How Do We Talk About Race and Pop Culture Without Going Insane?

Photo: HBO/Warner Bros. Pictures/Universal Pictures.

Pop culture has been in a state of upheaval and growth in recent years, leading to fascinating art and even more complex conversations. When Wesley Morris’s essay “The Morality Wars” was published by the New York Times yesterday, it set off a renewed conversation about pop culture today — how it is consumed, how it has changed, what we feel comfortable critiquing, and where it may be going in a fraught atmosphere in which politics are pointedly important and beloved stars are “canceled” in the wake of various moral missteps and failures. While some critics praised the piece, others felt it painted an incomplete, even disingenuous picture of the modern media landscape. Vulture gathered a group of critics — our own Angelica Jade Bastién and E. Alex Jung, Vulture contributors Jasmine Sanders and Miriam Bale, and BuzzFeed critic Alison Willmore, to consider a host of questions. Namely, what is the responsibility of critics — particularly critics of color — in an age in which representation and cancel culture have become intrinsic to conversations around art?

Let’s start by talking about what brought us all here in the first place: Wesley Morris’s recent critical essay about social justice, morality wars, and what they mean for art right now. One of his main points is that it’s nearly impossible to critique art made by people of color in today’s climate. What are your thoughts on the essay? Do you think Morris grapples with this tangled issue well?

Angelica Jade Bastién: Wesley Morris taps into a very fascinating topic that I have been talking about amongst friends and colleagues in private. We are in a very interesting place in regards to how we discuss art in which our expectations of it — particularly politically — has changed in dramatic and necessary ways. But I found his essay to be improperly framed. Part of the problem is he casts a wide net of examples that don’t quite work when discussed together. The other issue is, there are in fact a lot of writers of color giving complex, nuanced conversations of, say, work like Insecure (which I hope I did in critiquing the failures of this season) on aesthetic and political levels; they just aren’t always happening in the New York Times. Didn’t Robin Givhan write a fairly nuanced critique of Beyoncé’s Vogue cover? There’s also something oddly conservative about discussing this as an era of “morality wars.” Let’s be real — people aren’t really getting canceled. Louis C.K. has wormed his way back into the spotlight. I also found Morris’s hand-waving of the very valid critiques of Zadie Smith’s Get Out essay to be reductive. In discussing these works, Morris reflects the same myopia he is trying to critique.

Jasmine Sanders: I thought the essay began with a compelling premise: Wesley, a black man and black cultural critic, offering a critique of a prominent black work, Insecure. It was interesting to see Wesley posit the critique, and ensuing melee, within a personal context — he’s at a dinner party, among friends. It’s a reminder that criticism isn’t isolated to the internet, or even writing. After that opening bit, the essay got a bit unwieldy for me — an interpretation of certain cultural phenomena that felt a bit misrepresented or mischaracterized.

Miriam Bale: Angelica, it’s interesting that you refer to it as Zadie Smith’s Get Out essay (which it was) when Morris did not really cover that aspect of the essay. He focused entirely on her reaction to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” painting of Emmett Till. Which is interesting because he’s been very supportive of Get Out, while Smith, months after it had been in the theaters, gave one of the first prominent negative reactions to the film (or negative reactions to the positive reactions) — that is, after Armond White. He also mentions the critical reaction to her use of the word “quadroons.” Was that your fault, Jasmine?

JS: I am claiming responsibility for the quadroon discourse, Miriam. I think that what Wesley took to be a “canceling” (which I’m not sure I believe to be an actual thing; that the term has a pithiness, an air of finality, that the thing does not) was largely just disagreement and discussion. I don’t recollect there being a call for Zadie’s “canceling.” My fascination with Zadie referring to her children as “quadroons” is that it pointed to how deeply race/racism has rendered us all completely insane. This biracial black woman has married a white man and is referring to their progeny, albeit cheekily, by antebellum slave terms. Quadroon, mulatto, etc. are funny to see online because they’re so anachronistic, you know? But they also conjure the history of sexual violence inherent in slavery. Seeing Zadie invoke them was so wildly intriguing.

Alison Willmore: Morris’s flattening of everything into “canceling” is maybe the most frustrating thing about that essay to me, and echoes in an unfortunate way other pieces I’ve read that want to posit that various things have “gone too far.” As you pointed out, Angelica, he cites a lot of examples that don’t feel like they belong together. Ian Buruma was “canceled” because of what many felt were failures in his role as editor of the New York Review of Books. Insatiable was “canceled” because the internet hated it, except, as he notes, Netflix renewed it for a second season. Zadie Smith was “canceled” because people disagreed with what she wrote and how she wrote it.

JS: He also rubs up against one of the more prickly aspects of so called “cancel culture”: Bill Cosby still has ardent supporters. It’s so, so subjective. One can be “canceled” in one niche community of the internet and be perfectly fine in another. Wesley revealed a lot of his own biases in this essay.

MB: The problem with the essay, for me, came from the idea of “goodness.” Not just Morris’s device of “good work” versus moral goodness. But focusing on the idea of “good” versus “bad.” His focus on quality leads him to support The Cosby Show as objectively good art! It is entertaining and memorable, yes. But what are the show’s implicit values? They’re quite conservative. And of course it came to define a generation (maybe generations?) of respectability politics. Those respectability politics and conservative values are something not tied directly to Cosby’s rapes, but are, in a way, tied to his obsession with and abuse of power.

E. Alex Jung: Someone texted me and said that the essay would have been a good cocktail conversation, but not a written piece. To that end, Morris used a lot of compelling, but slightly glib arguments that certainly would have gone down better with an Old Fashioned in hand. The only thing I’d add is that his historical comparison to the panic of the “Moral Majority” of the late ’80s and ’90s struck me as a selective reading of history. Yes, the religious right was attacking the NEA and major art institutions, but the white liberal critical establishment was also attacking works by people of color and dismissing it as “identity politics.” There is the game-changing Whitney Biennial in 1992 that featured works by predominantly people of color that was a critique of the art institution itself and made (white) critics practically apoplectic. It was also when Bill T. Jones staged “Still/Here,” which Arlene Croce at The New Yorker famously refused to see and yet still decided to review, calling it “victim art.” This is to say, we were having the same exact conversations back then that we are now. The major difference is that people of color have slightly more power today in shaping mainstream discourse.

AW: Oh, it was definitely a cocktail conversation — I think there’s a reason it started with that anecdote about the dinner party, and that’s why it felt like it was building a wide-reaching and messy argument on top of something very personal. It’s something I have no doubt we’ve all talked about in private, which is what it feels like to not like, or not relate to, something that is supposed to be for us, or for some larger group under whose umbrella we fall.

That’s a good lead-in to the next question, Alison. Do you think there’s some truth to the points Wesley’s raises? For example, have the conversations around politics and morality affected or ever made you doubt your own voice as a critic? Was there ever a movie or show you wanted to critique, but felt you couldn’t because of the larger swell of public support and marketing surrounding it (i.e. Crazy Rich Asians, Get Out, etc.)? Basically, are you ever scared of critiquing certain things because you’ll get attacked online for it?

JS: As a person who dislikes everything all of the time, I now err on the side of caution with what I publish. There’s also the fact of the media milieu making that decision for you. Black women are already so rarely called upon to critique films. I’m trying to gauge the likelihood of a “critical take” being accepted, and I don’t think it’s very high. It feels like we’re in an era where everything black… is amazing. BlacKkKlansman is amazing. Sorry to Bother You is amazing. It kind of makes my head spin. I went to a screening for a movie, in which I was one of four black people in the theater. The movie ended and the white audience members literally stood and applauded. Afterwards, in the bathroom, I ran into another black woman who basically said, “Okay, what did you really think?” Criticism can feel like that. I’m also a very new critic so I’m prone to second-guessing, self-doubt, etc.

AJB: For me that movie is Get Out. I never wrote about the film in-depth mostly because I felt burned-out by the conversation and was worried I would get intense backlash. I have critiqued beloved works by black people and gotten intense backlash from all corners — both from black fans and white critics. Sometimes I feel like the risk isn’t worth it. Jasmine is so right. We are in a strange era in which everything black is being considered amazing out of some odd corrective measure. But guess what? Black people can make trash, too. I mean y’all saw Sorry to Bother You with its 101 politics and horse dicks all throughout the third act!

EAJ: To Wesley’s credit, I do think the anxiety he’s feeling is one that we feel when it comes to these questions of when to critique something, and how vociferously. Many of you have written really thoughtful and provocative criticism of the shows that have that air of untouchability around them. (Angelica, I’m thinking of how you critiqued The Handmaid’s Tale during season one of all times.) I do feel like what I end up doing is a calculus over whether something is worth it or not — both for whatever personal blowback I might get and whether it seems like a valuable conversation to have. And the fact that, for instance, I do have an investment in Asian-Americans representing and making good work means that whatever critique I make will be coming from a place of knowing just how little we’ve had. So maybe it’s not such a terrible thing that I think extra hard about whether it’s worth dunking on Dr. Ken. (And I have!)

JS: I thought Wesley’s expression of anxiety was incredibly relatable.

AW: I definitely felt relief when I liked Crazy Rich Asians. There have been so few American movies with primarily Asian casts, it creates the added pressure that to critique a movie like that might somehow hurt the future of Asian-American studio film.

AJB: That’s a good point, Alison. I often feel the pull to be kinder to works starring and made by people of color, particularly black and Latinx folks, because of my background. But I always end up deciding that doing so would be a disservice to myself as a critic and to my readers.

AW: It’s funny — when I didn’t like Ocean’s 8, someone claimed I was using “Gamergate language,” which I thought was hilarious. Part of the challenge here is that creators and studios and networks have started to use language about representation in talking about their own work — and they should! — but it becomes a kind of shield. Like, it’s possible to think Ocean’s 8 is a bad movie without wondering if you’re dealing with internalized misogyny.

JS: The temptation to be the one brave enough to say, “No, I certainly did NOT like Frozen” and publish some polemic is also real. I try to weigh/consider all of these things.

EAJ: I think some of the problems in criticism are coming less from “cancel culture” and more from stan culture, where a lot of us (I include myself) are performing an undying fealty to some person, place, idea, or thing. (Yes, those are two sides of the same coin.) Generally, I sense quietness now when something doesn’t quite land. When people don’t really like something, they just don’t say much about it. That’s been very telling.

AJB: I’m glad you brought up stan culture, Alex. Fandom and stan culture has become one of the most myopic and often nastiest aspects of the modern pop-culture landscape. People are nearly religious zealots about what they love to the point where even a measured critical essay about something is taken as being a “hater” and can get a writer death threats. A lot of this comes down to how what people love has become a marker of identity and how the representation that people have rightly been clamoring for has become a marker of identity as well.

When it comes to critiquing POC-fronted works, how do you see the conversation playing out differently among white critics and critics of color? Does it ever feel like there are separate conversations happening? Relatedly, do you ever feel like it’s not “your place” to critique a work? And do you think that applies to other critics?

JS: I struggle with thinking it’s my place in a published piece; my Twitter is like the gladiator arena — we can fight to the death in there. I have only recently realized that there should be such a delineation.

AW: Weirdly, I feel better about writing pieces that take on things I’m maybe scared about. Twitter I’ve been fading off of recently just because I feel like everything becomes a fight, and at least in a piece I can make a whole argument before people start yelling at me.

AJB: To get more to the question, it is sometimes startling to see how much of a different conversation is going on between white critics and critics of color. Even with Wesley’s piece, my timeline was starkly divided.

MB: Yes. And, going back to Twitter, the difference between the public conversation and the one in the DMs.

AJB: I think white critics are in a weird crisis right now. I’ve seen some … interesting pushback to critics of color who talk a lot about politics. Which on one hand, I do think some critics of color who are new to the game do not know how to balance talking about aesthetics, the history of the medium, and the political dimension of a work. On the other hand, white critics remain a mess in many ways, too. But that is also on editors who are pushing young critics of color to do these clickbait-y, angry, not all that nuanced criticism of art from a distinctly and sometimes solely political perspective. This is something I have been thinking about a lot.

EAJ: It felt like Wesley was yearning for the days of classical exegesis when we’re ideally in a space where critical discussion is considering a lot of different aspects of production, history, aesthetics, and political content. Part of the problem with the spate of “is this good or bad for the culture” critiques is that you still have a raft of white editors who are the gatekeepers. To use a specific example, I was struck by the L.A. Review of Books review of Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. The writer said she had submitted it to multiple places and it had been rejected. I thought it was a smart, tough piece of criticism that, regardless of whether you “agreed” with it or not, was worth publishing. Of course I don’t know what the pitching process was, but it’s not hard for me to imagine that there may have been a reluctance on the part of white editors to publish something that was critical of a black female memoir.

JS: White people are absolutely in crisis. It’s so interesting to consider how something is only “racial” once it’s not white. If it’s about whiteness, it’s about race as well. But most Americans have no idea how to begin excising their own racial identity.

One of the implications of Wesley’s piece was that art itself is less interesting now because of the pressure to be politically correct. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

EAJ: I’m a little ambivalent about this. I do think art is slightly less interesting, but I don’t think it’s because of political correctness, but rather commercialism. The ties between capital and art or artistic production are only getting more intertwined, and when something must have monetary value first, as well as artistic value, things start to get less interesting. I was thinking about what Donald Glover said in his New Yorker profile — “The system is set up so only white people can change things” — because it is a system of white capitalism that’s determining whether something has “value,” whether that’s actual or potential.

That said, if we’re comparing television (a populist, inherently commercial medium) then to now, it’s certainly better now. It’s also somewhat about where you direct your gaze: I’ve written about this before, but comedy is way more interesting now than it ever has been thanks to the rise of alt-comedy spaces and queer comics. They’re edgy, gross, boundary-pushing, and fucking weird.

JS: Yes! There’s a critic I adore, Tobi Haslett (@TobiHaslett) who created this amazing thread about the relationship between art, the academy, critics, and commerce. Danielle Butler (@Daniecal) was another super-insightful, incisive thread. They’re two very even-keeled, funny writers who I always look to, something like a lodestar, when conversations like this happen.

AJB: I totally agree, Jasmine! I always look to @daniecal when something pops off. Her perspective on Twitter is a balm and a clarion call. And for the record, I agree with you, Alex. I am also ambivalent on this. The issue is complicated. I think Hollywood film is at its least interesting point in a long time. But television is so fascinating and rich with a lot of options. It all depends on where you are looking. That feminism and so forth have been co-opted to both market pop culture and give it the veneer of progress is a big problem, and it makes art boring as hell.

AW: Oh, agreed, Alex. It’s been depressing to me the degree to which the conversation about POC creators has focused on getting to make mainstream work and be hired by large media companies but so much less on elevating work made outside the system. I don’t want to discount the latter! Or the importance of getting people paid and shifting who’s in power within those structures. But it’s often the least interesting and least daring source of art.

AJB: Alison, you bring up a really good point about how progress for people of color equals being swept up in the mainstream and — I’ll take it further — having the same markers of success as white people. I say burn it all down. The most interesting work to me is happening outside of the system in many ways. But that has always been true in one way or another.

We are in a time where it’s truly impossible to separate the art from the artist. How much do you think about the author of a story as you’re writing about it?

AJB: This is a really complex question. I want to answer the first part a bit personally. When Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit came out, I was still freelance and did a review for which exploded because I wrote this: “Watching Detroit I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America. There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving — The Color Purple comes to mind. But Steven Spielberg’s film was based on a novel by Alice Walker and produced by Quincy Jones. Detroit was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.”

I have never received more hate mail and criticism from white and black critics accusing me of saying white people can’t write/direct films about black pain, which is not what I said. It angered me because I feel there is a way to discuss how the makers of a piece of art might be myopic due to their background, which prevents them from meeting the goals they set out for with a film. I don’t think you can separate art from the artist. But most of what we are talking about are very collaborative mediums, and for the most part, I am pretty anti-auteur theory. Which is to say, this is a complex issue that changes depending on the work we are talking about, the production process, and so forth.

MB: I was haunted by something Bigelow said to Variety during the promotion for Detroit:
“I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story?’ No, however, I’m able to tell this story…”
I see many “allies” with that logic. It seems that question of who is able to tell stories should be more a primary concern.

AW: I feel like “art from artist” arguments have always been bullshit, or at least deployed selectively.

EAJ: It’s funny how many critics have coded work by women and people of color as personal or “autobiographical,” whereas work by white men is somehow transcendent of that.

AJB: Ain’t that the truth, Alex. That just puts into harsh relief how we (as in critics, generally) talk so differently about the work of people of color and white people.

As much as we can’t separate those the art and the artist, does it ever feel like it simplifies the conversation around art, where a “good person” translates to a “good work” and a bad person therefore creates “bad work.” For example, after the Junot Díaz controversy, in which he was accused of sexual misconduct, there was a lot of criticism of his previous work was some of it valid, and did some of it conflate him with his work?

JS: For the record, I did stan Junot for a period, but I do agree with the summation that a man writing abusive male characters … may or may not himself be an abusive male character. The same with lots of male auteurs and creators. I think we’re smart enough to not conflate character and art, or I hope so. I don’t know if there was a conflation with Díaz or just a retrospective enlightenment? Hindsight is 20/20, etc.

EAJ: There is a conflation happening around personhood and the work itself that’s now part of “branding.” You definitely see some people trying to use that as cover to inoculate themselves from criticism.

AW: Like Dan Fogelman blaming white male critics for Life Itself’s bad reviews!

EAJ: That was some of the most suspect co-opting of social justice rhetoric in 2018!

Let’s talk about how art and politics intersect in 2018, when it comes to the work itself. Does the way some works focus so intently on the experience of racism/sexism/etc. lead to characters who have no interiority beyond the message they’re supposed to communicate?

MB: I have become very suspect of any recent work that adds in a police shooting of a black person for topicality and gravitas.

AW: I was just hanging out with a friend, who’s an indigenous filmmaker, who was telling me about how a lot of the work she’s been seeing from her community, especially people starting out, is focused on instances of oppression and racism rather than lives in which those things are an element, and it frustrated her. I feel like there are a lot of structures in place, both commercial and in terms of grants, that incentivize that kind of work in a lot of POC communities, because it fits an idea about what is “important.” It frustrates me, too — like, the lens through which we get to see POC characters is often so narrow and so focused on pain.

MB: There’s a current movement called “Afro Bubblegum” that calls for films about Africa to be fun, fierce, and frivolous, for exactly those reasons, Alison. And I feel that impulse! On the other hand, the only film I’ve seen from that movement, Rafiki, was pretty mediocre. (You didn’t hear that from me! Another instance of proving Wesley correct.)

JS: There are definitely those plainly obligatory, utilitarian characters in books and film. They always feel hollow or arbitrary; I’m thinking of Donald Glover’s appearance in season two of Girls. Like, just let the show be white, I’m fine with a white show! (I think that Girls is as much about white East Coast womanhood, though not ladyhood, which I perceive as something different.)

AJB: Sometimes it is okay for a show to not be intersectional — sometimes it is actually dishonest when it is. The girls of Girls not being close to or interacting with people of color much reminded me of white women I have known who lead insular lives. Like, that is a real thing that happens.

EAJ: I did a recent interview with Alan Yang where he talked about how he got some criticism about his new show, Forever, because it wasn’t explicitly about race. And yet, there were a lot of little touches about race that you could pick up on that aren’t as explicit. It’s about race even if it’s not about “oppression.”

AW: I have definitely heard creators of color talk about feeling pressure to make stories about their communities, and some of that is self-created pressure — when there’s a dearth of people who look like you onscreen, and you’re in a position to do a little bit to change that, you tend to feel like you should. But, to Alex’s point about Alan Yang, I think a lot about Justin Lin taking over The Fast and the Furious series and slowly pushing it from being this dumb Point Break-but-with-cars (as if anything else could ever live up to Point Break!) to being this gloriously dumb multiethnic ensemble series that snuck in a stealth Asian male lead, and the power that comes with working with material that isn’t inherently, in this case, Asian-American, and inserting that POV anyway.

EAJ: Tokyo Drift is the best of the franchise and Sung Kang should have been a fucking movie star and I will take that with me to my grave.

I feel like there’s a deep parallel between this and the Memoir Industrial Complex that often asks for women and people of color to cut themselves open and share their pain and trauma. It still seems like it’s ultimately for a white gaze, and that’s why I feel ambivalent towards those works, because often I think they’re not doing something formally inventive or challenging, but merely playing into a genre that renders their subjectivity as abject and easily digestible for a white readership.

This is a great way to get into the final question. What are examples of works that strike the right balance between having a strong political intent and being artistically dynamic?

MB: I think the goal is not a balance between political and artistic goals, because all art is political. Superior work is going to be so political that it transcends partisan views, and is no longer about right and wrong sides but instead criticizes every view, including your own. Good artwork should make everyone uncomfortable. I’m trying to think of an example! (The only thing that comes to mind is Eastwood, but I don’t really want to get into that.)

EAJ: Right. Work by women and people of color often gets marked as “political” in part because their effects are counter to the current regime, whereas something like Home Improvement would have been seen as apolitical because it followed the smooth grain of patriarchy.

AW: The term “political” has gotten weirdly and unfortunately claimed by a certain type of reactive Twitter troll as a slight. What I’m really interested in is our having more conversations about aesthetic choices in addition to social/political/content-focused ones, because I feel like criticism (and I don’t excuse my own writing from this) leans really heavily toward the latter at the moment.

AJB: You also can’t adequately even critique the political dimension of a work — especially mediums as visual/aural as film and television — without bringing in the aesthetics of a piece.

EAJ: Totally. Aesthetics and politics are separated far too often, when in fact, one informs the other. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (which, it should be said, has a troubled relationship with race), many episodes of Atlanta (“Teddy Perkins” most recently), Moonlight, BPM, Jane the Virgin, and a boatload of queer comedy feel aesthetically vital because they upend conventions, challenge form, and are also really fucking well-crafted.

AW: Maybe because we’ve been talking about it offline, Alex, but the first thing that came to mind for me is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which is at once a mesmerizingly good, beautifully crafted thriller and a bitterly incisive exploration of class. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, or Steven Yeun’s dead-eyed yawns. And I thought The Rider, my favorite film of the year so far, was an amazing look at masculinity and economic precariousness and life on a reservation, while feeling the need to give none of these elements the double underscore.

MB: I agree Atlanta is a great example. I also like when white artists address whiteness, like Lena Dunham at her best in Girls, but not necessarily when she thinks she’s doing it, when she makes it opposed to blackness. The politics and style of Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice serve each other well. It’s hard to think of many American examples.

AJB: When I think of works that are actively thinking about power, politics, and are also formally inventive, my mind doesn’t immediately think of the present but the past — I feel noir during Hollywood’s classic period did this beautifully. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, Killing Eve, Annihilation, Jennifer Phang’s amazing film Advantageous (if she doesn’t have a long, great career as a director I will be livid) are all good examples. These days, I feel a lot of heavy genre works are the most interesting. Horror, noir, and science fiction offer a fascinating set of tools, values, and aesthetic experimentation that allows filmmakers to hit on these notes very well.

Hearing your responses urges me to be more exact when it comes to discussing these matters, personally and critically. Like Alison, I deeply want more nuanced criticism that takes into consideration the aesthetics, production, and medium’s history when it comes to pop culture, while keeping in mind the social and political.

How Do We Discuss Race and Pop Culture Without Going Insane?