Not so long ago, I got into an argument online. I know, I know – you’re shocked. I am such a quiet, retiring, and un-opinionated person that it was really something when I came out of my shell and dared to contradict someone on the subject of media! I won’t go into the details about how I was right and the other person was totally wrong, because that doesn’t much matter. What matters is one particular moment in the argument, when I happened to make mention of the word “feminism.” Most particularly, I began to apply certain feminist critical theories to my analysis of a character. Whether or not I made my case is irrelevant, for it was the mention of the word feminism that caused a sudden and, for me, rather confusing split. The person with whom I argued seemed to take it as a personal affront that I should bring up feminism in this context; he informed me (and here I paraphrase) that my perspective was “typical” (if such a word can be used in a derisive tone on the internet, it was used derisively here) and “biased.” Suddenly, it was as though our disagreement had ceased to be about interpretation or supportable analysis; because I had invoked the dread F word, he claimed that I lost all critical credibility.
What bothered me about this exchange was not so much that it happened once, but that I have noticed in my own writing and in the writing of others a tendency to shy away from using that dangerous word. It often goes hand in hand with that other word “sexism,” also a bit dangerous to bring up. Stating, for instance, that the treatment of a female character in a television show is sexist, even misogynist, I’ve found often provokes a virtual eye-roll and the subsequent dismissal of the argument. As a result, I’ve even begun to avoid invoking those words, lest I be accused of “having an agenda.
Having an agenda, being overly critical, possessing a “typical” perspective, and so forth – these are ways to shut down the conversation and place another person in a box, to avoid such disturbing issues as sexism and feminism because they don’t fit into your particular world view. Regardless of whether the criticism itself is legitimate or illegitimate, regardless of whether someone is on the right or wrong side of a debate, it means that we don’t even take into account another perspective because certain types readings must be biased.
One of the things you learn in film class is that criticism – be it feminist, Marxist, queer, or anything else you can name – is all about interpretation. In other words, you can’t be right, but you can support your perspective with cohesive evidence. My interpretation might be stronger than yours because I take into account all available evidence, while you only take into account a small portion. But both interpretations are valid, no matter what theoretical framework you choose. This does not mean that all opinions are the same – as with anything else, you have to be able to support your opinion. You have to be able to make your case and – guess what? – sometimes you can’t. Sometimes, you’re actually wrong. But if I point to a representation of a female character and explain why it’s sexist, with evidence and convincing analysis, it kills the conversation to turn around and claim that I have an agenda solely because I invoked a feminist reading. And I’ve come to understand that that’s exactly what many people who want: to kill the conversation and avoid having to even countenance an interpretation, right or wrong, that might make them uncomfortable.
Feminism is hardly the only “ism” at stake here – I have seen similar dismissals in discussions of racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, and more. There is no doubt that a politically correct climate occasionally goes too far; that there are those within each community who would attack solely for the sake of attacking, and who invoke their personal ism to avoid further challenge (e.g. if you do not like this female character, you must hate women). But the opposite is also true: the mere mention of invoking ism can provoke someone to summarily dismiss your perspective. That, in turn, causes entrenchment – you have ignored my criticisms, and so I will ignore yours. This has become such a damaging tendency in public discussion of media that I wonder if any of us will ever be able to work back to a critically distanced perspective. The fact is: you can disagree with me. You can think that I’m wrong. You can even refuse to take into account my perspective. What you cannot do is silence me.