I’ve recently read a number of articles on a webcomic/meme now known as “Let People Enjoy Things.” It’s a topic that intrigues me, but also not one that generated an instant or straightforward opinion on my part. I have thus decided to write the piece below in the form of a dialogue with myself.
Q: So what do you think of this comic?
A: It looks kinds of smug.
Q: That’s an ironic response isn’t it?
A: Yes it is. The guy generalizing about sports being objectively bad by calling them sportsball is being smug, but then again the other guy has so much confidence in his view that he literally shut his companion’s mouth. That’s smug too. And I suppose in shutting down a comic that many understandably call empowering I’m being smug myself.
Q: Your response is relevant given the recent discussion around this issue. It seems a number of writers including Esther Rosenfield and Constance Grady recognize that the comic itself may be making a valid point about people who say “sportsball,” but nonetheless feel people are now overusing the “Let People Enjoy Things” (LPET) meme.
A: Indeed. This speaks to my frustrations with how discourse is carried out over the internet. People don’t express their discomfort with sports in a detailed way, they just make “sportsball” jokes. Similarly, people don’t feel the need to respond earnestly to critics of the media they enjoy. Instead, they flood Twitter feeds and comment sections with reference to LPET.
Q: Kate Wagner argues that there are a range of motives for making LPET comments. She says there are 1) people who react poorly to criticism because they identify with the media they like 2) people who want to shut down all “Debbie-Downers” and as such, according to Wagner are “a**holes” 3) cultural nihilists who don’t care about political problems with the media they consume and 4) people who don’t want “their experience ruined.” What do you think of this response?
A: There’s a lot to unpack there. I suppose there’s my side issues with dismissing anyone as a “hopeless” “a-hole,” as well as with Wagner’s dismissal of the idea of film viewing being “an experience.” I think it’s an amazing testament to the collectivist potential of our culture that we can count on huge swathes of the internet not to spoil Marvel or Star Wars movies, thus preserving “an experience.”
I think a good one to start with is the point about people identifying with the media they consume. Some might say such identification is intellectually unsound and people should just “stop it.” It’s important to remember, however, that our conceptions of ourselves are in fact collections of thinks we enjoy, etc. Rather than telling people that a movie cannot be part of their “self,” I think it’s better to tell them to imagine that the movie itself has a concept of self. Our “selves” and movies’ “selves” can overlap significantly, but that does not make us and our favorite movies the same “being.” So to use a Marvel example, I don’t let the fact that a lot of people talk quite dismissively of Thor: The Dark World get to me, because the one reason I sort of like that movie, that its portrays the emergence of Loki as a uniquely polished character, is not usually the issue critics touch on. If I heard a bunch of critics making take-it-for-granted statements about The Dark World being mediocre I could say “but why are you under-valuing the self-actualization of Loki?” My guess is such a response would allow the validity of my experience and the validity of their criticism to coexist.
Q: But what if the thing the critics don’t like is something that is essential to your self-concept?
A: Our Self Concepts are multi-layered. For example, there are times when I feel like an outcast among indie film fans for having trouble following Hereditary. But in other contexts it makes me very happy to learn that someone likes Hereditary, because it gives me the impression that they watch film with the same frequency and interest-in-the-alternative that I do. Liking Hereditary both is and isn’t part of my “self.”
When a critic speaks in a way you disagree with, you don’t have to feel alienated. Instead, you can respond in good faith and be pleasantly surprised by how they engage with your engagement. I’ve certainly fixed that alienated-feeling by explaining my take on Sorry to Bother You’s plot-twist to its non-fans.
Of course, not all critics can be responded to. Those with huge platforms aren’t going to respond to every reader, and it can be crushing to feel that not only is your opinion alienated from their’s, but also that its overpowered. If it really bothers you, you can do what I do: write about your opinion, even into the void, and put out an argument you’re proud of.
Q: And the reason we’re having this conversation is that people aren’t writing responses of their own: they’re simply posting images from a comic.
A: And I’m hesitant to say why people do that. Some people may wish they could write reviews or thoughtful comments of their own, but feel they lack the time or the skill. Some may simply find pleasure in trolling. But I think a third explanation, an important one to consider in this age where some journalists write articles that are mere compilations of twitter-one-liners, is that there are probably people out there who sincerely view sharing the LPET image as a valid form of intellectual self-expression. In fact, all the mass-production of this image does is discourage writers from critiquing popular media and make discussion of popular media a polarizing, inane affair.
Q: You mention popular media. Both Esther Rosenfield and Kate Wagner note the weird phenomenon of LPET being primarily used to defend very profitable media franchises like Marvel and Game of Thrones. Is there any validity to the argument that we should “let people enjoy” even entities like these (figuratively speaking of course)?
A: It’s funny, the original comic is about football, and as the comic’s artist Adam Ellis (who’s been critical of how the image’s spirit has been misinterpreted) explained “it’s about people who trash popular stuff to seem interesting or cool.” It’s completely valid not to like popular things, the problem is when people’s dislike for popular things becomes such a certainty in their mind that they cannot explain where their dislike comes from. Again, it seems smug to say “sportsball” just as it seems smug to half-heartedly say “LPET.”
So yes, there are people who make blanket-statements like “Marvel movies are stupid,” and those people probably should be subject to some degree of LPET things commentary (empathetic, well-articulated commentary, not a sassy, standalone image).
On the other hand, Esther Rosenfield’s Letterboxd review of Avengers: Endgame does make some important points. She says Endgame is not a film but “just content.” Read in tandem with Kate Wagner’s observations that Marvel-like movies are “engineered in the way doritoes are made so you can’t eat just one,” she paints a vision of a society in which the monopolistic Disney corporation makes movies that constantly gets patrons coming back, pushing independent films out of theatres, while silencing critics through the LPET ethic along the way.
And on yet another hand, Rosenfield does “sportsball” a bit with her review. She admits its not one she wants to spend much time on, and gives the film 1/5 stars (when 2 or 2.5 would still be plenty scathing; I’ve written about the hyperbolic grading systems of critics before), and does not comment on the ways in which Endgame tried to be dramatically deeper than its predecessor. While I personally don’t think her review is worthy of a LPET reaction, I can empathize with some readers who might have had that feeling.
Q: You say Rosenfield had a bit of a “sportsball,” or off-the-bat-dismissive tone about Endgame. Do you think if her review felt less dismissive (but was still highly critical) the reaction would have been different?
Who knows. Maybe it was the 1/5 rating that was the culprit. Maybe it was that she made feminist critiques of the film, subjecting her to right-wing scorn. There’s also the problem that people see what they expect to see. Even in my case, when I first read her review I thought it was very sportsball-ish but when I gave it a second chance I liked what she said a lot more.
When trying to be pretentious people will sometimes joke “I don’t watch movies, I watch films.” That logic, it seems, is applied in reverse in the real world. If Rosenfield and Wagner’s analysis is correct, one of the biggest corporate makers of “movies” is pushing “films” out of cinemas. This should appall people who want to see the best creative visions the world has to offer, a sentiment I believe “movie” and “film” fans share.
While admittedly our sway is limited (that’s an essential part of Wagner and Rosenfield’s arguments), I think we as critics have to break free from that films-versus-movies logic. We have to show “movie” people, that “film” people are not their enemies. That means trying to question our own biases about “movies” and reviewing them with the same care with which we review “cinema.” We should strive to live in a world where we’ll find ordinary people who’ll say “One of my favorite’s actor’s performances of the year was by Robert Downey Jr.’s in Endgame and one of my favourite actress’s performance of the year was by Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell.”
Q: It’s funny you talk about favourite actors. You’re still subscribing to a logic of talking about film that’s competitive. And maybe it’s this “competitive” approach to how we like things that produces un-nuanced reactions to media, LPET, etc. If we’re constantly ranking and rating things of course people are going to get defensive when the media they identify with gets put down.
I agree. I admit I’m torn between my desire to engage with award shows and even the very concept of film criticism. There’s a part of me that never wants to be negative. But I think if one approaches one’s criticism and one’s debates with a non-negative overall spirit, that’s the key. When I write negative reviews my goal is not to put things down. My goal is to insert myself into the creative process. To be an artist who engages with film in a way that I can. Generally when I write a negative review I try and make a broad point about what I don’t like about the writer’s approach or suggest something I would have done differently. I don’t make micro-level jeers of LPET. I’d like to think if all reviewers subscribed to this standard, LPET trolls would go away. But I also realize people see what they want to see, and good writing on a critic’s part is not the secret to stopping their trolls.
But one final thought here. I think part of this discussion comes down to a mistake in Adam Ellis’ original comic. He says he’s satirizing people who try to be cool by unintelligently putting down popular passions like sports. “Let People Enjoy Things,” is not a useful response to that. LPET might be a useful response to someone who provides an overly detailed, slightly negative review of, for example, a Harry Potter movie in front of a starry-eyed young fan. That critic isn’t guilty of maliciousness or obnoxiousness: they’re just guilty of focusing too much on analysis and not enough on what the Harry Potter experience means to the young fan they’re with. The same can’t be said of people who play up how much they hate sports. Those people are guilty of building their very identities on un-nuanced adversarialism with others. Their problem is not failing to let someone enjoy a thing. Their problem is actively enjoying that they aren’t letting someone enjoy something. The response that these people need therefore, is something less surface level: something that looks at why they feel the need to build their self-conception on such a negative foundation.
Q: But can we ever expect such introspection in comment sections?
A: No, and at a certain point people have to stand up for themselves against the LPET trolls, etc. But do I think criticism and comment sections alike have an adversarialism problem. Yes. It’s a problem that plagues much of our society. So yes, let’s LPET, but let’s do so in a way that’s mutualistic and constructive, not reactionary and aggressive.