Whether a thing is subjectively good or bad, it generally has some value to someone–either as an object lesson of what not to do, or as a starting point for a discussion. But in the case of Jill Lepore’s recent “Cultural Comment” for The New Yorker, even though it’s spurred this short rant, I must now confess that there are things that have no value, and that the ease of criticism in the self-published Internet age (create blog, write–or transcribe–thoughts, and post) is increasing them. You see, a bad critic is someone you disagree with, or who makes unconvincing arguments; that doesn’t mean, however, that they’re uninformed. That distinction belongs to the unhelpful critic.
You see, Lepore’s article sets about criticizing women in comics–a sensitive topic–based on two points of reference: Avengers: Age of Ultron and A-Force #1, both Marvel products, both released this month. For research, or as an echo chamber for her beliefs, she has turned to the two most credible sources in her life–her youngest son and his friend. There’s no research. No context. Just the writer’s own biases, in which a leotard that covers the entire body represents a “pervy” outfit, and a female superhero posing in classic male superhero positions is nothing more than a “porn star,” or, at the very least, lacks any sort of agency, getting by entirely on charm. What exactly leads to the conclusion that “Their power is their allure, which, looked at another way, is the absence of power. Even their bodies are not their own”?
That alone might’ve still opened the door for debate, but there’s a intolerable smarminess to Lepore’s views that is just rage-inducing. She takes cheap shots at a female superhero whose name she can’t figure out, mentioning that the only thing she knows is that she wore seashells over her breasts. Is The Little Mermaid a porn star, too, then? She believes that Captain America became black–not that Steve Rogers’s friend started to wear the iconic suit, much as several characters have gone by the Batman and/or Robin moniker by this point–and that Thor is a woman, even though the character and the title are very different things. And she writes these things off: “That’s a story for another day.” “Better female characters like . . . She-Hulk?” she asks, apparently unaware that the character’s actually spent her time as a successful lawyer and is in fact quite different from Green Hulk or Red Hulk or Grey Hulk.
And then there are all the references to cleavage. (As if comics invented the concept.) Ask two ten-year-old boys to explain women and they’re going to focus on the boobs. You’d expect more from a historian like Lepore, who supposedly wrote a book about Wonder Woman‘s creator (and his repressed inspirations); the fact that she makes jokes about the robotic Rescue’s “mammary glands” puts her on equal footing with Joel Schumacher’s be-nippled Batman. When Jessica Rabbit points out that “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” she’s making a point about how there’s more to a character than the art. Despite quoting this same line, Lepore can’t focus on anything other than an extremely limited set of imagery, cherry-picking the “worst” offenders from A-Force and assuming that, say, Ms. Marvel (which is about a sixteen-year-old Muslim-American superhero) must also be a fetishized and sexualized character . . . even if she’s the only adult doing so.
An unhelpful critic writes about that which they do not know, but with the moral authority of someone who claims that they do–much like Roger Ebert claiming that video games could not be art (in the sense that films could), a stance he later apologized for. Like many commentators on Fox News who operate from their guts, she isn’t merely uninformed, but she’s actively ignorant, a scolding mother who “knows best” even before she’s heard the whole story. A bad critic who simply misinterpreted facts or even used a contrarian opinion as clickbait I can forgive: at least they know enough to have an opinion that can be argued with. An unhelpful critic gives you nothing to work with.
Let’s agree, you and I, to at least be helpful. Let’s not be leporable people.
PS. If you’re interested in reading a useful bit of criticism–from the author of A-Force, as she picks Lepore’s rheumatic argument apart–I suggest you click here. I guess you can find diamonds in anything if you apply enough force.