Living for the Revel (catvalente) wrote,
Living for the Revel

Stop Using Those Words. I Do Not Think They Mean What You Think They Mean

As an addendum to the previous post, there is this phrase that has been bugging me lately. It's almost always trotted out to defend a film or book against criticism of any sort, and it boggles me that it's an acceptable rhetorical trope.

I started seeing this a lot with the Lost finale, which I'll probably talk about tomorrow, having waited long enough for people to calm down about it. I think it's particularly indefensible when applied to Lost, but it's becoming a shining shield for content creators everywhere. Ready? Here it is.

The author/director/creator told the story he/she/they wanted to tell.

Well...of course they did. I mean, presumably, that's the entire point of making a movie or TV show or writing a book. No one said: well, obviously that wasn't the story they wanted to tell. It's practically a meaningless phrase. When I write books, I also tell the stories I want to tell. But the implicit and sometimes explicit working-out of this statement is:

You can't get mad or criticize them for not telling the story you, poor, selfish, crappy viewer/reader wanted. So, really, you can't criticize them at all! Profit!

As I said, this was particularly egregious with the Lost finale, when I heard that damn argument all over the place. Yes, they told the story they wanted to tell (I mean, sort of, obviously in six years some things change). I am still allowed to say that it wasn't a good story, nor did it pay out the narrative promises made by the rest of the text. Given that I am pretty good with this whole narrative thing, I believe it is utterly fair of me to point out that the "story they wanted to tell" was not the "story they told the audience they were telling" and thus, a certain amount of feeling cheated is to be expected.

With any book or film or show, that they told the story they wanted to tell IS BESIDES THE POINT OF COURSE THAT'S WHAT THEY DID. I can, and will always, ably criticize and poke holes in the story they wanted to tell. Sometimes they wanted to tell it because they have bad mommy issues and a who festering hive of woman-hate in their bosoms, and that needs to be pointed out. Sometimes they wanted to tell it because they're afraid of anything not like them, and that needs to be pointed out, too. Sometimes they wanted to tell it because they got tangled up in a story they didn't know how to end, so they went for the easy out. There are a hundred and a million reasons to want to tell a story. That doesn't mean the resulting story will be good.

The audience has the right to comment upon art. Not only that, but authorial credit is a tricky thing--if you set them up in the first half to expect a certain kind of story, using all kinds of markers and signs and systems to indicate that kind of story, and then change it around at intermission, while it still may be the story you wanted to tell, some of the audience is going to feel like you short-changed them, and that is their right. You cannot whine about the story you wanted to tell as if that's a defense against bad writing, and get mad at Lost fans the audience for believing what you told them and expecting something different. Or even wanting something different. Sometimes we just aren't satisfied with a story, because while it's the story the author wanted to tell, it's not the story we wanted to hear. And that's ok. Criticism is good and healthy. It means the audience was paying attention, at the very least.

The only defense that upsets me more is when Doctor Who suddenly claims to be a kids' show whenever someone points out that the writing was bad this week. Ditto when Lucas backs off the prequels and claims it was always only for children forever ha ha olly olly oxen free no one can tell me anything! Anyway. Doctor Who. A kids' show full of violence, sexuality, genocide, sociopaths, and way over a child's head cultural references. When someone praises Doctor Who they never talk about it being a kids' show and how they hoped the Jack/Rose/Nine kiss would open up the small children in the audience to alternative sexualities or whatever. Lucas and RTD/Moffat happily accept the adulation of adults and the respect of high literary culture when they can get it. They trot out the kids as a shield when they can't. They only say it's for kids when it's bad, because somehow it's ok if children get bad media, because they don't know any better--and the phrase is wielded like a cudgel against adults who don't unthinkingly accept poor product. How dare you. It's only a kids' show. It's not meant to be taken seriously. Now buy everything involved with it and give it Hugos.

Everyone is allowed to critically engage with the art they enjoy. Or don't enjoyt. But neither of these phrases is fair play.

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