Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Criticism does not equal racism

What is the purpose of a cultural critic?

The strictly practical answer is: To give readers/listeners guidance on what to spend their entertainment dollars on – and what to avoid like green hamburger.

The esoteric answer is: To express a personal opinion in an entertaining way.

At its core, cultural criticism is opinion – practiced opinion, regular opinion (example: Friday movie reviews), but just as much opinion as what you tell your friends after you step out of the theater. 

No piece of culture gets universal critical praise – or disdain. Some critics hate The Wizard of Oz – if you don’t believe me, take a look at this. And this. And this. Some critics – well, this guy at least – love Freddy Got Fingered. (I will not live long enough to see all the movies on the list before I can even think about watching FGF.)

In the end, the cultural critic answers the questions: Is this good? Should you, dear cultural consumer, partake?

Which gets me to this question: What does race have to do with it? 

Enter, stage left, Mr. Tyler Perry.

Tyler Perry is an entertainment industry unto himself, constantly creating product for screens both large and small. And “product” is the correct word.

(Pause to allow Meandering Mouse to put on her cultural critic hat)

Tyler Perry’s intended audience is made up of simple-minded folks who see the world in black and white (metaphorically speaking) – good is good and evil is evil, and you will live happily ever after once you allow Jesus into your heart (and no, not the Jesus of The Big Lebowski). Mr. Perry’s sitcoms are as funny as a snake chowing down on a rat, and most of his movies are a disconcerting hodgepodge of crass slapstick and gooey melodrama – like a particularly bad episode of Punky Brewster (there were never any good ones).

Wait. I forgot to tell you that Mr. Perry is black, as are most of the actors in his films and television shows.

Does that matter? It shouldn’t.

However, some white critics feel obliged to pull their punches when it comes to Mr. Perry. Lindy West, a columnist for the website Jezebel.com, expressed hesitation about critiquing Mr. Perry’s work because she is a “white lady”:

It's not healthy to suppress or avoid cultural debate, but it's also not healthy to ignore situational realities. Being cognizant of inequality doesn't mean literally treating everyone the same, because everyone's experience isn't the same. To act otherwise is to pretend that history and prejudice and systemic imbalances aren't real. You might as well announce that you "don't see color" because your cousin dated a Lebanese guy once. In a roundabout way, to treat everyone equally is to deny inequality.

Ms. West, you are right: everyone’s experience isn’t the same. But the difference does not divide neatly between races. There is no universal “black experience,” just as there is no universal white experience, Asian experience, etc. 

And what is wrong with seeing people as people first, not as colors? If we’re going to start assuming facts about people by the color of their skin – not the content of their character, or how they behave – then what the hell did Martin Luther King, Jr. die for?

I grew up in the 1970s. That means I grew up with the ideal of a rainbow of kids having fun together, just like on Sesame Street, and no one made one peep or fuss about race. We’re not quite at that ideal yet – but it’s an ideal still worth reaching and striving for – not a world where everyone stands defensively behind their cultures, pointing their fingers at the others and whining, “You wouldn’t understaaaaand.” (Ever hear of something called empathy?)

Where is this world that today’s sociologists talk about – a world divided between the “privileged” whites, greedy and grasping and taking everything that’s not theirs, and the “marginalized” “people of color” (aside: isn’t white a color, too?), the eternally helpless victims of The Patriarchy? It’s not the world I see in front of me. Thank goodness I can still see the shades of gray.

Now, back to cultural criticism.

All artists – no matter who they are, where they came from, and (certainly) what color their skin calls on the color spectrum – deserve the respect of honest criticism. Even though it makes my hands itch to type this, Tyler Parry counts as an artist, too. 

If you would pull your critical punches to avoid offending the “middle-aged, working-class black Christian woman” (Ms. West’s words) who is Mr. Perry’s intended audience, you are no critic at all. (And who says all middle-aged, working-class black Christian women are Perry fans in the first place?)

Call me racist, call me sexist, call me privileged, call me clueless – I can accept being accused of all of those things. But I cannot accept being called dishonest – and I won’t let that happen.

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