Aneurin “Nye” Bevan is a legendary figure in British political history, but he’s probably best known in the U.S. for calling politics “a blood sport.” Judging by his resumé, Bevan doesn’t seem like a vindictive man: He was raised a coal miner’s son, which gave him a lifelong empathy for working people that drove him into public service, and eventually to the upper reaches of the Labour Party. As Britain’s Minister Of Health, he established universal health care for his country’s citizens.
Bevan devoted his life to improving the welfare of impoverished people, but he was also a politician—and as a great politician, he didn’t shy away from a fundamental truth about human discourse: It is inherently combative, and it gets bloodier (figuratively and literally) as the stakes are raised.
I thought of Bevan’s quote last week as I read my colleague Noel Murray’s piece on “haters” in pop culture. Noel wrote that he was “a little baffled” over the trend of “hate-watching” TV shows like Smash, Glee, and Girls, and how expressions of extreme displeasure seem to have become such a big part of how people experience culture. He argues this mentality closes us off, obscuring what a maligned TV show or movie is attempting to do behind walls of mindless snark.
“It’s a knee-jerk rejection of everything a piece of entertainment might have to offer,” he wrote. “Just as in politics some people judge what a politician says based on whether there’s an “R” or a “D” next to his or her name, so Smash could conceivably deliver an outstanding episode full of great performances, sparkling dialogue, and heartrending songs, and some viewers wouldn’t notice because the only reason they tuned in was to rip it apart.”
I see where Noel is coming from, and I share some of his dismay with the non-stop quip-athons that social media encourages. It’s the self-satisfaction that rankles—so much pop-culture commentary that passes for clever and knowing is merely glib and shuttered, the product of people (often under the cover of anonymity) laying down definitive pronouncements on the “brilliance” or “suckiness” of carefully constructed and endlessly thought-over projects created by dozens, if not hundreds, of artists. Even professional critics who ought to know better (as a prodigious Twitter user, I’ll include myself in this group) dismiss work that means the world to the people who created it with hardly any consideration.
But here’s the thing: My wife and I loved watching and, yes, making fun of Smash this season. I wouldn’t say we “hate-watched” it, because Smash brought us a lot of enjoyment. I looked forward to Smash more than the “good” shows we watched each week. If I’m wearing my critic’s hat, I’d say Smash appealed to me because it’s a big-budget network TV show trying to act like a cable show and nighttime soap simultaneously, and failing at both. It was a fascinating snapshot of a project with everything going for it—money, talent, a compelling premise—and still not succeeding. But, if I’m being honest, I also liked Smash because my wife and I couldn’t get enough of hating the show’s holy trinity of annoying characters: Karen, Ellis, and Leo. Oh, Leo!
Is this a bad thing? Was I “closed off” from Smash because I relished ripping on it with my wife? Perhaps, but I was also really entertained. Going into each episode, I knew my wife and I would laugh out loud at one ridiculous plot contrivance (and hopefully more), and by the end of the hour I’d feel happier and more relaxed after a long day of work.
Maybe this was the “wrong” way to watch it, but c’mon, making fun of Smash (or anything else in pop culture) should not be likened to the truly poisonous haterism that chokes off our political conversations. It’s not the same kind of hate. As Noel concedes at the end of his piece, pop-culture hate is harmless. I’d even argue that it’s a relatively healthy way for people to express their frustrations with the world around them. That’s what sports and entertainment are supposed to do: Provide a safe haven for us to work out our issues (and occasionally our aggression) in a manner that doesn’t actively make our lives worse. Political or religious hate, on the other hand, is a far more troublesome beast.
While I’m loathe to discuss the presidential race or the existence of God with strangers or even close friends and family members, I’ll gladly enter into conversations about whether it’s plausible that Joan did what she did with the dude from Jaguar in that recent episode of Mad Men, or why my beloved Packers will return to the Super Bowl this year. And I’ll do this even if I think the other person disagrees. If we end up jousting verbally for a few hours, it’s still fairly certain that we’ll be friends at the end of the night. I wouldn’t be as confident over a difference in party affiliation or spiritual beliefs.
Entertainment and sports are “disparagement-friendly” zones, and vitally important “shadow” subjects that allow us to hash out our differences in a less heated context. You can enjoy the intellectual exercise of comparing your opinions to the opinions of another—or, in less high-falutin’ language, smack-talk the hell out of each other—and not worry that you’ve somehow denigrated that person’s way of life.
If this “disparagement-friendly” zone didn’t exist, this website’s comments section wouldn’t exist either. I like to refer to the A.V. Club comments section as a “hate reservoir.” Not to discount the large number of commenters who consistently chime in with respectful, intelligent posts, but it’s safe to say that a portion of our readers express the darkest, meanest sides of themselves via their feelings about the entertainment they consume. (Or about the people who write for this site, but that’s another story.) It can be ugly, but the end result is not terribly consequential, and it’s certainly not dangerous.
For all the hyperbole spilled in our comments section about Girls, I’m not aware of anyone bombing TV stores to prevent people from watching it. Nor have I seen reports of Community fans launching missiles at the creative offices of The Big Bang Theory. In the realm of pop culture, the haters take their verbal dumps, and they move on. In the process, they’ve gotten something off their chests, and hopefully achieved a kind of inner peace.
I’m not suggesting that heckling athletes or furiously disavowing the artistic integrity of Lena Dunham makes us better people, or that it keeps us from fighting wars or entering into religious conflicts. I’m also not defending the dullards who look for any excuse to revert to racism, misogyny, or general a-holishness when confronted with art or opinions they don’t like. We should all strive to be better, smarter people, and that means trying to understand things that don’t immediately appeal to us or speak to our own life experiences. But if you believe, as I do, that art is an expression of the artist’s point of view as well as that of the audience, then “hate” must be part of the equation.
People define who they are not only by what they love, but also by what they don’t love. Sometimes, the latter is easier to express than the former, because it strikes us hotter and deeper. Even if we don’t admit it, these feelings are part of being a human being. Occasionally, something hits us the wrong way. We feel alienated. If this feeling seems out of step with the people around us, the alienation intensifies. In polite society, we’re taught to set these feelings aside. But they’re still there, and they must be dealt with in some way. If you choose to rip on the local quarterback because you think he’s overrated, or mock a celebrity simply because you’re sick of seeing his stupid face all the time, well, there are worse ways to blow off steam.
In the case of a lightning rod like Girls, which has probably spawned more thinkpieces and blog posts than it has attracted actual viewers, the haters have actually made valuable contributions (albeit unwittingly in many cases) as they moved beyond the show to larger important discussions on class, race, and gender issues that would not have happened otherwise. Maybe we wish this conversation hadn’t happened, especially as it’s turned spiteful in some corners, but at least we know those feelings are there, and they can be addressed in “the real world” accordingly.