The other day, I wrote the word “criticize” into a comment box (while writing a comment, not just inputting a single word, that’d be weird) and then paused. I questioned the choice, so I tried out the word “critique” instead. Doesn’t that just sound nicer? It’s that critical -que; it’s soft, even though it’s a hard k. It’s elegant, round. Inoffensive. In short, it’s not “criticize”, with its hissing, harsh z. But doing that made me feel even more uncomfortable, and I realized what was wrong. I do my damndest to rampage through life enjoying it to the hilt on my own terms—my non-negotiable 11 PM bedtime, baby librarian, cranky old woman-in-training terms. I don’t apologize for being, well, me. But when I found myself typing “critique” instead of “criticize” because it seemed nicer, I found myself apologizing for looking at something with a critical eye, which is kind of my whole thing.
The word criticize—as well as the word critique, its French mother (you’re welcome)—derives from the ancient Greek κριτικός, or kritikos in the Latin alphabet, which means “able to judge, discerning, critical”. To criticize something, solely semantically speaking, is to judge it. No inherent positive or negative meanings, like, for instance, “to bless”. But I think it speaks volumes that both “to criticize” and “to judge” have such negative connotations in modern English. Specifically, negative social connotations—to criticize is to nag and to judge usually means someone’s main criteria for selecting people to interact with is highly arbitrary. The problem happens when that transcends the social context and infects the other contexts. There’s a reason the term “constructive criticism” has to have the word “constructive” in front of “criticism”; it means our society believes that most criticism isn’t constructive.
On top of that, a lot of mainstream discourse about the creative process tends to conflate author and text. Films like Shakespeare in Love and Becoming Jane are part of a narrative that assumes writers can only produce what they know, and, therefore, their work is their life, a phrase that will sound familiar to anyone who ever wrote “deep” poetry as a teenager. Most people rarely take it as literally as, say, Becoming Jane Eyre (ugh), but the idea persists. The truth is that a work is creative output; linked, obviously, to its author, but by no means an avatar of them. I can (and often do) extrapolate about an author’s worldviews based on their work, but, at the end of the day, a text is a conscious creation that is now set in stone by a dynamic human being (even if the author is dead!). It’s this conflation of author and text that translates “I don’t think Steven Moffat writes lead female characters with meaningful relationships to his male leads very well” to “STEVEN MOFFAT HATES WOMEN” to some people.
And, in recent years, I’ve seen the conflation of author and text go one further, to the conflation of reader and text. People get defensive when you point out that a beloved text might be or is problematic, which is a side effect of taking the time to criticize something properly, because nothing is wholly unproblematic. (And if it is, let’s be real, it is probably as boring as all get out.) The thought process goes thusly—if I like James Bond, and James Bond is sexist, that would mean that I am sexist, which I am not, so James Bond is not sexist! Here, I must quote from Social Justice League’s Rachael’s amazing post, How To Like Problematic Things:
As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.
And to be a fan is to love something in the best way. Which is why I hate, to the core of my being, people responding to critical overtures with “Oh, relax, it’s just a movie!”. Because criticizing something—picking a text apart, holding each piece up to the light, and then putting it back together again—is the best way I know to love something. It’s love that motivates me to analyze, to criticize, to judge—love for a story and love for an art form. To me, to criticize a text is to love a text, and that’s what that harsh, hissing z sound means to me: love. And I don’t apologize for that.
This was my last week of winter break—in fact, it might be my last winter break from school. I’m heading back for my last semester tomorrow, and it’s going to be… interesting. Interesting is the operative word. In any case, I managed to get through The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Rolling Stones 50, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and My Year of Flops this week, as well as make a dent in Wuthering Heights, which I’m quite enjoying.
- Space Cartoons to Space Psychedelia: How Sci-Fi Book Covers Evolved” by Scott Beauchamp at The Atlantic.
- “Can an exploitation movie be a great movie?” by Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias at The A. V. Club.
- “Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Most Wicked Face of Theda Bara” by Anne Helen Petersen at The Hairpin.
What does the verb “to criticize” mean to you?