I know what I like: Why it’s important to apply critical thinking to popular media

“Don’t you think you’re being a little hypersensitive?”

These words often come at me when I’m happily babbling away about why I don’t like some new movie, television show, song, or book. I love critiquing shit! For me, half the fun of consuming something is to pick it apart. Is it accurate? Does it contain harmful stereotypes? Is it appropriative?

So, when those words stop me short, it irks me. It irks me real bad.

For one thing, it’s super dismissive in a flat-out rude way; by using “You’re so sensitive” as a debate tactic, you are targeting your opponent directly, and not the content you are debating. If you silence someone for simply talking about their own personal experience with something, heads up, you’re a shithead. If you disagree with someone’s opinion or critique, why don’t you try, I don’t know, having a dialogue?

But I digress, this isn’t about debate tactics and how to not be a jerk, I want to talk about why being critical—specifically about popular media—is important.

It helps to shape you as a person

Everyone has a common goal to be an individual and free thought is a pretty large contributing factor in accomplishing that. It is just as important to find out what you do like as it is to determine what you don’t.

There is a difference between saying, “I don’t like this television show because it makes me feel bad about being fat” and “I don’t like this TV show because it alienates fat people, polices people’s bodies, and contributes to a misogynistic beauty standard.” One puts the blame on you as the viewer, and the other on the media – which do you think is fairer?

Media can shape how you view others

Having a critical mind also helps you view media and decide whether you let its messages influence your perception of yourself or others.

I grew up in a small town until I was old enough to drive, so my interactions with people who weren’t Christian, white, and upper middle class were extremely limited. Unfortunately, this means that my early exposure to other cultures came mostly via television, and no one ever warned me to take it with a grain of salt.

Learning to examine issues of representation in books, film, and television can teach a person to be critical when encountering stereotypical representations of different races, cultures, genders, sexualities, and abilities.

Critical thinking can inspire civic engagement

Recognizing problematic content can help a viewer to realize its relationship to systematic oppression. It is important to consider why tropes and stereotypes are repeated and who benefits from portraying them.

Who has power when stereotypes about people of colour are enforced? Why are housekeeping ads only targeted towards women? Is there money to be made by alienating fat people?

You will seek out more fulfilling forms of entertainment

When you find something of value that you enjoy, it is going to seem that much sweeter. You will learn to appreciate good writing and production, you’ll start to follow artists you like to find more of their work – having a relationship with your media where you’re an enthusiast as opposed to just a viewer is a lot more fun, I promise.

I can tell what you’re thinking now: I’m a stuck-up snob, or maybe a hipster—I probably am a hipster by popular definition, to be honest—but that last point is actually my segue into telling you that, yes, it is okay to consume problematic media and, yes, it’s even okay to like it.

But how?

Acknowledge that it is problematic

Recognizing the problems in the media you enjoy is the first, and very crucial, step toward not letting it affect your own beliefs and morals. There are problems with a lot of things out there; if you were to write off everything with problematic content, you would have very little left to enjoy. Media is also capable of conveying positive messages while still having problematic aspects – for instance, a movie can have a strong cast of leading females while having no representation of people of colour.

Sometimes people get really into their media (fandoms is a word that comes to mind) and they take it really personally if you point out that something is wrong with it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how often you volunteer at your local soup kitchen: if your favourite movie portrays racist stereotypes of black people, your good person points don’t validate it.

This kind of ties in to how you shouldn’t silence people by calling them sensitive; don’t take their criticisms personally. Books and movies don’t have feelings. Dismissing these criticisms means that you think that the feelings and oppression of others is less important than your enjoyment.

Listen respectfully, ask questions, absorb information, and decide for yourself how to apply it to your own life.