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It’s Never “Just” A Movie (Or TV Show, Or Entertainment, Or…)

This morning io9 posted my essay/review about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wherein I criticized the movie for being a White Guilt Fantasy and full of fail. Predictably, the site’s many commenters rose up in protest of my assessment — which I’ll get to in a separate post — and also whipped out the tried and true “But it’s just a movie, you’re not supposed to take it so seriously!” line and variations thereof. Looking through the archives, I don’t think I’ve posted a rebuttal to this line of thinking yet, and now’s a good time since I see many clicks over from io9 today.

The bottom line on this issue is simple: If you think that a piece of media such as a movie, TV show, book, or song is merely entertainment and ingest said media without giving any thought to how it influences or shapes you or the culture you exist in, You Are A Sheep.

What!? You cry. Again:

You. Are. A. Sheep.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are millions of sheep like you in America. You spend most of your day listening to terrible music because it’s there, watching terrible television at night because it’s on, and spending extra money going out to terrible movies because you’re trained to.

I’m sure that you actually enjoy these forms of entertainment. The music has a beat you can dance to, the TV shows have some hot people and maybe some angst or whatever, and the movies have explosions or hot people kissing or some cartoon violence. And hey, these things are made to be enjoyed. Even things classified as “high art” are meant to be enjoyed and people should enjoy them.

The thing that makes you a sheep is that you aren’t aware of how these media products affect you. Oh, I’m sure you’ll say they don’t and it’s stupid to say that TV makes you believe things you don’t really believe. You’ll bring up Tipper Gore and the bugaboo of video games being spuriously linked to violence. I bet you read that in a newspaper somewhere or on a blog that doesn’t challenge your already formed world view.

Okay, okay, I’ll put aside the snarky put downs for a few paragraphs. I can see it’s making you mad.

But honestly, if you don’t spend any time in your life thinking about the messages and world view media presents to you, how can you claim to be anything but a sheep? I’m not even talking about high levels of media criticism here, I’m simply talking about pausing for a moment and being conscious about what your favorite TV show or the latest blockbuster is about on a sub-surface level.

That doesn’t mean you have to take the joy out of your viewing or listening time. You can still be entertained. You should just also be aware.

Because make no mistake, your media is delivering a message to your brain. It’s up to you whether that message flows in there unimpeded and unexamined or if it swirls around in conscious consideration. Movies, television, music, literature and art are products of our culture that are both informed by and inform said culture.

Thus, media might promote stereotypes about women or people of color or a particular religion and do it in such a way that it either plays into already existing stereotypes and prejudices or may even help to create them. You let that pass into your brain unexamined and you may start to believe the stereotypes are real and form the prejudices the media promotes. And you’ll do it without a conscious thought.

It’s never just a show or a movie or a book. Media is always presenting you with a version of the world as imagined by the creator or creators behind it. That’s not always bad, for sure. Sometimes it’s an awesome and amazing view of the world. It’s up to you to make that determination. To say: this is sketchy! Or: This is how I want the world to be!

Another thing to keep in mind is that the backers of mass media are often presenting you with a worldview they really hope you just accept and don’t question, examine or deviate from. This is why the White Guilt Fantasy prevails so well in Hollywood. It’s right up there with the view that women never do anything important, that they exist only to be objectified or to glorify men.

If you don’t see that mass media is sending this any other harmful messages, then you’re not paying attention.

That is what I want you to do, media consumers: pay attention. You don’t have to deeply analyze everything and you don’t have to stop enjoying the things you love. Even if those things are problematic. Humans are capable of being nuanced creatures. You can find fault with a TV show or movie yet still have love for it, or parts of it.

This is how I maintain my love of Doctor Who and why I’ve seen The Avengers 4 times. There are major problems with both of those media entities, and I have no problem acknowledging and even poking at them. But I also let them fill me with squee.

Unlike most white Americans, I can’t afford to be a sheep in our current media landscape. Most of the messages media perpetuates are specifically harmful to me and people I love. I have to pay attention. Perhaps you don’t have to. I’m just saying that you should.

Honestly, do you want to be a sheep for your whole life? Just doing and feeling and thinking what the TV box tells you to?

25 thoughts on “It’s Never “Just” A Movie (Or TV Show, Or Entertainment, Or…)”

  1. Joseph says:

    Doesn’t it work both ways, though? Aren’t you simply trying to pull people to your point of view with scathing jokes and an intellectually elitist attitude?
    Being a single person, rather than a corporation, politician, media conglomerate, and so forth, does automatically make your motives any less questionable when your purpose is to change the way someone things. You are not, for all your complaints, automatically right; and you argue the fallacy of fallacy, that the other side, because they’re using an old argument, are wrong.
    And even while admonishing a supposedly ignorant arguement, you’re raising your own tired cliche against them: that somehow anyone who doesn’t see the truth is asleep, or are sheep, and you’re here to wake us up, or herd us.
    You are not the only person on the planet capable of critical thinking. Your assumption that enjoying mindless entertainment automatically makes me wrong, while your own admissions of enjoying quite the same (who can call Doctor Who anything but mindless, with a bit of timey-wimey tossed in for imagined complexity) somehow doesn’t merit you the same admonishments is purely hypocritical.
    I will not be lectured by a hypocrite.

    1. The Angry Black Woman says:

      Thing is, Joseph: I am right. I’m not right because I’m awesome (I am awesome, though), I’m right because the truth of what I said is self-evident to anyone who’s ever studied media at all.

      And honestly, the reason why I come off as intellectual and not shamed of it is because I’m smart and pride myself on thinking and I’m in no way ashamed of that fact.

      I’ve often found that random people on the Internet get seriously butthurt when I display this attitude because I’m a woman and black besides, and they find it seriously uncouth for me to flash around my competence. If I were a white dude I wouldn’t get near the amount of whining.

      Cliche or not, most people are sheep and most people do need waking up. That truth is self-evident, too, to anyone who pays a modicum of attention to the world.

      Also: when did I ever say that enjoying mindless entertainment is wrong? Point me to where I said that. If you activate your reading comprehension skills you will note that I said enjoying entertainment is totes okay, you just also have to think about it. I haven’t asked anyone to do anything that i don’t do myself. Thus, your assertion that i am a hypocrite is, in fact, wrong.

      If you don’t want to be lectured by me: leave. No one asked you to come here.

      1. Rocza says:

        Tch. Women aren’t allowed to be intelligent. That’s the domain of men, and it’s threatening and SCARY when women use their brains – what if they’re smarter than men?

      2. Youwouldcallmewhite says:

        I agree with both of you on many topics. However TABW, I do have to say that Joseph makes a valid point. Your pride is coming out in this and instead of just preaching the importance of media awareness, social awareness, and cultural appreciation your are belittling and attacking people by calling them sheep. You’re aware of it hence why you said “I can see it’s making you mad” Of course it is. If I spent this entire response calling you hyper sensitive you would want to retaliate. You are not, and Im not saying that but you get my point. I am with you TABW in your argument you need to approach it differently. Educate, don’t intimidate. By starting your entire debate with an attack people misread all the valuable information that you round it up with. What makes main stream media so powerful is that A) it’s everywhere and B) it’s easy. None of it is threatening. None of it makes you think. Apply the same process to your intellectual standpoints. If you really want to make a stand how about constantly bringing up female objectification or gender fluidity/ neutrality. Everyone will disagree with you but if you keep bringing it up casually eventually people have it ingrained into their heads. Instead of coming out and calling us sheep why not analyze the film. Break down the dumb parts because everything is done for a reason and if you get people hyper analyzing the most insignificant details accidentally you are successful. I agree with Joseph, in the fact that even if you dont see it your argument makes you seem high and mighty. People on the internet shouldn’t know you by gender or race. We are faceless and if they know it they should only because they know you personally. To be fair if you were a white dude making such aggressive claims you would. Its the internet, everyone wants to shut you down.

        The thing is Joseph did the same thing you did with your initial writing. He attacked you and told you why you were less then something you proclaim yourself to be. Now watch your response to him another attack and you both have barely listened to what each other are saying. That sucks because both of you made phenomenal claims and could do well to learn off of one another. I say keep preaching your media awareness because you know what you are talking about. Stop attacking us on it and just make sure I dont have the oppurtunity to be unaware. Weather I want it to or not it will sink in. Why do you think tanned skin accidentally became a thing. It just kept getting promoted subtly and now every self conscious white woman thinks it is something they HAVE to do. and to be fair that only happened near the end of the 90’s. Anyways do with this what you will.

  2. Olive667 says:

    I didn’t make it very far into the comments. I notice a recurring theme of people rejecting the concept of white guilt. The funny part is they think white guilt is about slavery or the decimation of Native Americans. What they SHOULD feel guilty about is their continuing reign of terror against all people of color e.g., their sense of entitlement that justifies touching black women’s hair, using co-workers as their personal encyclopedias on other cultures, constant complaining about hating political correctness. They should feel guilty about their campaign to highlight every non-white person’s differences (whether stereotypical or real). It reeks of ostracism.

  3. Claire Hummel says:

    Great write up, and something I’ll definitely tuck away to link to in the future- it seems like most people think enjoying media and critiquing it are mutually exclusive, not realizing that you can analyze the HELL out of a film while still enjoying the time spent watching it. If we refused to enjoy problematic media, well… There isn’t really a lot out there that isn’t problematic in one way or another.

    I admittedly can’t wait for your assessment of the comments on your io9 article, because good lord– it’s like most everyone read the title of the article, possibly skimmed the first paragraph, and then decided to be contrarian just for the hell of it and completely missed the meat of the article. Aaaanyway,I’ll leave that for future posts.

  4. The Disgruntled Haradrim says:

    well stated. i read the comments on your i09 post this morning and was becoming increasingly annoyed at the hearty mix of white privilege and denial. this is a particular issue among the speculative geek-o-sphere, where fans are often dismissive (sometimes hostile) to any criticisms of race and gender–viewing the intrusion of POC and women into their world almost as an affront. the same fans who in one breath will brag about themes of war, ecology and the linguistics behind Elvish in Tolkien’s work, balk at any mention of racism or sexism. it’s hypocritical and par the course. i’m glad you called out the sheeple–because they’re blindness is quite willful.

  5. Michelle says:

    I agree with everything you’re saying… except the “sheep” part. You use that word half a dozen times, and admit that you’re actually talking about *most people.* People aren’t sheep. Sheep are sheep. People are people. Can we criticize a common behavior without dehumanizing all those who perpetuate it?

    “Humans are capable of being nuanced creatures.”

    That’s true. In fact, one might even say that humans *are* nuanced creatures. The tricky thing about nuance is that it means there’s more going on than is easily observable by an outsider. In other words, it’s not always going to look how we think it’ll look. One can be (and WILL BE) a nuanced human being without acting in the way other nuanced human beings think nuanced human beings should act.

    If we don’t like being treated to dehumanizing language ourselves, can we try not to use it on other people?

    1. The Angry Black Woman says:

      There are times when a strongly worded argument requires a strongly worded metaphor, and this is one of them. I stand by my use of the word sheep because it’s an old yet apropos way to describe the type of lazy thinking I wish to fight against.

  6. Rachel says:

    Hear, hear.

  7. Zini says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was waiting for a response here after I read the io9 comments (what I could get through without wanting to slam my laptop shut anyhow) and marveled that people could be so hostile to the clear and obvious points you were making.
    I think you hit it right on the nose when you say: “I can’t afford to be a sheep in our current media landscape. Most of the messages media perpetuates are specifically harmful to me and people I love.”
    I will take it one step further and say: I have no choice. When I see racial stereotypes being perpetuated in films, or imperialist-colonial worldviews, they leap out at me and actually impede my enjoyment of the work in question. Because art IS about presenting us with different views of the world, and I am completely uninterested in seeing the same bullshit tropes that dehumanize and keep me down in the real world recreated in art. Boring and hackneyed are the kindest things I can say about such work – no matter how “mindless” it’s supposed to be.
    And the comments depressed and enraged me precisely because they demonstrate such a stubborn resistance to seeing the world from a different perspective, to removing the blinders of race and privilege and trying to understand that the way we write (or rewrite) history is the way we see the present; in fact, it is what shapes and creates the present. And the present is far from perfect in terms of racial understanding (I will not say equality, because the notion that we have even come CLOSE to it is preposterous).
    Whenever I am particularly depressed about people’s resistance to change (which is a feeling that is inspired often, and sometimes by the closest people to me), I remind myself of the privilege of being a minority – what I choose to see as privilege anyhow, because I value critical thinking and curiosity and creativity as among the paramount virtues of what it means to be human. We as minorities have so much less work to do in terms of deconstruction of the systematic, oppressive tropes of the world. We see them for what they are practically from birth by virtue of being always on their wrong side: not as “somewhat flawed” systems or inevitable tides of history and progress (as in the case of colonialism), but as deliberate, hegemonic structures that will never change unless we dismantle them – by questioning, challenging, critiquing, opposing – piece by piece.
    It’s the difference between blindly being a cog in the machine and seeing the machine for what it is, and some days this is the only comfort I can cling to.

  8. V says:

    Things that drive me nuts in a related fashion: when I cite what I think of as one of the Known Arguments (i.e. something listed on a bingo card) like the one you discuss coming up again above (“it’s only a [etc]”) to certain folks when they make such an argument, often partially by pointing them to a bingo card, they tell me I’m condescending. And then I throw up my hands and stop trying and try to avoid similar topics.
    I hate my only alternative being to give up on them, because I want to win them over so they win other people over and the societal quotient of Being Full of Shit goes down a bit. But this is probably one of the Named Mistakes. Although I’m not sure I’ve seen a bingo card with the Named Mistakes, there ought to be one. *wry*

    I almost have this vague wish someone would redo that stupid movie the way you were talking about but I am Tired of hearing Abraham Lincoln — vampire hunter, zombie on the moon, etc.

  9. Betty Fokker says:

    For what it is worth, I saw your point. It’s wrong to fictionalize the civil rights movement (starting with slavery and going forward to the current enslavement of black men in for profit prisons) as a battle between “good” white men who help black people and the “bad” white people who oppress black people. First, it uses story-telling to erase the fact that the majority of battles were fought by black people for THEMSELVES. Yes, some white people were supportive but their stories are eclipsing the stories of the black civil rights activists. (Mississippi Burning and The Help spring to mind.)That’s mendacity and White Guilt at its “finest”. It says, “Look! We didn’t ALL benefit from this system! Only the bad guys are to blame!” Secondly, it makes people think that if they are nice, if they don’t kick kittens or actively persecute black people, then they CANNOT be racist. It allows the audience a free pass on systemic racism, and that is a real problem. White people don’t like to be reminded of systemic racism; they don’t want to see that it benefits them. Thus, the hostility to your article.

  10. CraftyLuna says:

    I loved your article on Io9 and this followup here. There were some really good responses to the sheep in the comments from a poster with the handle dropthepilot who is Jacob Clifton, one of my other favorite internet writers. He gets accused all the time of “overthinking it” in his recaps on Television Without Pity (he used to be the recapper of Doctor Who over there, and if you want some really intellectual deep analysis of that show, I highly recommend his write-ups) so it was quite a pleasant surprise to see him commenting in defense of your piece on Io9.

  11. Duncan says:

    Sure, it’s only a movie. And Star Trek is only a TV show. And The Lord of the Rings is only a book. I’d venture to say that most of the people who says “It’s only a …” don’t really believe it themselves. “It’s only a …” is just a standard comeback for waving away arguments one can’t answer.

    I mostly agree with Michelle, though, not so much because strong terminology isn’t appropriate here, as because “sheep” is the wrong word. I’m not sure what the right word is, it’ll probably come to me. Also, people who are bold free-thinking individualists on one issue usually turn out to be “sheep” on others.

    1. Angel H. says:

      I never understood the need for marginalized people to make the language of their oppression more palatable to the privileged when the privileged has no qualms about the harshness of oppressing the marginalized.

  12. FakeKraid says:

    The only minor objection I have to any of this is the phrase ‘unlike most white Americans’. While the sentence that follows that one is undoubtedly true, the implication that white Americans can afford to be sheep is false. True, the underlying messages are not (regularly) demeaning or enervating to us, but I would count being blinded to reality in any way as being harmed, and especially when that blindness perpetuates dysfunctional societal norms. There is inarguably a difference between those who victimize and those who are victimized in such relationships, but both sides are harmed, even if in different and unequal ways. The devil never rewards his agents. Arguing about who is less healthy – the oppressor or the oppressed – is both extremely difficult and pointless, but it’s pretty easy to agree that neither is healthy in an unqualified sense.

    Other than that, it’s a cogent and pertinent article. If only the people who actually needed the advice were at all likely to listen to you…

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  17. Emily says:

    Thank you, Angry Black Woman. This is excellent. As a lit major, I got this a lot in college. “Oh, I love to read too, but I have so much more fun when I don’t have to analyze it to death.” The idea that you can ever analyze something “to death” is absurd, but I never knew how to respond. But as you imply, if something can be analyzed “to death,” it’s probably better off that way.

    A timely analysis. I found this site after reading about Anita Sarkeesian’s Kistarter project (Tropes Against Women in Video Games). Many, many commenters used this same dismissal to try and shut her up. “They’re just games. Nobody takes them seriously.” You don’t mention video games in your list of media, and I’d like to append it.

  18. squeeky says:

    To The Angry Black Woman and the first seven posters (excluding Joseph): Co-sign on everything y’all just said,including Zini’s post in particular. As a black female film/TV buff who gradually learned to start questioning media depictions of the lives and histories of people of color as it was seen on TV and films as compared to what I saw in my real life (as well as growing up with a mother who did the same thing—I got it partially from her) The more I have gotten into films/TV/other kinds of media created/written/produced/directed/made by people of color over the years,the more their glaring lack of presence in the regular media is pointed up even more.

    Whenever I go on different sites where this subject is dealt with (especially on the Internet Database Movie site) white folks always want to play down the obscuring/erasing of people of color’s stories from film/TV as if it’s perfectly natural for white people’s P.O.V. to dominate damn near EVERYTHING in society—one poster even has the nerve to claim that the reason you didn’t see a lot of historical dramas featuring black people was because black people had no stories worth telling—that person was lit into by another poster—there’s always some pretty fascinating conversations about race on there though.

    As someone who’s spent years having fun analyzing my favorite TV shows/movies/books and pretty much anything online, it’s very true that you can do that,but even turning my brain off with some brainless movies, like GET HIM TO THE GREEK,for example–not my usual type of flick,but it sounded like fun—still can’t blind me to the obvious white privilege justifying the racism and sexism within the movie itself. This dosen’t always mar my enjoyment of the movie–except in the case of TRUE ROMANCE, a ’90’s action-drama in which a negatively charged racial scene with the N-word being flung at somebody in a very hateful way—the movie was okay,but I HATED that scene,as well people trying to rationalize the use of it in the first damn place. Keep on staying angry/challenging folks when you have to, Angry Black Woman—I’m loving this site,regardless!

  19. Khaalidah says:

    I read your article on iO9 and I loved it. I haven’t seen the film, but frankly I hadn’t intended to. Now, I don’t think that I will even see it by chance or mistake.
    I agree with your point here and with your use of the word sheep. I think that it’s likely the most apt way of making the point. I’ve come to the point, when conversing with co-workers in particular, that I no longer even speak up or out against some of the shows and movies that everyone seems to be clambering to watch. Much like you, I don’t begrudge them that pleasure (it’s their choice and business) but it seriously disturbs me to see them heartily imbibe racial, religious, and gender stereotypes, the hyper-sexualization of children, and the exploitation of women just to name a few, without once questioning them. When I have made criticisms in the past people have one of two reactions. They are either annoyed at the mention or as your title denotes they say “Oh, but it’s just…” It really never is though.

  20. Au Contraire says:

    Thank you for explaining so clearly how it’s possible to both enjoy media and call it out for its problematics “isms”. I wish I could share this post with the people who told me to shut up after I said I thought The Dark Knight Rises reinforced the notion of American xenophobia.

  21. Alise says:

    Thank you so much for this! I was trying to have this exact conversation with a person who I found out is not only daft in the head, but racist as well. I gave up talking to them as they were derailing the topic with drama and garbage.
    But, anyway, this is exactly what I was saying, except you said it better! Nice job!

  22. Neurotic Perfectionist Sketcher says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I hate it when people tell you you’re overanalysing media, “oh but it wasn’t intended to be ___”, all of the derailing tactics, logical fallacies… urgh. Love that you just come out and say “Yeah, I’m smart, confident and proud of it, listen to me”. So many times in real life, when I’m skirting around being truly assertive/aggressive (and yet I’m still seen as being ridiculously confrontational, haha) I just want to look people in the eye after they say “Urgh, you never even consider you’re wrong, I don’t have to read heaps of articles to know about this” and just go “Shut the fuck up, I am right, you’re an idiot, you DO need to read about this and since you haven’t really then guess what? You’re opinion is not as valid. Study up and you can talk with me about this when you actually have a clue, you are giving me 101 shit right now.”
    Uh, yeah, I’m just kind of in love with you right now. Totally digging everything about you. …I’m going to stop being creepy, and end this comment before I start being more awkward. Proooobably too late.

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