts, because it’s a slippery word with a lot of layers, especially when you’re dealing with fiction. So far I’ve mostly just talked about in-story context: The world, characters, and events within the work. But none of that exists in a vacuum, because someone had to create the thing and someone else has to consume the thing, so you’ve also got your out-of-story context: The creator’s personal history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the audience member.

How you, the individual, juggle those various contexts, placing precedent over one or the other, can drastically affect how you interpret the story. It’s why a play written 200 years ago can be both feminist by the standards of its time and sexist by the standards of modern society. It’s also how a character can seem empowered within the context of their story but objectified or stereotyped when taking into account real-world social norms or (more commonly nowadays) direct interviews where the creator tells us exactly what they were going for.

(As an aside: Yes, I do think there’s value in acknowledging creator intent—or at least creator context—and using it to interpret a story, but there’s also value in divorcing a story from its original context and looking at it though another cultural lens. Both are valid forms of analysis that can add meaningful commentary to the conversation. What matters is knowing how you’re approaching the story and why you’re doing it that way—and, if you’re talking about it with others, to make it clear to them so they’re on the same page and you’re not arguing about different things.)

reading book - princess jellyfish

It starts to get even trickier once you get down to individual contexts (or, more simply, “tastes”). A story might be stale and cheesy to one person but groundbreaking and shocking to another based on the past stories they’ve consumed or the lives they’ve led. Two people can agree a show is “good” based on its narrative structure or well-conveyed themes, but one of them was totally enthralled while the other could never connect emotionally. And someone might find the fanservice in that bathhouse scene harmless and silly while someone else found it creepy or just plain annoying.

One of the awesome things about contexts is they can change, either through actively engaging with others and listening to their viewpoints, or just due to the passage of time. There are anime I love now that I had no interest in when I was younger (and vice versa) because of the experiences I’ve had between viewings. Being able to recognize your personal tastes can enrich an interpretation. It can also help you separate (to some extent) your preferences from the story itself, so that you can have a positive opinion about something even if you didn’t necessarily enjoy it, or a negative opinion about something you did enjoy.

So, yeah. That’s context. Simple, right?

smoke ears confused - hunter

Keeping all that in mind, we’re back at our original idea: The importance of recognizing nuance when engaging with fiction. There’s fanservice in my anime! Why does that bother me in one place but not in another? To try to answer that question, we consider all kinds of contexts around that one element: how it’s handled in-story, how it relates to out-of-story experiences, and so on.

And then (because like I said, fiction is a big ol’ mass of parts), beyond the fanservice itself, we also have to consider the series as a whole. Is the fanservice a bit excessive, but the world detailed, the plot compelling, the characters sympathetic? Do those other elements make it worthwhile despite its flaws?

No story is perfect, and our engagement with them is neither a flow chart nor a checklist, so there’s usually not a hard-and-fast “rule” to explain which stories work for you and which do not. Parts and pieces come together in different ways to form different unified wholes, and the sum of those parts then fall somewhere on that Adore-to-Despise Spectrum I mentioned earlier.

hot cold happy angry - tanaka

Above: The Adore-to-Despise Binary. Subtle but important difference.

Of course, all that having been said, liking something with problems doesn’t mean we should ignore or excuse those problems. Engaging with media also means acknowledging and understanding flaws and failings and thinking about how something could have been better handled. Similarly, it’s worthwhile to look at a story element that would normally bother us but this one time didn’t, and try to figure out why that might be. Is it a matter of tone? Perspective? Subject? At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Context really freaking matters, y’all.

On the flip side, if you consider all that stuff and decide that it actually is a flawed depiction—a gaping plot hole, a flat characterization, a troubling message, or whatever else—can you be honest in saying “Yeah, I can see how this is or could be an issue, but it didn’t bother me”? It’s okay to be bothered by something, and it’s okay to not be bothered by something, as long as you’re willing to listen respectfully to other viewpoints and acknowledge valid critiques and concerns.

Actually, a quick word on validity, because I’ve seen this derail so many potentially productive conversations: Feelings can be valid even if the criticism isn’t. Criticism that cherry-picks or outright ignores textual evidence is probably not good criticism, but that doesn’t invalidate the feelings behind it. If you disagree and want to talk about it, then use the story as your center of debate. But telling them they’re wrong for feeling that way is…well, kind of shitty, for starters, but also about the least useful discourse for everyone involved.

Above: How not to engage.

“YOUR FAV IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD.”

When talking about media (whether as a casual audience member, a hardcore fan, or a Serious Critic With a Blog And Everything), sometimes it’s easy to get entrenched in our own opinions, and passionate discussions can quickly spiral into salty or downright abusive online screamin’ parties that help exactly no one. Knee-jerk defensiveness is a natural response, but that doesn’t make it the best one.

Always remember that there is another human person at the end of that message. They, like you, have the right to be treated with respect (or, at the very least, the right to not bombarded with insults or threats of violence). Taking a minute to be sympathetic to another’s context, listen to genuine criticism, ask our own questions, and consider the nuance surrounding a story element can add depth to the conversation and help us better engage with our media, both individually and as a culture or fandom or what have you.

Understanding why we like something makes us more contemplative; understanding why someone else likes something makes us more considerate; and understanding how something can work in one situation but not in another can show us how to approach other topics (or problems) in creative, constructive ways. And, hopefully, we can bring those approaches to the world outside of fiction, making us more thoughtful, considerate, and constructive in our real-world interactions, too.

study collapse done

Or, TL;DR: Context matters, and often story elements that seem similar are actually pretty different. But even if they are more-or-less the same, it’s okay to have inconsistent opinions. Just remember to be receptive to opposing viewpoints and willing to think critically about how or why one story works for you even if another one doesn’t.

The world isn’t black and white, and neither are we, and neither is our fiction. Recognizing those shades of gray (and how they might be shaded differently for different people) is what helps us grow as individuals. It also makes this whole media-discussion thing a whole lot more interesting.

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12 thoughts on “Watch Me If You Can: Context & Nuance in Imperfect Fiction

  1. This is about the most level-headed (and well-written) post I’ve seen on the subject in a very long time, so kudos to you for writing it. (As always, I’m a sucker for the gifs as well.)

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    • Gifs are my way of rewarding readers for slogging through my long-winded ramblings. ^^; And thanks! I’m glad you liked it! The other ones I linked to are really good, even-handed conversations as well, so I definitely recommend them too.

      Like

      • The article you linked when discussing fanservice was super educational. Material like that is so valuable for hot-button topics related to sexism, etc. Bobduh’s article was also excellent, although a bit more intimidating because they seemed to put extra emphasis on self-reflection (still really hard for me to do…)

        I really appreciate you writing on this issue, even if you didn’t seem to like it much (on twitter). I enjoy reading your stuff because A) you’re incredibly silly\funny B) you seem pretty darn nice for someone on the internet XD

        Like

      • “Pretty darn nice for someone on the Internet” is somehow one of the funniest, best compliments I think I’ve gotten from a reader, so thanks! XD And glad you enjoyed both this article and the ones I linked to. I’m definitely standing on the shoulders of others with this post, so I wanted to make sure those early essays got some recognition, too.

        Like

  2. I’m willing to label someone a Hypocritic when they judge someone else for liking something. And it is my theory anyone says is Judgmental of another person it comes from Hypocrasy, The Bible itself alludes to thing, every time Jesus used the word is about the Judgmental Pharisees.

    So for example if you don’t like The Phantom Menace fine, if certain things about it offend you and for reasons you can’t explain you ignore it as much as you can equivalent things in other works that’s fine too.

    But if you’re going to judge me and act like there is something wrong with me because I love The Phantom Menace as much as I do, then I have a problem with you. And if you’re going to specifically make it’s Problematic elements a part of that while gives a free pass to the equivalent element sin the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens, then you are a Hypocritic I don’t care what your nuanced excuses are.

    Which is a topic I elaborate on in depth here.
    http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/2016/04/yes-prequels-have-bit-of-racism-problem.html

    “Love Stage and Maria the Virgin Witch”. Since I know neither of these I have no idea which one you speaking positively of and which one you’re condemning.

    I talk about how my reactions to one issue have changed because of my individual context here.
    http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/2016/03/how-my-reactions-to-trans.html

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    • While I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily the same thing (you can practice what you preach and still be super judgmental; similarly, you can say one thing and do another without judging others for it), I do agree that hypocrisy and judgment tend to come from a similar place of highlighting another’s perceived flaws without recognizing one’s own. “He who is without sin,” etc. And it’s something everyone struggles with, no matter your political/religious/etc. leanings.

      I’ve certainly fought with the impulse to judge other people for the things they like. I can’t say I always succeed. I still wince a little when I meet someone who loves Twilight, for example. But I’m working to get better at it, and I’m not going to, like, publicly shame them for it or anything (call-out culture saddens me so much). Granted, at a certain point the things people like do tell us something about them, and can let us know if they’re someone we want to hang out with on a regular basis. And, I mean, yeah, if you meet someone with a library of books written by white supremacists and they aren’t a historian, that’s probably a red flag. But most media isn’t that extreme, and it always surprises me when people say “I will unfollow you if you like [show],” as if [show] is somehow indicative of that person’s entire personality or background.

      BTW – Love Stage is the show that poorly handled sexual assault. They treated it like a farce. It was rull bad. In contrast, Maria (a show whose praises I’ve sung on occasion) did a very respectful job with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had this article open in a tab for a couple days, waiting until I had a good time to sit down and read it. I’m glad I did! I loved that you went into context. Context is like a jar of treats… there are many different kinds and they all give you something delicious to mull over.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very recently, I had an experience that this ties into. A page on Facebook, devoted to anime, shared a post that was insulting one of my favorite animes, Fairy Tail. Naturally, I defended it, as it is one of my favorite anime/mangas ever, and one I consider among the best ever made. (I’m aware of it’s weak points, but I love it enough to overlook them, for reasons stated in a moment.)

    In return for sharing my opinion, I was pretty much driven from the page with endless insults, calling me simple minded, and my opinion worthless.

    The thing is, Fairy Tail has a character who, over the course of the first two seasons, deals with suicidal desires, and overcomes them in a healthy way. That speaks to me, as someone who has dealt with suicidal desires in the past. I honestly wish Fairy Tail had existed when I was a teenager, because the very long story arc showing the healthy way to deal with and overcome those desires, would have helped me do so much, much sooner.

    Now, I’m aware that anyone who hasn’t dealt with those kinds of issues probably won’t see the subplot for what it is. That makes it far too easy to dismiss it out of hand, and in general, that is one of the bigger problems with what is being discussed here.

    A piece of fiction can speak to one person on a deep emotional level, due to their experiences, but not another, because they’ve had different experiences. Dismissing the first persons view as invalid or stupid because you didn’t have the same experiences doesn’t help. Because, yes, context matters, even when it comes to individual consumption of fiction.

    To say it another way, I’ve seen all four of the live action Transformers movies, and find them to be pretty much the same as the 80’s cartoon. Dumb entertainment, watchable when your bored. The old cartoon was a half hour toy commercial, and the movies are pretty much just an extended version of that. They are exactly what the cartoon was, just on a bigger screen and a bigger budget.

    Saying that in a public forum will get you lambasted, however. (Note, I never said I loved the movies, just see them as what they are. A literal extension of the old cartoon.)

    All of which just means that if people would take context, not just with fiction itself, but with other peoples views of it, a little more thoughtfully, we’d probably have a lot less flaming stupidity.

    There’s a reason I almost never interact with other fans, after all. Few of them I’ve encountered share Dee’s intelligence on the idea of actually having a conversation, rather than a shouting match.

    Like

    • Ugh, sorry to hear that. I tend to stay away from open forums like FB groups or Reddit just because you do tend to get a lot of aggressive noise, and the only thing that would benefit is my levels of stress. There are good spaces out there to have productive conversations, I think (TMS is pretty solid, and I’ve groomed my Twitter TL in such a way that I get to read a lot of great conversations b/w bloggers), but they take some searching for, and there’s always the chance someone will barge in and derail it. So I understand your frustrations, for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

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