We love to argue about pop culture, because geeking out about movies, books and television makes them even more fun. But sometimes these discussions can go to a terrible place. Here are seven mistakes to avoid when having a spirited debate about entertainment.
The following "sins" are things that we've encountered in our years of pop discourse — and in a lot of cases, mistakes that we've made ourselves, and learned from along the way.
Top image: Lost, "Some Like It Hoth." Hurley shares his thoughts on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
1. Non-consensual spoilers
Some people love to read spoilers for upcoming shows or movies, because it's part of the conversation about past and future entertainment. But a lot of people hate spoilers, and forcing those people to read spoilers is wrong. People should generally have to "opt in" before reading any serious spoilers for upcoming or recent stuff. More broadly, bombarding people with decontextualized pieces of the experience of seeing a complete work, when they haven't volunteered to get those decontextualized experience bits, is really uncool. Even after the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired, it's still good to be thoughtful where possible.
2. Confusing "die-hard fans" with "all audiences."
We all do this to some extent, but it distorts the conversation about pop culture, especially bigger franchises. What the fans care about is often not what most people who might see a movie or TV show care about — and people often conflate the two. Fans might be annoyed that Michael Bay's Transformers films differ in some major ways from the G1 TV show, but that doesn't stop regular moviegoers from swarming to see them. To be sure, fan backlash can hurt a project, and fan enthusiasm can help spread the word — but people often seem to start from the unquestioned assumption that what the serious fans care about is the same thing as what most audiences care about. And sometimes, too much focus on what die-hard fans care about can lead to a franchise wallowing in nostalgia. And nostalgia is the story-killer. At the very least, it's good to be clear about whether you're talking about what the hardcore fans want, versus what will appeal to a much broader audience.
3 Buying into a simplistic dichotomy between hack and artist
Sometimes it's tempting to boil everything down into "great heartfelt passion projects" and "corporate work for hire," with the former being automatically better than the latter. But I'm sure we can all think of a passion project, where the creator had total creative control, that sucked. And some of the best works of pop culture ever created have been the work of an army of creators, all working from mandates laid down by corporate overlords. Plus you can't really identify an even split between the two — most works fall somewhere in the middle. And most creators are both "hack" and "dreamer," depending on which day it is and how much they're dealing with external, real-world constraints. Likewise, sometimes an obligatory sequel to a cash-cow franchise might turn out to be a vastly better movie than a fresh original concept. One of the amazing things about pop culture is that it's always surprising us.
4 Getting sucked into pointless genre debates
Repeat after me: "genres are marketing categories." You need to care about genre labels under one condition only: You work in a marketing department, and you're trying to sell something to someone. Otherwise, it's good to recognize how arbitrary and loose terms like "science fiction," "literature" and "horror" are. Not only is it kind of a waste of time debating which genre something belongs to, it's also kind of pointless to argue about whether one genre is "better" than another. Or more "mainstream." You can certainly debate whether a particular genre label will be better or worse in terms of selling a particular product — but again, that's a matter of marketing.
5 Letting random controversies get in the way of judging the work on its own merits
To some extent, this is unavoidable. But if you don't watch out, getting obsessed with external stuff can ruin your enjoyment of almost anything. Especially in this day and age, when the internet generates controversies at an astounding rate. Just because there's been some debate over the marketing of a film, or something the star of a TV show said in an interview once, or a rumor that people are disappointed wasn't true, should mostly have no bearing on whether the actual work is any good. By the time a book or movie or TV show comes out, we've often had a complicated relationship with it that involves a lot of peripheral stuff — but I find I enjoy something more if I try to put the extraneous stuff out of my mind once I'm actually watching or reading it. Likewise, a related "sin" is to make things too personal — you might not like Steven Spielberg's movies, but that doesn't mean you should go around saying nasty things about Spielberg as a human being.
6. Not recognizing that pop culture has real-world meanings.
Even if a story takes place 1000 years in the future on another planet, it's still talking about the here and now, to some extent. It's still commenting on our society and our institutions, and it's in dialogue with other works created beforehand. Some people enjoy geeking out about the implications of a piece of pop culture, or picking apart the ways that something is flawed or problematic. And some people don't necessarily enjoy doing that, but feel a need to do so because it's a pervasive piece of pop culture that is speaking to or about them in a way that they need to address. So it's a "sin" to deny other people's right to analyze and criticize pop culture — particularly when they're commenting on how it deals with race or gender or sexuality. In particular, it's weird to tell people not to overthink something because "it's just a movie" — we're geeks, overthinking is what we do. And saying that mindless, uncritical appreciation is the only way to engage with mainstream culture is tantamount to saying that we should recognize no difference between, say, The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace. They're both Star Wars movies, they both have explosions, and there are cool set pieces in both — but the moment you start thinking critically, you notice some differences between them.
7 Not respecting other people's opinions
It's totally fine to say "The Avengers sucked." But it's uncool to say "anyone who liked The Avengers is an idiot." One is a statement of opinion, the other is an attack on people who disagree with you. (When I hear that someone enjoyed a movie a lot more than I did, my response is always, "I'm glad to hear that." Because I never want to root for anybody to have a bad time at the movies.) Part of having a free exchange of opinions is respecting the fact that other people are going to disagree — and you can make a strong case for your views, but you can't "prove" that you're right. On a related note, none of these topics are life-and-death. This isn't rocket surgery. If someone else is wrong about Joss Whedon, nobody is going to die. (Unless Joss Whedon reads it and has a heart attack, I guess.) That's probably the biggest sin of all — not recognizing that these topics are basically fun, and that we're all debating them because it's better than thinking about work.