Friday, February 22, 2013

What We Can Learn About Criticism from What Not To Wear

I don’t know why I watch this show. I feel it’s the same reason that I read about writing advice or sexism. I like to be pissed off. And nothing inspires the same way anger can. It certainly gives me a lot of fodder for ranting.

The television show What Not To Wear, which I was surprise to see was still on the air, takes a woman who has either committed herself or been victimized by her “friends” in order to come to New York, receive 5,000 dollars, and buy a whole new wardrobe. The catch? She must subjugate herself to high school styled ridicule.

The main, interesting facet of this dynamic is the pure declaration of “expert” and “amateur.” Unlike writing criticism, in which it’s hard to tell the levels of knowledge and stupidity each side has, the show is really there for the audience to side with the hosts and laugh at the ridiculous impressions of the victims.

Here’s several problems I have with the shows tactics:

-The hosts dish it out but can’t take it.
-The hosts are uninterested in the victim’s aesthetic (though they say they’re not.)
-The hosts can only argue with criticisms of their “fixes.”
-The hosts constantly mock their contestants.
-The hosts don’t bother to be persuasive, they rather bully.
-The contestants, by the end, are Hollywood homogenized.

Am I biased against them? Yes. Am I siding with the contestants, despite their complete ability to be jerks as well? Yes.

But I’m not here to talk about how best to be objective; I’m here to talk about criticism.

You’ll meet jerks like this all the time in the art world, especially because that’s the sort of attitude that will sell.

You have Stacie and Clinton whose entire job is to be interesting. What we see are two people vocally expressing their moods, opinions, and feelings, but in the most inconsiderate way possible. First on my list is how indignant they are when someone makes a jab at them. It reminds me of a scene where I watch an adult insult a child and then be surprised when the child insults them back.

After spending ten minutes ridiculing a person (again with more priority to be funny than convincing), the woman turns back around and makes an insult against them. Clip to twenty minutes of the hosts aghast at how rude she could possibly be.

Now, there’s two arguments in favor of hosts’ attitude. Number one, the contestant agreed to come in and be critiqued, and two, the hosts are supposed to be experts who know what they’re talking about. From a writer’s point of view, it’s important to take those two arguments into consideration because that is exactly the problem that comes up in group critique.

Just because an author wants feedback doesn’t give license for the critic to be, for lack of a better word, a butt. And I say a butt because it’s the best description I can think of that applies. However, what constitutes as a butt is someone who is either too lazy to try and be persuasive, too focused on being clever to be clear, or simply just disrespectful of the creator. The best situation for feedback is when the author takes his work to someone he respects and who respects him, but that’s not always an option. The most reachable form of feedback is a group critic, and that is a setting in which everyone must talk, and there isn’t a screen process for those inside it. Thus, the critic feels that his job is not to be helpful.

Many group critiques fall victim to this “putting on a show” mentality. They perceive that since the author wants feedback, he needs to just accept what is given and isn’t allowed to recognize the jerk behind whose giving it. The critic also, and this is an important part, spends her energy trying to be funny and witty, rather than saying something convincing. We’ve all met this person. Hey, we might even be this person at times. Though they are usually only one in a crowd, they also tend to be the most vocal, so we’ve all had to deal with them.

Here’s my argument against this “host” perception: Why are we giving feedback? In the case of the show, Stacie and Clinton are trying to change the client’s life by helping her learn how to dress in ways that make her feel good about herself. In the case of the writer’s group, it is allegedly to help the author make the best work possible. In either of these cases, being persuasive is an important part, but being persuasive is hard. Turning to bullying is a cop out, and trying to legitimize lack of thought by claiming that “it’s not my job to make them feel good” doesn’t benefit the goal of helping. Sure, we could say that if the author really wanted the best book possible, he would take the feedback at face value. But then, on that note, we could say that if the critic really wanted to help, she would phrase it in a way that would convince the writer. And if she didn’t want to help then why would she bother giving feedback?

It is easy to be blunt. “You have too many characters.” It is easy to bully. “That doesn’t matter.” It is much more complicated to try and be diplomatic, but much more effective. Bullying wins an argument, but it doesn’t convince anyone. They just sit there thinking that the critic is a jerk and then goes back to their old ways as soon as the butt leaves the room.

No one will win everyone over, and it takes two to tango. In order for an artist to be convinced, he has to be willing to be convinced. He needs to not throw a huge hissy fit and try to take the critic’s words with their value, even when the critic “shouldn’t be bothered” with explaining herself.

But in the case of Stacie and Clinton, we get to be front row witnesses to all different types of reactions, and I have to say, with these hosts, there are no right ones.

A good interaction should allow for the artist to explain himself. This brings me to the concept of the expert and the amateur. Problems arise when we start perceiving each other as one or the other. In reality, the best situation is when the author respects himself as an expert and chooses to believe the same of the critic. We often perceive the dynamic (especially in the context of peer groups) as the critic knowing what he’s talking about and the artist being an irrational mess, in which the author’s disagreement is usually attributed to ego.

But the fact of the matter is that critics can be wrong. If you actually watch the show, What Not To Wear, you’ll have the experience of looking at their “fashion forward” outfits and going, “Gah!” Not are objective viewers able to disagree with both sides, the experts’ opinions can be flawed when they don’t take into consideration what the style the individual wants.

Most writing teachers fall into this trap, and I think that can be attributed to that many beginning writers have no idea what they want. I can’t count the number of times where someone’s told me, “It’s a metaphor if you want it to be,” or where they couldn’t decide if their vampire script was supposed to be satirical or serious. Honestly, this is the first step to improving as a writer, which is simply to decide where you’re going.

Everyone has an image they want, even if they’re not aware of it. Disregarding that image will remove definitions of “good” and “bad.” Or worse, will “fix” an element that now feels alien with the rest of the decisions.

Stacie and Clinton spew phrases that claim they’re thinking about that person’s “style,” but in reality, and as made obvious by the end result, they’re only concern is about “better.” Of course, there’s some reason behind this in that many of the women on the show’s “aesthetic” is either overdoing it or doing nothing. However, no matter how much they claim they’re just trying to make the victim less eclectic, it still astounds me how every women ends up looking pretty much the same in the end. Every interesting thing about her is gone, the aspects that made personality turned to something pretty and unnoticeable, and beautiful but bland. A perfected mediocrity, if I’ve ever seen it.

And that is a huge point when being criticized. Much of criticism will focus on the obvious, the uniqueness, the big picture peculiarities. It doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate, but it does mean that changing them will often remove what was interesting about it. Like the sparkling vampires of Twilight, the greatest criticism will be about what obviously makes it different.

I think what bothers me most about the show is the condescending tone the hosts show for these people. So many of us have to experience that attitude, and realizing that no matter how you respond (with the exception of a short and sweet “Yes, ma’am!”) they will be unhappy. The idea that it’s okay to talk to people this way—because they should recognize the expertise and realize it’s for their own good—is idealistic, a representation of power that many crave. We want to be able to say what we want without self-censorship and still be respected, our expertise is that strong.

Of course, we as authors can’t prevent anyone from being a butt, and, in reality, dealing with butts is a talent that ever writer needs to learn. But, becoming a talented creator requires becoming a talented critic to some level, and to be a talented critic, a person must have knowledge, be objective, and able to try and persuade the storyteller. Not only is it hard and important to not demoralize other people, but the author must not demoralize himself by being too harsh.