CRITICS ARE WISE not to be overly sensitive, but with newspapers rapidly phasing out many veteran thumb-waggers, accusations of being out of touch — or worse, obsolete — assume greater significance.
In recent months, email correspondents have accused me of being demographically unfit to review “Sex and the City” (not a woman), “First Sunday” (not African-American) and a Showtime documentary about a gay marine titled “Semper Fi” (not gay — presumably an educated guess).
Frankly, such objections are the tip of the iceberg. At various times I’ve felt ill-equipped to grasp projects aimed at half-baked young guys (much of what’s on Adult Swim and Comedy Central), even though I once was one; and teenage girls, as the hysteria surrounding Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers utterly mystifies me. Beyond that, I’m apprehensive about watching Disney Channel programs, fearing I’ll find NBC News’ Chris Hansen staking out my living room.
The question is whether these critics’ critics have a point. Obviously, TV programs and movies need to be analyzed in context, taking into account who they’re meant for and what they hope to achieve. Nothing’s more irritating than reviews that torturously stretch to compare “Rambo” to “Satyricon.”
Thanks to audience fragmentation, moreover, many projects are clearly not intended for middle-aged white guys. Amid critics’ lamentations about their dwindling ranks, this shifting dynamic has been understated as a factor. As with newspapers in general, splintering entertainment options into insular niche communities blunts demand for (and exacerbates hostility toward) alternative perspectives, while reducing opportunities for widely shared viewing experiences.
TO BE FAIR, frustration toward critics isn’t always misplaced, especially when they behave as if entire genres are beneath them. Such snobbery manifests itself most blatantly, actually, in areas where elements of discrimination are permissible, from comicbook movies to reality TV.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, for example, couldn’t hide his flippant attitude toward “The Incredible Hulk,” writing, “If you really need a superhero to tide you over until Hellboy and Batman resurface next month — and honestly, do you? really? why? — I guess this big green dude will do.”
Yet N’neka Hite, a Variety intern and 20-something African-American woman who liked “Sex and the City” pic far more than I did, says she frequently sees critics more subtly dismiss material designed for one of those peer groups. Even if you’re not within the target demo, she says, “You have a social responsibility to stay up with the times … with what’s going on.”
On the flip side, guessing what others will like can be a slippery slope, and it’s hard to think of anything more condescending than grading material on a curve that betrays — as then-candidate George W. Bush put it — “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
SEEKING CONSOLATION and guidance, I contacted Leonard Maltin, not only an esteemed critic and movie historian but, given his resemblance to yours truly, one extremely handsome man.
“The kind of people who make those complaints aren’t looking for an informed opinion from an experienced critic,” he says. “They’re looking for approbation from a like-minded fan” — in much the way, notably, many liberals and conservatives currently gravitate toward websites and op-ed columnists likely to endorse and validate their views.
Maltin also frets about the path to which “Only women can understand ‘Sex and the City'” leads — including whether similar logic could be employed to disqualify women and minorities from examining movies outside their own narrowly tailored segments.
“How far do you take it?” he asks.
The bottom line is that in theory, anyway, accidents of birth like pigmentation or penises shouldn’t determine whether a critical opinion has merit. That said, sorry, I just don’t get Kathy Griffin or Chelsea Handler, and if that’s about chromosomes, feel free to discount my analysis.
Fortunately, the Web makes it easier for critics to establish a dialogue with readers of disparate backgrounds — provided that everyone is open-minded enough to entertain thoughts that might challenge their own.
As for whether adhering to personal standards risks alienating consumers they can ill afford to lose, Maltin notes that critics standing their ground might also “go down with the ship.”
So far, my feet remain firmly planted, but — yikes — is that water rising?